Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Intelligence as the Counter Revolutionary, Part 2

Another valuable book is My Mind on Trial, written by Eugen Loebl, an official in Czechoslovakia during their communist period. By itself, this book is another reason why communist history should be studied: to be mentally prepared for interrogation.  It is Eugen’s testimony as to how he performed in his interrogation, describing in detail what he suffered.

Eugen’s psychological warfare began prior to arrest; a sudden order came from his superiors to write his biography in full (Leobl 33).  As soon as word of this went out, people avoided him, even getting out of previously made plans (Leobl 36).  Page 38 has Loebl making the classic, mistaken assumption that Solzhenitsyn reports in new suspects, that “they will set things straight and let you out” (Solz i12).  Loebl assumed that his superiors would realize that he was innocent.  That is not how communism works.

While his arrest was less dramatic than most, Loebl went through a more or less normal intake process.  He was ordered to strip naked so his mouth and anus could be thoroughly searched for contraband (Loebl 40).  After being given prisoner’s issue clothing, he was shoved into a cell and told to sleep, though at no point did his jailers turn off the electric light.  This cell contained only a “toilet” (a hole in the floor), a pipe and faucet, newspaper scraps (for toilet paper), a small table and chair, and a bed with a straw mattress (Loebl 41).  This seems to have been a cell for more important prisoners, as Solzhenitsyn’s description of early prison life entailed fewer “amenities” and more crowding (Solz i20). 

Loebl was obliged to wait several days for his interrogation before being brought to the interrogation rooms, where he learned he was already tried and sentenced (44-45).  “I could not believe my ears.  There were no specific charges whatsoever against me, only a request that I confess.  There were no facts, no witnesses.  Because I was a prisoner, I must be guilty of something, and Kohoutek [the interrogator] wanted to find out what.” (Loebl 45)

Eugen was forced to rewrite his previous biography to make it sound traitorous (47-49).  Everything he ever did for Czechoslovakia was turned against him, especially the time he accepted “imperialist” (American) aid in the form of 16 billion Czech crowns (Loebl 53).  Loebl was not tortured early on, though he could hear the cries of those tortured in nearby interrogation chambers (56).  Later on he began to suffer punishments that echoed Solzhenitsyn’s testimony: being forced to walk in his cell indefinitely (Loebl 74), being sent to an unheated punishment cell to sit on cold cement (75), repeatedly being awoken through the night (81), starvation by interrogating him through food periods (120), and being forced to call himself a traitor (87).

It might seem that none of these are extreme forms of torture, but their constant use eroded Loebl’s ability to resist.  Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, reports that people are greatly influenced by what they write (76-80), what they believe themselves to be (72-73), and by physical torment that very obviously has no benefit to anyone (93).  Thus, Soviet interrogators, whatever else one might say about them, were clearly familiar with psychological combat.  In the end, Loebl confessed (134).

Knowing or being able to make a reasonable guess about how one would act in a perilous situation is how a person becomes self-aware.  Communist study helps in learning one’s strengths and weaknesses.  In countries like America, these mental survival skills are underplayed because we have an expectation that people will act reasonably.  But, in a world where people do not act reasonably, who are we?

Solzhenitsyn lists many different types of people in his massive narrative.  First of all, there are the normal prisoners, or "sloggers".  These are the people who get sent out to do general work.  General work consisted of things like logging trees, digging out clay to make bricks, and working on public construction projects (Solz ii19).  It is basically any work that doesn't require a lot of skill or intelligence.  The sloggers, people unlucky enough not to be able to con their way into a soft job, must do this work day after day, for as long as their terms lasted.  Or for the rest of their now shortened lives.

The next group is the "trusties".  A trusty is someone who works for the camp or for a free official in the camp.  This is the group all the prisoners really wanted to be in, as it involved easier work, favors from the camp officials, better housing, and most of all escape from general work (Solz ii251).  Jobs that fall under this category are tailors, launderers, carpenters, shoemakers, cooks, and basically any job requiring specialized skills that a camp official might want.  Is someone a shoemaker?  Then the camp boss might want some new shoes and he can buy his way out of logging.  Some trusties even filled out camp paperwork or led the work brigades of sloggers (Solz ii252).  Solzhenitsyn estimates that out of all the Article 58 (political prisoner) survivors, nine out of ten were trusties for much of their sentence (ii253). 

The downside to being a trusty was the moral complications involved.  A trusty could steal food or get first dibs on good government issue boots.  These supplies usually came out of what was meant for the general workers.  The more powerful trusties had control over the fates of the arriving prisoners.  Did an office trusty need an assistant for typing?  Then he could find his favorite new arrival and assign him to the job.  If a prisoner irritated a trusty, then the trusty could not only reject the prisoner for a good job, but speak to other trusties so that together they would insure that the offending prisoner got sent to general work.  Needless to say, arrogance was a potential fate of the trusty (Solz ii253).

Better off than the trusties (and morally worse, debatably) were prisoners assigned to the sharashkas: the "Islands of Paradise" set up to exploit the scientifically gifted prisoners.  They were given better living conditions in exchange for new inventions that "proved" Soviet Russia was superior to those cruel capitalists.  Solzhenitsyn says that the sharashka zek is more or less like a trusty, in that he must constantly choose between his skin and his morals (ii261).

There were also the "socially friendly": the real criminals.  These were the people who stole, raped, and killed.  However, only those that plundered the government or offended an important official were given any serious prison terms.  This is primarily due to the fact that Stalin himself liked criminals because he related to them (DeJonge, 37), as well as the idealistic principle of socialism that states people are only products for their environment, and therefore not to blame for the things they do wrong.  Thus, there is no motivation for a criminal not to "ply his trade" to the best of his abilities.

It can be said that there are two types of camp prostitutes: those that choose to, and those that have to.  The ones that chose to were women of a more social type and have the knowhow to choose the right men.  Possibly they were prostitutes prior to arrest.  When they were arrested, they would simply continue their work, getting an easier and shorter sentence, and "on completion of their terms, rich as never before, with suitcases full of silks, they returned home to begin an honest life" (Solz ii67).

The second category includes those that just want to live.  They would be propositioned by various staff members, who proposed the exchange of easier jobs, better food, and other benefits in exchange for personal relations.  "What profit is there in the fidelity of a female corpse?" (Solz ii230-1)
The happiest women in the camp were the "nuns": women who simply refused to give in, either to trading themselves for survival or to simply obeying all of the camp regulations.  They are referred to with the feminine “nun” because it was generally women rather than men who held onto their faith (Solz i37). These women were strong, but basically had to watch as the less morally resistant women went home years ahead of them (Solz ii67)

It becomes clear that when standing on the cusp of such a prison term, the prisoner must decide where he stands.  Will he give up his morals for his skin, playing Stalin’s game that he might see the end of his term?  Will he take the harder way and stick by morality, and resist the gravity of his time?  The student of communism will know learn to ask himself these questions.  He will then know the level of his strength and the extent of his craftiness.

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