Evgeny Vitishko: "To Beat, or Not to Beat?.." [from the prison notebooks]

7 November 2014

Almost Shakespeare - from a conversation between Colonel Petrov and the prisoner Vitishko

Colonel Petrov is not someone who has ever been troubled by his conscience. He found the feeling of lacking power over people and events unbearable. This sense of powerlessness made him feel unhappy. Doubtless, he knew that the world is morally imperfect and therefore a good person should always be troubled by his conscience. And the ideal person with a big conscience is, of course, a saint. But Petrov did not consider himself a saint. And in any case he was interested in Caligula and Nero - the ideal for those without any conscience.

Conscience is something irrational, impractical, and accompanies notions such as justice, love, goodness, pity, sympathy. It is opposed to egoism, greed, aggression, indifference and cruelty. But after almost 20 years' work in the prison system, Petrov understood that conscience is superfluous. 

That is why, when he decided to set the guard dogs on people or if, for the sake of giving them a little education, he decided to ‘warm the prisoners up’ with a rubber truncheon, he genuinely believed he was doing what was necessary. 

"When you come down to it, I’m not Kaganovich who sanctioned the shooting of his own brother, or Molotov who shut the wife he loved up in a concentration camp." 

The Greek psychologist Mika Haritos-Fatouros has concluded that torturers are not born, but can be created through training. And almost anyone can be brought to be bestially cruel, make a devastating insult, or cause unbearable pain and suffering. 

And conscience can be blind, just as love can be blind … 

That’s why to beat or not to beat is not even a question. 

Petrov in any case would always answer: “Beat! And the more painful, the better." Or more exactly, not the more painful, but the more deeply felt and the more effective. 

Translated by Simon Cosgrove