Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Lazar Trubman’s nonfiction piece, Spring in Chisinau

John: This is a harrowing tale, even told at a level of abstraction. Would you supply us with some background? How did you come to be arrested? How long did you spend in the camps?

Lazar: You’ve taken me as far back in time as you possibly can, John, but, thank God, I have already written a few essays and memoirs about my past, so it doesn’t hurt any longer. 1976, I’m a young lecturer, teaching Russian Literature in the spirit of the Socialist realism and Cyrillic languages. It’s Brezhnev’s time, deadly like a marsh; it’s also decision time, and the one I made wasn’t the wisest. I was in my twenties, you see, healthy and ambitious. I met plenty of people every day, killers and those who ordered the killings: you couldn’t tell by looking at them. In 1979 I began conducting underground seminars and attending gatherings organized by two Jewish professors, where we discussed the latest news channeled to them from America, Great Britain and Israel. In the fall of 1981, I flew to Moscow and met with a few of my colleagues from the State University at a dacha near Russia’s capital. We talked about the need of a printing shop somewhere in Ukraine or Moldova, preferably in Moldova, as well as about the new distribution strategy. That was dangerous, could’ve cost me more than professorship or advancement opportunities, but everything went fine. For a month. Then I was invited by the local KGB office for a chat. I didn’t know what to think, but this wasn’t an institution I could ignore. The operative who walked into the room, greeted me with a smile and introduced himself as Major Anatoly Orlov. He turned out to be a well-spoken, educated man of thirty, polite and a good listener. His smile disarmed me. He knew a lot about my work, personal life, hobbies, but talked about it casually. Everything seemed normal, uneventful. Then he offered me a cigar, and as I was reaching for the matches, he turned on a tape recorder, and for the next half an hour I listened to my underground seminars and the discussions I had with my colleagues at that dacha near Moscow. Then he turned the recorder off and offered me a job. He gave me a week to think about it, and we agreed to meet at a certain address in downtown Balti. A week later, instead of going there, I called him and said that I decided to decline his offer. He wasn’t surprised, thanked me and hung up. Another month passed. It was Friday night; as I stood on the balcony having a cigarette and a glass of wine, a black “Volga” attracted my attention because it appeared suddenly and stopped under a streetlight. Three men in shiny leather raincoats got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building. A few minutes later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.

They came for me.

I was arrested for “Assisting foreign agents in their relentless desire to destroy the socialistic way of life in the USSR, as well as spreading anti-Soviet propaganda among young generations”—according to the Committee of State Security—KGB in common parlance. The verdict—15 years in a Colony of Strict Regime—was read to me in front of a judge and two jurors, in a room with no one but guards and representatives of the Administration of Labor Colonies of Strict Regime.

I got lucky: I was liberated in June of 1986, which makes it slightly shorter than five years.

I have a theory that cruelty is attractive to humans because it is a direct measure of power. We can only be cruel to people we have power over. Do you agree? Why do you think cruelty is such a common factor in human relations?

The answer to the first question: somewhat. Because of the word ‘only’.

Your second question is an entirely different animal.

The conventional explanation is that people are able to do terrible things to other people only after having dehumanized them. They say that when you fail to appreciate the humanity in other people, that’s where all sorts of evils come from. The truth is, that almost anyone is capable of being cruel under the right circumstances. A lot of real awful things we do to other people arise from the fact that we don’t see them as people. But there is another side of that coin: a lot of really terrible things we do precisely because we recognize them as people. We see them as blameworthy, as themselves cruel. And an ideology that dehumanizes the victims and an unlimited power, which seems as an easy explanation, is not required. I think people do a lot of mass killings because they don’t believe they’re killing anyone. They’ve been giving orders to achieve something, and people are in the way. It’s sometimes as simple as that. What happened in camps and colonies was degrading and humiliating. We were tortured because they thought we deserved it. It was about the pleasure of being dominant over another human. Not animal. You can’t humiliate animals, and there is no pleasure in it.

After I was liberated from the Colony, I became a believer in the human race’s ability to change for the better. Intuitively, I felt that the worst evil had been defeated. It didn’t take long to realize that I was too sanguine about human nature. I actually think that our intuitions are wrong in just about every way they can be. People who do evil are psychopaths and monsters driven by the sheer pleasure of watching other people suffer? Myth. The truth is far more complicated than that. Cruelty is not an accident or an aberration, but something central to who and what we are, and there is no quick fix for cruelty. I think some of it is born of dehumanization, some out of a loss of control; some out of an instrumental desire to get something you want—sex, money, power, whatever. Or an appetite to punish those we think have done wrong.

