Timeless torture

This is a Worm’s Eye column from November last year:

Everyone knows that in Stalin’s Purges between 1935 and 1940 perhaps fifteen million people died after various forms of torture. It is less known that throughout this Terror the Russian secret police — first known as the NKVD, and then as the KGB — were were directed by men who confessed, at their trials, to being agents of the British government. This was felt by many Western observers to be completely ridiculous. After all, by the time the purges were over, it appeared that practically everyone on the Soviet government in 1934, and not just the men who ran the secret police, had been taking their orders from foreign governments, and from Trotsky in Mexico too. This couldn’t, surely be true. Yet it is true that while millions died in silence or even defiance, hundreds of thousands of wreckers and saboteurs went to their graves protesting their own guilt. In the dock, in front of the horrified and astounded observers, some from the Western press, they proclaimed themselves guilty on every unimaginable charge.

Some contemporary journalists believed them, most notably Walter Duranty from the New York Times, who won a Pulitzer for his reporting, and wrote that “The future historian will probably accept the Stalinist version”. The American ambassador to Moscow. Joseph Davies, reported to his supererios from the show trial that there was “proof … beyond reasonable doubt to justify the verdict of treason.”

The only evidence for these confident verdicts was confession. As Robert Conquest, the great historian of the Terror, wrote: “A case in which there was not only no evidence against the accused, but they also denied the charges, would clearly be rather a weak one by any standards. In fact, confession is the logical thing to go for when the accused are not guilty and there is no genuine evidence. “

So how were the confessions obtained? For years we have believed that the answer was “torture”. But reading Conquest or Solzhenitsyn today, this seems less certain. Both of them list the methods used by the KGB — Solzhenitsyn has 28 in his, yet both say that few of these were in themselves torture. Here are five methods used by the KGB to extract their confessions:

  1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
  2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
  3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
  4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.
  5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.”

If the translation sounds unfamiliar, this is because it is indirect. Though all of these methods are listed in both Conquest and Solzhenitsyn, I took this particular list from the CIA. They are — according to ABC News — five of the “Enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA in secret camps on prisoners detained without trial or any other contact with the outside world. There is a sixth method, of simulated drowning, which even the KGB did not use.

These are the methods described last week by Mr Bush’s appointed head of the CIA as “a variety of unique and innovative [techniques], all of which are legal and none of which are torture”.

Solzhenitsyn, reviewing their effect of these tortures, wholly unoriginal and completely illegal even when practised by the KGB, asks mercy for their victims. He, who suffered terribly himself, does not condemn anyone who cracked: “Brother mine! Do not condemn those who, finding themselves in such a situation, turned out to be weak and confessed to more than they should have. … Do not be the first to cast a stone at them.”

Neither should we. But there is one small point of justice here. The purpose of these tortures is to extract confessions, or, as the CIA calls them, “vital information”. And if they are effective then we owe Stalin’s ghost a huge apology. Orwell, Koestler, Conquest, Solzhenitsyn, and all the other enemies of Communism were slanderers.

If torture works, the truth means nothing and all the heads of the KGB under Stalin were really working for British intelligence and Leon Trotsky too. And if you find that hard to believe, consider the only alternative: that the men currently directing the American government in its fight against evil are themselves now taking their instructions from the other side.

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One Response to Timeless torture

  1. Rupert says:

    There are reports, veracity unknown, that the death penalty in the US is falling rapidly out of favour not through arguments about the morality of the death sentence itself (which are rarely arguments, more megaphonic standoffs between well dug-in denizens of the trenches) but because of unarguable statistics about cost and the number people executed and subsequently found innocent. I wonder if something similar may prevail here. The sea change won’t come about because of agreement that torture is unconscionable or that terrorism shouldn’t be met by the gradual imposition of a police state, but the viscerial conviction that such things are more dangerous than their alternatives.

    Once people start to really feel that they are more at risk through a particular policy than otherwise, the principled stand against it will follow. I think there’s a lot of evidence for this in the post-war world, and — unfortunately — plenty of evidence of the amount of damage necessary to kick in that viscerial overthrow.


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