"The Wrap: A worm's eye view
28 November 2005
Andrew Brown on the CIA's tortuous distinctions
Most people know that millions of people died after various forms of
torture during Stalin's purges between 1935 and 1940. Fewer are aware
that throughout this Terror the Russian secret police - initially
known as the NKVD, and then as the KGB - were directed by men who
confessed, at their trials, to being agents of the British
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 in 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 the New
York Times' Walter Duranty, 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 superiors 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
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
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 by 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
* Andrew Brown maintains a weblog, the Helmintholog
William T Goodall
Mail : wtg@...
Web : http://www.wtgab.demon.co.uk
Blog : http://radio.weblogs.com/0111221/
'The true sausage buff will sooner or later want his own meat
grinder.' -- Jack Schmidling