By Alyaksandr Lyalikov
I don't know how the KGB picked me out of the crowd.
Our first conversation took place after lunch on a Wednesday in late December in my office. That talk was civil enough. I didn't hide the fact that I'd been on Independence Square in Minsk during the postelection protests earlier in the month. Eventually, the agent promised that if I'd admit everything honestly, they'd look on my case favorably. After all, he said, it would be a shame to destroy the career of such a young and promising specialist.
After that came a series of perfectly innocent questions. And I answered them straightforwardly. But gradually the questions became more serious. I slowly began to feel as if I was getting tangled up in my own statements, like finding oneself in a swamp.
My attempts at little jokes were politely, but firmly, brushed aside. I was made to understand that my position was very serious and that this was no time for joking.
So far, there were no direct threats. But through vague innuendo, an atmosphere of oppressive fear emerged. The agent soon lost interest in me and began asking about my friends. Not wanting to betray them, I began to answer more slowly and to resist, which was difficult because it meant altering the initially good-natured tone of the conversation. The agent explained that everyone would confess everything eventually and that the Committee already knew everything anyway. So it would be best for me if I just told everything exactly like it was.
As he was leaving, he told me that I would be summoned for a further conversation at the KBG's offices. He also warned me that any contact with my friends - about which the KGB would know instantly - would be viewed as an aggravating circumstance. I was frightened, demoralized, and alone.
The End Of The Story?
I was summoned to the KGB building the very next day. The agent that I'd seen the day before had prepared a document with my testimony. All they asked of me was my signature.
Overcoming a petrifying tension, I carefully read the paper through several times and made a few corrections. The agent, who up until that point had been quite polite, wasn't pleased. They began rushing me, saying there wasn't much time. Finally, I signed it.
It later turned out that I had missed one tricky, ambiguous phrase that had been tucked away in the last paragraph.
But the agents quickly escorted me to the exit, gave me back my confiscated mobile phone and my passport, and set me free. However, in addition to relief, I felt an overwhelming depression and anxiety. I did not believe that this would be the end of the story.
And my anxiety was justified. Just one hour later, I was again summoned to the KGB, but this time to a different agent. I was placed in a chair with my back to the door. Across a desk from me sat another agent working at a computer. He informed me of my rights and, wrinkling his brow and pinning me down with a stern gaze, began the interrogation.
He used a pushy tone. While typing out the protocol, his fingers banged fiercely on the keyboard as if he were disciplining the unfortunate machine. The investigator moved forward and breathed heavily. Every now and again he'd make sharp movements with his hands. Several times he arose and, walking around behind my back, left the room, only to return a couple minutes later. Sometimes other people appeared from behind my back, entered the room, did something silently, and left.
At first, I kept my eyes fixed to the floor. After two hours I asked if I could be allowed to telephone my mother and tell her that I was all right. They granted my request, and an unexpected wave of immense gratitude swept over me. I felt as if the investigator had become my friend.
The interrogation went on. Then, without any prelude, another investigator barged into the room and began to scream at me, inundating me with accusations and threats. Weakly and incomprehensibly, I tried to fend him off.
When he left, the interrogation continued as if nothing had happened. But I began to come unglued. My body somehow began to melt in my chair. My heart was beating out of control - I could see it pounding in my chest under my sweater. My palms were covered in a cold sweat. My mouth went dry, and my breath began to stink. My voice wavered and cracked. After more than three hours, the interrogation came to an end.
Finally, they printed up the protocol. Although I had trouble seeing, I read it through for a long time, and then spent even more time making changes. This took about two hours. As they were showing me out the door, they handed me a summons for the next day and promised they would give me "a good talking to" if I continued "with this farce."
Time For A Drink
When I emerged out on the street, I couldn't figure out where I was. I walked along an unfamiliar street and soon realized I was heading in the wrong direction. After I finally was able to orient myself, I quickly headed home.
I don't normally drink, but that night I really laid into the vodka. For a time, that brought me back to my senses. But I passed the entire night lost in endless, tormenting circles of thought. By the time morning arrived -- Friday, December 24, 2010 -- I was completely broken. My will was plastic and pliable. Concepts like pride, honor, and dignity seemed distant and unreal. Every movement demanded unspeakable effort. Waves of nausea alternated with waves of utter despair. I could imagine only torture, prison, an iron curtain. Instead of the dawning of the year 2011, I imagined only George Orwell's 1984.
By the time I showed up to the interrogation, I had no more strength to resist. I said what they wanted to hear, after which they stopped tormenting me. They read me an instructive message describing how bad human rights are in other countries. They printed out the protocol of my interrogation, and I signed it everywhere the investigator told me to. And then they let me go home.
I'll never forget that Christmas. As soon as I got home, I began getting drunk again. Then, giving in to a surge of panic, I destroyed everything on my computer - books, films, music - anything that had anything to do with Belarus. I threw out badges and other things with symbols of Belarus. Mostly out of the desire to do something, I turned on the television and found a concert of Christmas carols.
I'd never really listened to carols before, but that evening their calm goodness was exactly the salve my tortured soul needed. The doors were all locked up tight. My heart raced in terror whenever the telephone rang. I expected that at any moment I would again find myself in the interrogation room. And that is how, staring glassy-eyed at the television screen, I sat, motionless, until late into the night.
Despair And Terror
The next month passed in a fog for me. I was afraid to look out the window or leave my apartment. I alternated between despair and terror. My mother developed high blood pressure and would periodically break down in tears.
And that's when our oldest friends came to help me. These were people who cared nothing about politics but who responded to my plight with sincere, human warmth. And that feeling began to take hold; gradually, I pulled myself together. I even worked up the courage to log onto the Internet, where I read that many of my fellow countrymen had also been interrogated.
I looked for and studied all the information I could find about how to behave when being questioned. I hope this knowledge will help me if I ever find myself in that room again. But the more I recovered and the farther those experiences receded, the stronger my feelings of anger and shame for what I "confessed" grew.
It is so hard to be a man in an unfree country. If you do nothing, you are a passive participant. If you try to do something, you are broken and turned into a traitor. It takes incredible courage and spiritual strength to escape this fate. Courage and strength that I lacked.
Alyaksandr Lyalikov is an instructor in mathematics at the Yanki Kupaly State University in Hrodna.