Why did Soviet interrogators care if prisoners sign confessions?

Jan 2019
8
US
#1
I'm reading "The Gulag Archipelago", which paints a bleak picture of the Soviet interrogation and gulag system. One thing that seems odd to me is the emphasis on having the suspect sign a confession, often written by the interrogator and having little relationship to reality. If the book is correct, the Soviet union spent considerable resources on torturing and breaking down suspects to the point that they would sign these confessions. As I read from the book, suspects that did not eventually sign a confession were killed so that they would not reveal details of the interrogation process to the population. Some suspects were killed immediately after signing the confession. What I don't understand is what purpose the signing of the confession served for the Soviets - they were willing to torture prisoners, so that any signature would be meaningless, but not to forge their signature? What did the Soviets do with these signatures, did they play some useful purpose in their bureaucracy?

The best answer I could come up with just fromthe book is that the next step after signing a confession would be to implicate other people, and perhaps the interrogators knew that a prisoner who was not ready to sign a confession also wasn't going to be ready to inform on their friends. Yet that doesn't seem right - why not just focus on that from the start, if that's all that is desired?
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,516
Dispargum
#2
Every country's legal system places a high value on confessions. There is an assumption that a person will not confess to a crime he or she did not commit. Therefore a confession is the strongest possible evidence against a suspect. Of course, we know that people do make false confessions under torture, or to protect a loved a one, or because the real perpetrator is paying or threatening the person who confesses, but most, legal systems seem to ignore these possibilities.

Don't overlook the bureaucratic mindset. When the boss says 'Get a confession," the bureaucrat policeman will get a confession. Truth is less important to a bureaucrat than keeping the boss happy.
 
Jan 2019
8
US
#3
There was no way that a person would leave the interrogation but to sign the confession, except perhaps a coffin. These interrogations could take months if need be. No one anywhere in that system could have been in doubt as to what was going on, if the book is to be believed. I suppose it might really have been that the Soviets valued very highly the distinction between "we torture people until they die or provide their signature" versus "we decide who is guilty", but the resources expended must have been enormous, so was there really a value in that?
 
Likes: macon
Aug 2014
60
U.S.
#4
The same thing has happened in places other than the Soviet Union. In Libya, a few years ago, while Gaddafi was still alive, some medical aid workers from Europe were forced to confess to deliberately infecting Libyans with AIDS. No one outside of Libya believed the accusation, of course, and the libyan government obviously could have arranged to have the the medical workers found guilty without the confessions.

I don't think the reason for forced confessions in totalitarian countries has anything to do with rational thinking. Humans beings are not always rational, and sometimes we we just want others to tell us what we want to hear. A dictator with absolute power has the power to force others to tell him what he wants to hear. It may well be that Gaddafi and his minions really wanted to believe that any AIDS cases in Libya were the result of a conspiracy by foreigners.

We see the same phenomenon at work in the persecution and ultimate execution of St. Thomas Moore. Moore had never breathed a word of criticism of King Henry VIII's annulment and re-marriage, but silence wasn't good enough. Henry wanted to be explicitly told that his marriage was righteous, and he wanted to hear it from everyone, including Moore. He didn't need Moore's expressed approval for any legal, practical, or rational reason. He just wanted that expression of approval for the sake of his own feelings.
 
Jan 2019
8
US
#5
I understand that it's probably irrational, though what I'm wondering is what these people believed they were doing. I think the Soviet case is different than King Henry and the aid workers in Libya, since those were individual cases with an individual treatment, though those are interesting as a comparison and thanks for mentioning it. For the Soviets, according to the Gulag Archipelago, this was everyone everywhere as a matter of policy, even though no one would care or know about most of the cases.

Maybe it's the other way around - maybe the force applied in itself was the point, as a deterrent, and the extraction of confessions was just an excuse. Though I'm speculating in the absence of any information.
 
May 2011
13,736
Navan, Ireland
#6
Perhaps they are thinking of the future, historians will look back and want 'empirical' evidence 'heresay' from individuals is not good evidence so 'primary' documents will be needed.

This confessions will 'prove' that crimes were committed for future historians
 
Sep 2012
3,677
Bulgaria
#7
The same thing has happened in places other than the Soviet Union. In Libya, a few years ago, while Gaddafi was still alive, some medical aid workers from Europe were forced to confess to deliberately infecting Libyans with AIDS. No one outside of Libya believed the accusation, of course, and the libyan government obviously could have arranged to have the the medical workers found guilty without the confessions.
This is indeed a peculiar and grim case because there was no interpreter during the 'interrogation' of the medical nurses and i am sure they didnt know Arabic nor the 'interrogators' - Bulgarian (Southern Slavic language) so i dont have a clue how they got 'confessions' from them.
 
Mar 2014
1,840
Lithuania
#8
I think, that confession was part of breaking persons will in Soviet system. People that signed confessions mostly gave up on any kind of resistance in most cases. And it was not necessary to have confession of anything in many cases for regular people. For example in Lithuania it was enough for someone to inform that certain family was feeding partisans and all family would be transported to Siberia. No interrogation, no confessions they would say don't take anything, we are just taking to answer some questions. Then put them in wagons and of they went.
 

AlpinLuke

Ad Honoris
Oct 2011
25,227
Lago Maggiore, Italy
#10
Every country's legal system places a high value on confessions. There is an assumption that a person will not confess to a crime he or she did not commit. Therefore a confession is the strongest possible evidence against a suspect. Of course, we know that people do make false confessions under torture, or to protect a loved a one, or because the real perpetrator is paying or threatening the person who confesses, but most, legal systems seem to ignore these possibilities.

Don't overlook the bureaucratic mindset. When the boss says 'Get a confession," the bureaucrat policeman will get a confession. Truth is less important to a bureaucrat than keeping the boss happy.
Correct. During the great Witch Hunting in Europe it happened the same. No one cared if the suspect was guilty or not ... he or she had to confess! Why? Because the People needed it. How to explain all those newborns died in some months? A witch! What else?