Post-Soviet economic decline, power vacuums, and psychiatric disturbance

Gavin Wilkinson
Monday, 11 February 2019

Whilst working in a forensic psychology service with the probation service, I remember seeing a referral in my in-tray marked ‘urgent’. When delving into the file it turned out to be the file of man called Oleg (not his real name). As the forensic mental heath specialist linked to the team, I was asked to look into Oleg’s case. 

As time moved on,  I could see that staff had been alarmed by the fact that Oleg had revealed he was the victim of a series of brutal assaults, whilst living in Russia, by a group of people he owed money to. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he lost his job at a state-run ironworks and so had borrowed money to pay the bills. Organised crime groups had stepped in to fill the void left by the state to provide the monthly pay cheque and black market goods. 

Oleg’s life had become so bad that he had fallen into heavy drinking and decided to escape to the West. Staff had raised concerns that Oleg may be falling back into old habits. It had been noticed that Oleg was borrowing money from other people to pay for a re-emerging alcohol problem. His offence involved an assault on a homeless person, whilst being intoxicated with alcohol. 

Navigating a complex pathway to assistance 

After completing an assessment of his alcohol use (on one of his rare sober days) it became apparent that Oleg was consuming far above the Department of Health’s recommended weekly intake of alcohol.  Securing Oleg a place in residential detox and rehabilitation was fraught with problems. 

Obtaining ‘approval’ from a funding panel, and then the funding itself, took almost a year. During this time Oleg had committed several petty thefts to pay off debts to other offenders. Eventually, Oleg got his place in treatment and completed a year of intensive, residential-based therapy for alcohol misuse. The shortage of Russian translators within the criminal justice system at the time, to help with the various assessments and individual sessions, proved to be time consuming and expensive. 

Oleg’s life post treatment

Two years after residential treatment for alcohol misuse and residual trauma symptoms, Oleg eventually exited the criminal justice system. After reading a series of post-treatment reports on Oleg, they revealed that both symptoms of trauma and his struggle to adapt to life in the UK proved to be very difficult for him. 

Psychological studies on the post-Soviet generation have shown that adjustment to life in the West can be difficult for some . Despite his struggle’s we did not see Oleg again (which meant he did not re-offend). 

The impact of economic decline on ordinary people

In 1998 the Russian economic crisis resulted in both the government and the Russian Central Bank devaluing the Rouble and defaulting on its debt. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank constructed a multi-billion pound rescue package to stabilise the markets

Declines in demand and the price of crude oil to $20.52 in August 1998 had taken its toll on the Russian economy. The price of oil had almost halved since the Mikhail Gorbachev had been put under house arrest in August 1991 (down from $40.94). The fall in the price of oil did not stop; in November 1998 it fell further to $17.19. In the period since the collapse of the ‘Warsaw Pact’, oil had lost more than two thirds of its value, down from $66.30 in October.

A devaluing of oil had a devastating effect on Russian foreign exchange reserves. In 1998 inflation reached 84 per cent, which had serious effects on the cost of living. An outbreak of industrial strikes and an increasing debt of unpaid wages to Russian workers further compounded the problems. Life in post-Soviet Russia had become tough, and crime increased. Migration to the West from Russia had became the aim for Oleg and many others.

Post-Cold War impact on crime in the UK 

The BBC have long discussed the arrival of criminal activity on UK shores from the former Soviet Union countries by the means of financial fraud. According to an investigation by The Sunday Post, businesses in Scotland alone have been used to launder up to £27 billion in dirty money belonging to organised crime gangs in the former Soviet Union. Up to 4,500 financial transactions have been questioned as Scots-registered firms are linked to massive fraud and tax evasion in Russia and Azerbaijan. Whilst the crimes committed via the financial system are reported on, and are fed into the public consciousness, individuals such as Oleg are the 'bottom of the chain'. He was one of several ordinary Russians touched by crime and political upheaval. 

The global picture hard to see for services in the UK? 

People like Oleg are easily detected by the authorities, they have also being victims of serious criminal activity during a lawless period in history. Things did improve for Oleg. A job in a library where he could read about and thus nourish his love for engineering, together with a better command of the English language, meant he had reasons not to drink or re-visit the court rooms. 

Mental health services and the criminal justice system are rarely asked to do the joined up thinking that asks them to link global economic events to the potential demand for their input. Whilst little data exists about the impact on demand for services from past big global events, the criminal justice system and mental health services will always struggle to provide adequately for people like Oleg. 

Gavin Wilkinson works with internet sex offenders, and has 16 years of experience working in mental health and criminal justice services 

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