Reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, I was struck by her formulation of a question that I had wondered about myself, and never seen explicitly stated:
Why the Soviet secret police were so obsessed with confession remains a matter for debate…
What is the motivation to force a prisoner to “confess”? Even if the interrogator believes the charge to be true, why is it important for the prisoner to say it? Surely a confession under duress is not going to convince anyone else. Of course, you may want to use a confession extracted under torture to deceive someone else into thinking this was a confession freely offered, but it is hard to see how that can be relevant to system where torture is standard.
Furthermore, in the pre-video era, it’s hard to see why anyone would go to the trouble of manufacturing a deception by torturing the prisoner to put his own signature on the confession, rather than simply forging the signature. And yet it was important enough for interrogators to spend months attempting to extract the “genuine” confession, and for prisoners to submit themselves to agonies to resist.
The officer investigating Vladimir Tchernavin, a scientist accused of “wrecking” and sabotage, threatened him with death if he refused to confess. At another point, he told him he would get a more “lenient” camp sentence if he confessed. Eventually, he actually begged Tchernavin to give a false confession. “We, the examining officers, are also often forced to lie, we also say things which cannot be entered into the record, and to which we would never sign our names,” his interrogator told him, pleadingly.
In the context of the Inquisition, at least, it is possible to believe in a certain sort of twisted altruism: Being convinced of the truth of the accusation, the inquisitor believes the unrepentant sinner’s soul to be forfeit to Hell. His life is of no account, but the soul can be rescued, if only said sinner can be moved to whole-hearted penitence. In this context, the confession has its own value, and it is clear why it must come from the heretic’s own lips.