So, as I’ve said before, under the right conditions, most of us are capable of doing terrible things. You and I would be completely different people if we lived in Nazi Germany, where the entire society had been led into moral abyss. From afar, we look at that moment of insanity and say to ourselves, “I would’ve never participated in that!” But I don’t think it’s that simple. I think almost any of us could have participated in that, and that’s the ugly truth. In the end, it’s about us—not our ideas.

And in conclusion:

Cruelty to me personally had a certain face, which, I knew, I’d probably never forget: the face of my torturer. I knew I’d remember every wrinkle on his temples, his embrasure-like eyes, his nicotine-stained teeth, his poisonous breath… But I knew for sure that I’d never, till my last day, forget his smile. A smile of a monster.

Jack Kornfield says, “Evil, to the extent that it exists in the world, lies in our inability to bear our own pain.” In other words, we are all suffering so much that we try to ease our misery by pushing it onto other people. Do you think this is true? Does such a thing as pure evil exist?

Do I think it’s true? It is. And it isn’t. I’ve seen a prisoner killing another prisoner for a slice of bread or an easier assignment for the day. But I’ve also seen a prisoner killing the prisoner who killed a prisoner for a slice of bread. What’s missing is hope. A friend of mine, an academician in his previous life and a ‘next door neighbor’ in that unforgettable cold and depressing barrack, once famously said (in an unacademic style), as if underlining our heated discussions whether or not hope was in the offing, whether or not we’ll live to see the knees of the multi-headed monster called USSR ever give in: “Friends, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel; it’s just the fucking tunnel never ends.” About a week after this hopeless announcement, he pushed four of his right-hand fingers under the rotating generator belt. Next day, he was executed by a firing squad…

Evil’s evil. As far as evil’s existence—yes, and it will exist for as long as this crazy earth is running around the mighty sun. We’re not in the process of replacing the whole human population with silent robots who are overwhelmed with love, which might take care of the evil—pure or not—once and for all. And we’re not about to become better overnight. But, man, do I hope we will!

Various religious traditions tell us that wisdom or transcendence can be achieved through suffering. This idea seems to be at least partially supported by research demonstrating that very rich people, for example, have lower levels of empathy. What do you think about this? Is there a value in suffering? And if so, what is it?

As you are probably aware, John, religion was forbidden in the former USSR and the countries under its umbrella. In fact, all churches had been transformed into warehouses, paint shops, etc., so my knowledge of religious traditions is, needless to say, rudimentary. I did try—religiously that is—to affiliate myself with one of the religions, but it wasn’t meant to happen. My only strong belief, without ever reading the Bible, is that God sees everything and will punish you—in this life or another—for imposing suffering on a fellow human being.

Regarding rich people having a lower level of empathy? I guess so. On the other hand, I’ve seen really poor people having a really low level of empathy. Who knew, right?

Is there value in suffering? Just dug this out, written by Robert Browning:

I walked a mile with Pleasure
She chatted all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!

I once met an old Chinese man, in his 90s, who told me that suffering is a privilege, it moves us towards thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency; when he was a boy, he said, it was believed you should pay for suffering, it proves such a hidden blessing.

As far as my experiences are concerned, it brought some clarity, but that didn’t change all the many times when suffering left me with no seeming benefit at all, and only resentment of those who told me to look on the bright side and count my blessings and recall that time heals all wounds (when I knew it doesn’t).

None of us expects life to be easy; to live, as Nietzsche had it, is to suffer; to survive is to make sense of the suffering. Here’s the answer to your question, right?

All five thousand prisoners in my colony knew all along that our survival was never guaranteed, but the more we thought about it, the less we suffered. Death? You never really think of death in a camp or a Colony. In a sense, death undid us less, sometimes, than the hope that it will never come.

As a corollary to that, have there been any positive aspects of having endured what you did?

Not sure, John. And, frankly, I never wasted any time thinking about it. I thank God, luck, the alignment of stars and whatever else that I survived. That I was able to see my family again and give life to a brand-new son. That today, I can write about those darkened times, to honor the memory of my friends and colleagues who weren’t as lucky as I was. And every time my essay or memoir gets published, I shed a tear or two, then have a shot of bourbon…or two.

Cheers, my friends!