Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Forced Confessions Are the Propaganda of Terror

Belarus’s Lukashenko doesn’t want to be believed—he wants to be feared.

By , a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington.
Protesters hold photos of detained Belarusian journalists
Protesters hold photos of detained Belarusian journalists
Protesters hold photos of detained Belarusian journalists, including Roman Protasevich, at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border in Salcininkai, Lithuania, on May 27. Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images

On June 3, the Belarusian KGB released a disturbing video showing a clearly injured and distressed Roman Protasevich, the dissident journalist kidnapped from a forced-down plane, recanting his beliefs and expressing support for dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko. (I will not link to any of the videos I mention; they are easy to find via Google, if necessary.) On Monday, Protasevich was dragged in front of the cameras again at a press conference to deny, under clear coercion, that the first video was made under coercion.

To anyone with a soul, these appearances were chilling, a barbaric excursion into dictatorship. Very few people could possibly fall for the idea that Protasevich’s sentiments were genuine. But what’s 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 if you want to collect valuable intelligence, torture simply doesn’t work. Torture, however, is very useful when you want a false confession to be signed. This is why the KGB, along with its predecessor the NKVD, has a long and sordid history of torture in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union needed to pretend, not just to the outside but on the inside, that its victims were guilty. Torture is good for this kind of bureaucracy, for stating, “The guilty person is guilty, because they confessed, and this is why we’ll shoot them in the head or send them to be raped and/or frozen to death in a labor camp.”

On June 3, the Belarusian KGB released a disturbing video showing a clearly injured and distressed Roman Protasevich, the dissident journalist kidnapped from a forced-down plane, recanting his beliefs and expressing support for dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko. (I will not link to any of the videos I mention; they are easy to find via Google, if necessary.) On Monday, Protasevich was dragged in front of the cameras again at a press conference to deny, under clear coercion, that the first video was made under coercion.

To anyone with a soul, these appearances were chilling, a barbaric excursion into dictatorship. Very few people could possibly fall for the idea that Protasevich’s sentiments were genuine. But what’s 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 if you want to collect valuable intelligence, torture simply doesn’t work. Torture, however, is very useful when you want a false confession to be signed. This is why the KGB, along with its predecessor the NKVD, has a long and sordid history of torture in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union needed to pretend, not just to the outside but on the inside, that its victims were guilty. Torture is good for this kind of bureaucracy, for stating, “The guilty person is guilty, because they confessed, and this is why we’ll shoot them in the head or send them to be raped and/or frozen to death in a labor camp.”

This bureaucratic method is then used to justify detaining and torturing more people—as people’s minds and bodies break under torture, they are willing to name names to make the pain stop. If you’re an official under a paranoid dictator like Joseph Stalin or Lukashenko, that’s vital; you have to keep a regular supply of victims, out of fear of being the next target yourself, as a succession of Stalin’s toady-torturers such as Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov were.

Hollywood portrayals of torture often omit the part in which a person breaks. It doesn’t paint a heroic narrative. But that is simply how our bodies are wired, as even the late U.S. Sen. John McCain could personally attest. At some point, the pain is simply too much. The most heroic French Resistance fighters, for example, were expected only to hold only long enough to give their comrades time to escape.

And while other countries, such as 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 intent on officials’ part to have a democratic transition—or even the pretense of one.

The other way that torture is useful is in the way it spreads terror. Everyone with a meaningful connection to the Soviet Union is intimately aware of how this terror travels across distances and across generations. In my multicultural Ukrainian and Russian family, there were both repressed people and people who had carried out repressions, and dry humor about basement torture was woven into the fabric of my daily life as a child.

This is why a particular moment in the second Protasevich hostage video to be released chilled me to the bone. At one point, a clearly distressed and battered Protasevich is made to praise Lukashenko’s leadership. He mentions “pressure” on Lukashenko, and then immediately says this: “[Lukashenko] acted like a person with balls of steel, in spite of all the pressure.”

The repeated use of “pressure” seemed unusual in the context of Protasevich’s words. The sentence structure seemed off—deliberately awkward somehow. I wondered if Protasevich was speaking in code. I couldn’t help but remember that his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was detained alongside him.

Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was in a similar bind when she was forced to make her own hostage video before fleeing the country. When it was recorded last year, Tikhanovskaya’s husband was already in jail, as was her friend and campaign manager.

Tikhanovskaya’s body language is tense in the video, and her voice is subdued. Much like with Protasevich, anyone halfway observant will understand that she recorded it while under severe duress.

Some may wonder if this defeats the purpose, but the obviously coerced nature of the videos is, in fact, the point. For one thing, the notoriously vindictive Lukashenko—who has been targeting his opposition for years—is not content to simply jail dissidents and crush their spirits. No, he needs them hauled up by marionette strings to perform for his amusement, as well as for the rest of Belarus.

There is also the issue of rape. While the KGB has no problem with raping men in detention, special horrors are also reserved for women.

The fact that the victims’ stress and terror are obvious is all the more helpful to Lukashenko and his goons. It is a message to all Belarusians: “Next time, this could be you.” Even the regime’s most obedient lackeys know this in their hearts—which makes them even more obedient.

Europeans and the rest of the world are meant to notice this ghoulish content as well. By showcasing his sadistic side, Lukashenko is daring someone to do something about this—assured by his many years of experience that no one will do much.

And, of course, the videos have an effect in Russia as well. Russians look at their President Vladimir Putin and see a relatively sane leader by comparison. It’s one of the many reasons why Putin will not turn on Lukashenko. The rights and dignity of millions of Belarusians do not matter to him.

Even more horrifying than the marks on Protasevich’s wrists—he may have been hanging from his arms for a very long time—is the end of the latest hostage video, in which the man breaks down and says he just wants to have a normal life and to have children. It’s a bit of KGB theater with an open-ended finale. Will Lukashenko cosplay as a benevolent patriarch—much like Stalin, who liked posing with children and having himself portrayed as a kind grandpa—or will he be a strict father?

There is an incestuous sickness at the core of this forced performance—the idea that the state is allowed to penetrate all aspects of your life. It replaces your family and your basic agency. Your loved ones, also threatened by torture now, become avatars for the expression of the dictator’s will. They are the ultimate reasons that you must do as he says now.

This is an awful situation, but what’s even more awful is that what happened to Protasevich is a marked escalation. Lukashenko’s delight at rattling the rest of Europe is palpable—it’s why he gleefully parades the victim as a kind of hunting trophy, a stag’s head, frozen in terror. It’s why he is engaging in theatrics about possibly having Protasevich “extradited” to face trial in fake republics set up by Russian proxies in the east of Ukraine.

Lukashenko is openly taunting Europe, assured that no one will do much to stop his reign of kidnapping, terror, and torture.

Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington.

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