When you read about the former Soviet Union, and how they treated foreign spies, you eventually read about torture. You read about eyes being gouged out, people being tortured to the point of insanity, people being tortured for an entire year before they died, etc. Some of these spies were Estonians, whose land had been occupied by the USSR, and wanted to liberate it.
I still wonder how regimes based on a theory of liberating the “proletariat” and concern for the poor could be so absolutely evil in practice.
But now, Russia is no longer Communist, and so we would hope that the abuses are gone. But that is just a hope.
Sergei Magnitsky was an attorney, and was part of the first generation of Russians for nearly a century whose lives were unclouded by fear. He must have thought he lived in a country where the rule of law was respected.
But he tried expose a theft of colossal sums of money, which involved senior members of the FSB (Russian Secret Service), working hand in hand with organised crime and senior state officials. As a result, the “bad guys” opened a criminal case against him. He was jailed and denied bail, which meant he never saw his children again; indeed he never heard their voices, as telephone calls to his family were denied. A month before he died, he was allowed a brief meeting with his wife and mother. And why did he die? Basically the reason was that he was kept in abominable conditions. His complaints were ignored. He needed medical attention, he was in great pain with life-threatening ailments that arose because of the imprisonment. His body showed signs of direct physical abuse in the final hours of his life.
He described life after court hearings:
Prisoners [arriving back] are not taken to their cells immediately and are instead held in a prison box for 3-3.5 hours…no windows or ventilation..there is neither any room to sit nor even to stand. Many of the prisoners smoke in the prison box and this makes it very difficult to breathe
At about midday, in the cell, sewage started to rise from the drain under the sink…It was impossible to walk on the floor and we were forced to move around the cell by climbing on the beds like monkeys.
Edward Lucas tells this story in his book Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today. He says that Sergei Magnitsky believed that the ill-treatment was intended to persuade him to withdraw his accusations, and to claim he himself was responsible for the fraud that he was exposing, and if he would implicate himself (and people he had worked for), he could go free. Each time he refused to cooperate, the authorities worsened his conditions. By June he had lost 40 lb (18 kg). He began to experience severe abdominal pain. He was diagnosed with an illness caused by untreated gallstones, but was not treated for it.
By 13 November he was vomiting constantly, with a visibly swollen stomach. Even at that stage, a simple medical intervention could have saved his life. But the doctor prescribed only a painkiller. When that failed, he had Mr. Magnitsky placed in a straitjacket and had him referred for psychiatric evaluation. Eight guards arrived, handcuffed the dying man, beat him with rubber batons, and took him to an isolation cell. He was found dead an hour and a half later.
Sergei had worked for a British investor named Bill Browder. Around this time, Mr Browder’s staff in London started receiving terse threatening text messages in Russian on their cell phones. One quoted The Godfather “If history tells us anything, it is that anyone can be killed. Michael Corleone.”
Ed Lucas tried to tell us that on the surface, a city like Moscow seems quite normal, with businessmen who could function in any country. But it, and Russia, are not ruled by a normal government. His book is intended to warn us of this, and to also warn us about Russian espionage.
But are there any lessons we can extract from this for understanding evil? Well one lesson is that Magnitsky thought he lived under the rule of law, and he did not. The regime hides its real face, until you cross it. Another lesson is the Mafia mentality of the types who managed to take charge of his fate – they were proud of what they did and sent a quote from a novel about a Mafia family to his associates in London. And indeed, as the quote says, “anyone can be killed.” If you, personally, fell afoul of some Mafia, there is not much you could do, even in the U.S., to save yourself from an unpleasant end. I suppose you could go into the “witness protection program”, but that is not easy to get into. We had a family friend, whose trucking business encroached on Mafia territory in the U.S. and he had to go into hiding. The government didn’t hide him. He had to hide himself. He would visit his family only rarely, and secretly. And this was in the U.S. where government doesn’t shade into organized crime.
Another lesson is the humor of the sadist. For instance, the rising tide of sewage in Magnitsky’s cell. Or the doctor who put him in a straitjacket when the doctor’s painkiller did not work.
Another case of this type of sadistic humor is when Russians who the regime does not like are put in mental hospitals, and drugged with psychoactive drugs. (This happened under the Soviets, and I’ve seen a report that says it still goes on).
I remember seeing a set of pictures, of a strong, handsome man who fell afoul of the Soviets. These pictures were taken throughout his imprisonment, by his jailers. As time goes on, he just fades. I know its impossible to tell character from a picture, but it seems you can see the determination, the handsomeness, the will-power just fade out of him. He ends up looking like a man that is barely capable of standing.
We can ask, how is that in so many countries, in so many periods of history, sadistic types get power? And not only that, they get acclaimed from abroad, from people who should know better.
When Marcus Luttrell, an American SEAL, entered an old Iraqi building that the U.S. military was taking over, he says that:
The building was full of reminders of the evil confronting us…It had been an insurgent base of operations, and also a prison or interrogation center. Its filthy walls echoed with the cries of the tortured. Blood stained the tables. Ominous steel implements well suited to a barbecue pit were left behind (there wasn’t any brisket in Ramadi).
Its really very sad that human beings are made to undergo this kind of unimaginable pain and horror, and there is often nothing the rest of us can do about it.
Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today by Edward Lucas (Jun 19, 2012)
Service by Marcus Luttrell (May 2012)