The Blog

What Does the World Say to the KGB Agent?


When my grandfather was a young man in Donbas, he was summoned to the local office of the NKVD--the Soviet secret police and the predecessor of the KGB. A family man with a wife and an infant at home, he managed a factory and was a law-abiding citizen. Yet an agent interrogated him about plotting to overthrow the government, and demanded that he sign a confession. My grandfather right away knew that they had mistaken him for someone else, but the agent was convinced that they had the right man--a terrorist committed to killing Stalin. So they took him to a dark, dank room and hung him up by his arms so that his feet dangled off the ground. The last thing my grandfather remembered before passing out was a giant man beating him with relentless fists and, when the giant grew tired, he flogged my grandfather with a chair. For many months, the torture continued, because my grandfather refused to sign the confession. Naively, he thought that the entire Soviet system had erroneously pinned this treacherous plot on him and him alone--he did not know that he was one of countless innocent victims arrested and tortured during Stalin's purges.

"I will torture you until there is nothing left of you!" an agent liked to scream at my grandfather. I often think about that agent and how my grandfather found the strength to survive. I like to imagine myself in the room with them in the form of a light whispering in my grandfather's ear, telling him that he will have granddaughters one day, and he will sit comfortably in his California home and watch this entire hellish machine fall apart on television. And the television will show him a sea of people singing the Ukrainian national anthem in Kyiv. I can't imagine how else he could have survived.

I often talk to the agents who tortured my grandfather. When I'm faced with getting on a stage and speaking to a room full of people, or getting out of bed when I don't particularly want to and have to write, I tell the agents who thought they would torture my grandfather to death: He survived and continues to defy you because here I am on this stage, here I am writing, here I am doing this thing that I feared to do, and I do it to remind you that my grandfather survived all that you did to him.

Now I have a new KGB agent to talk to. To be honest, I thought that they were all dead. But there's one who seems to be holding the world hostage. I don't so much blame him as much as I blame the world. You see, Vladimir Putin reminds me of that Japanese soldier who in 1974 had to be convinced by a higher ranking officer that World War II had ended; yet for 29 years in the wilderness he lived like a madman, waging war on imaginary enemies. That is Putin. He wants the Iron Curtain back in a world that is increasingly global and connected--such a feat seems impossible even if world leaders continue to look the other way.

It's the people who are unwilling to talk to KGB agents who I hold accountable. On a few occasions, I've heard from Jewish friends that they or their family members refuse to step foot in Germany. I always thought that this was extreme. But now that history seems to be repeating, I understand their decision differently. Germany wasn't simply hijacked by a madman and his thugs; Hitler provided economic relief like Russian gas serves Germany today; like Hollande's minstrel ships serve France; like oligarchs serve London banks and far too many British institutions to count. Hitler was an economic choice for Germany, and so the vast majority of Germans went along for the military industrial complex ride and benefited. Since its defeat, Germany has tried desperately to make amends for the horrors of the Holocaust, yet all of that rings hollow now: Building memorials are important but they can't save lives and end wars like leadership can. Given their reluctance to hold Putin accountable, any statement German leaders make about the Holocaust sound like a polluting corporation giving a drop of profits to conservation for the sake of a press release. My heart goes out to victims of the Holocaust and their descendants, and to victims of the Soviet Union and their loved ones. We were promised "Never again" and all we're getting from the EU is the dismissive "Not now."

If not now, when?

How many more lives must be lost? How many more sovereign states invaded? There is a madman fighting imaginary enemies. Someone must send him a powerful message to snap him back to reality. To world leaders I ask, will you finally speak to the KGB agent in a way that he can understand?

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