‘I was force-fed six times — in a Soviet prison’

As Israel contemplates force-feeding Palestinian hunger striker Muhammad Allan, a rabbi and human rights activist recalls how he was force-fed six times while imprisoned by the Soviet regime. The pain and humiliation remain with him until today.

By Rabbi Michael Rivkin

Rabbi Michael Rivkin. (photo: Marina Malikian)
Rabbi Michael Rivkin. (photo: Marina Malikian)

I was force-fed twice in two different periods of my life. The first time was by the KGB in Moscow, January 1983. A court hearing at the supreme court was set for the end of January. On the day of the hearing I was not brought before a judge, nor was I presented with any new information on my status or my detention. After two days I declared a hunger strike, demanding that I be tried or released. Two hundred other detainees made similar demands.

On my fourth day of hunger strike the head of the detention center, Lieutenant-Colonel Petrenko walked into my cell. He looked into my eyes for some time and told me: “Rivkin, there is a medical opinion approved by the prosecutor, which says that you can be force-fed. We will feed you through your nose. It will hurt you, no one lasts longer than once. Even if you do last, you will end your hunger strike anyway. So what difference does it make — a day before or a day after? Save yourself the unnecessary suffering.” I am not sure about the others, but I really didn’t make it past one force-feeding.

Four people entered the cell, all of them dressed in white robes on top of their uniforms. They strapped me to the bed, even though it wasn’t necessary. They stuck a feeding tube into my nose and my head burst with pain. Forget struggling, I couldn’t even move my head. The procedure lasted only a few minutes, but it felt like years. After they removed the tube, I laid motionless on the bed for a few hours, blood gushing from my nose.

What was the story here? There was absolutely no medical reason to force-feed a healthy person on his fourth day of hunger strike. There was absolutely no reason to feed me through my nose. Petrenko told me very openly that the goal was not to put food into my stomach, but to cause me such pain that it would put an end to my hunger strike.

Less pain, more humiliation

In truth, this kind of torture was rare at that time. Therefore I will describe a second incident that was far more typical of Soviet prisons. After declaring a hunger strike on August 15, 1986 in Chistopol prison, I was force-fed only on my 28th day. I had spent the days prior in solitary confinement and was nearing the end of my rope, despite not yet having reached the point of dystrophy.

This time I was “fed” by three men. They held me down, two of them sat on my knees, held my arms and strapped my head. I tried to struggle but could not move. The third man, dressed in a robe, held a machine for pulling teeth. All of a sudden I felt my jaws being pulled apart, all the while the machine was moving deeper into me with every turn, pressing my tongue to the bottom of my mouth. Then they stuck a tube down my throat and started feeding me liquid food.

Once more I learned that everything is relative. In comparison to what I went through in the Moscow detention center, this did not hurt as much. Force-feeding through the mouth was more humiliating than painful. In this case there was a certain justification for the procedure, despite the humiliation. I was force-fed through my mouth five times total, until I declared an end to my hunger strike on September 21.

According to the instructions of Soviet prisons, force-feeding was intended to save the life of a hunger striking prisoner. But in reality, it was often used to put an end to hunger strikes through torture. Sometimes force-feeding even led to the prisoners’ deaths.

When a hunger strike is political, the authorities can decide to put an end to it at once by calling for force-feeding. This decision can be made even in the early stages of the hunger strike, when there is no real medical justification for the procedure. My personal experience is a testament to that.

Rabbi Michael Rivkin is a lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and has been board member of B’Tselem since 1989. Before immigrating to Israel he was a human rights activist in the Soviet Union. In 1982 he was arrested, sentenced to seven years in a camp in Tatarstan, and forbidden from returning to central Russia. This article was first published in Russian on Relevant-Info Hebrew on Local Call.

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