An expert's point of view on a current event.
June 14, 2021, 12:45 p.m.
On June 3, the Belarusian KGB released a disturbing video showing an apparently injured and desperate Roman Protasevich, the dissident who was abducted from an airplane, who renounced his belief and expressed his support for dictator Alexander Lukashenko. (I will not link to any of the videos I mentioned, they can be easily found on Google if necessary.) On Monday, Protasevich was dragged in front of the cameras again at a press conference to deny under clear duress that the first video was made under Force.
For anyone with a soul, these appearances were terrifying, a barbaric excursion into dictatorship. Very few people could fall for the idea that Protasevich's feelings were real. But what is the real point of such hostage videos, of which this is only the most recent example?
For hundreds of years officials and interrogators have known that torture simply does not work when one is trying to gather valuable information. However, torture is very useful when you want a false confession to be signed. Because of this, the KGB, along with its predecessor, the NKVD, has a long and sordid history of torture in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had to pretend, not only externally but internally, that its victims were guilty. Torture is good for this type of bureaucracy to say, "The culprit is guilty for confessing, and that's why we will shoot him in the head or rape and / or freeze him to death."
This bureaucratic method is then used to justify the imprisonment and torture of more people – when people's minds and bodies break under the torture, they are ready to give names to make the pain stop. If you are an official under a paranoid dictator like Joseph Stalin or Lukashenko, this is vital; They have to keep a regular supply of victims in reserve for fear of being the next target themselves, as was the successor to Stalin's creeps like Genrich Jagoda and Nikolai Jeschow.
Hollywood depictions of torture often leave out the part where a person breaks apart. It does not paint a heroic narrative. But that's just how our bodies are wired, as even the late US Senator John McCain personally confirmed. At some point the pain is just too great. The most heroic French resistance fighters, for example, were expected to hold out only long enough for their comrades to have time to flee.
And while other countries, like Ukraine and even Russia, deliberately renamed their local KGB branches after the fall of the Soviet Union, Belarus kept the old name. And why not? There was never any intention, or even the appearance of a democratic transition, of the officials.
The other way torture is useful is by spreading terror. Anyone with a meaningful connection with the Soviet Union knows exactly how this terror is spread across distances and generations. In my Russian family there were both displaced people and people who had carried out repression, and dry humor about cellar torture was woven into my everyday life as a child.
Because of this, a special moment in the second Protasevich hostage video that was released chilled me to the bone. At one point, an obviously desperate and battered Protasevich is made to praise Lukashenko's leadership. He mentions "pressure" on Lukashenko and then immediately says: "(Lukashenko) behaved like a person with steel balls despite all the pressure."
The repeated use of "pressure" seemed unusual in the context of Protasevich's words. The sentence structure seemed absurd – somehow deliberately awkward. I wondered if Protasevich was speaking in the code. I couldn't help but remember his friend Sofia Sapega was imprisoned next to him.
The Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was in a similar situation when she was forced to make her own hostage video before fleeing. When it was recorded last year, Tikhanovskaya's husband was already in jail, as was her boyfriend and campaign manager.
Tikhanovskaya's body language is tense in the video, her voice is muffled. Similar to Protasevich, anyone who is halfway attentive will understand that she took it under strong coercion.
Some may wonder if this is out of purpose, but the obviously forced nature of the videos is actually the point. On the one hand, the notoriously vengeful Lukashenko, who has been targeting his opposition for years, is not satisfied with simply putting dissidents in prison and discouraging them. No, he needs them pulled up on puppet strings to perform for his amusement, as they do for the rest of Belarus.
There is also the issue of rape. While the KGB has no problem rape men in custody, women are also reserved for particular atrocities.
The fact that the victims' stress and terror are obvious helps Lukashenko and his thugs all the more. It is a message to all Belarusians: “Next time it could be you.” Even the most obedient lackeys of the regime know this in their hearts – which makes them even more obedient.
Europeans and the rest of the world are also supposed to notice this creepy content. By showing off his sadistic side, Lukashenko dares to do something about it – certainly through his many years of experience that nobody will do much.
And of course the videos also work in Russia. The Russians look to their President Vladimir Putin and see a relatively healthy leader in comparison. That is one of the many reasons why Putin will not attack Lukashenko. He doesn't care about the rights and dignity of millions of Belarusians.
Even more horrific than the marks on Protasevich's wrists – he may have been hanging on his arms for a long time – is the end of the latest hostage video in which the man collapses and says he just wants to lead a normal life and have children. It's a bit of KGB theater with an open finale. Will Lukashenko cosplay as a benevolent patriarch – similar to Stalin, who liked to pose with children and let himself be portrayed as a friendly grandpa – or will he be a strict father?
At the center of this forced performance is an incestuous disease – the notion that the state is allowed to permeate all aspects of your life. It replaces your family and your basic agency. Their loved ones, who are now also threatened by torture, become avatars for the dictator's will. These are the ultimate reasons you must do what he says now.
This is a terrible situation, but what is worse is that what happened to Protasevich is a marked escalation. Lukashenko's joy in shaking the rest of Europe is palpable – that's why he happily presents the victim as a kind of hunting trophy, a stag's head frozen in horror. For this reason, he deals with theatrics about the possible "extradition" of Protasevich for trial in false republics established by Russian proxy in eastern Ukraine.
Lukashenko openly mocks Europe and assures that no one will do much to stop its rule of kidnapping, terrorism and torture.