Exchange Alley Excerpt: The KGB Prison Camp at Sakhalin Island

The torture techniques described in this harrowing chapter from Exchange Alley (now available on Kindle for 99 cents) are true. Taken from the second half of the novel, this sequence dramatizes what happens to the rogue KGB agent, Egil Ekdahl (here called Vanya) as the Soviet spy agency first breaks him and then reconstructs him into a stone killer.

Not for the squeamish. Enjoy.


Sakhalin Island, USSR; 1984

They never turned the light off. That was the rule.

There were many rules in prison. The way you had to sleep, for example. Only one position allowed, facing the light. The light, which was always in your eyes. How did they expect a man to sleep with this way? They didn’t. That was part of the punishment. That was part of the treatment. That’s how you made the New Soviet Man: by shining the light in his eyes until he finally saw it.

No matter how you tried, you couldn’t avoid the light. You couldn’t roll over during the few hours they allowed you to sleep. You had to lie on your back, facing the light; if you fell asleep on your side or on your stomach, the guards came in and woke you up, flipped you over, and made you observe the light, ponder it. There was no escaping the light, although it did give you, the prisoner, adequate radiance to illuminate your crime.

After a while, however, you got accustomed to it, used to the position, used to the lack of sleep, used to the light. The light was like the Almighty, drawing you nearer. Into the light, as if you were dead, shooting along the dark tunnel that was this earthly life into the eternal light of the next.

The light. Always on, unblinking, indifferent in its magnificence, secure in its omnipotence. It knew your crime, it penetrated to the farthest recesses of your brain, bore into you, right down to the secret depths of your being. There was no hiding from the light, or hiding anything from it. It could tip your soul and peer within, could pierce and puncture your flabby, feeble defenses, strip you naked of your pretenses and leave only your guilt-ridden essence. There was no use pretending that you were not culpable. You must be at fault. Otherwise you would not be here. Everybody is guilty of something, and all must be punished. By the light. By immersion in the light, which was at once your tormentor and your savior.

For after a while you began to love the light, no matter how brightly it shone, no matter how hot it burned, no matter how deeply it pervaded. When they first put you in here, you thought you were alone, without friend or hope, but eventually you realized that when all else had failed you – and, in here, all else had – you always had the light. It was like God.

It was certainly multifaceted, the way God, the mythical God of the Hebrews, was supposed to be. Omnipresent and infinite in its variety. If you stared at the light long enough, you could fracture and fragment it into a thousand component shafts and strands, each one in a different color, your eye a spectrograph analyzing each degree of the color spectrum, breaking it down from infrared to ultraviolet. The ultraviolent light. Each one a different face of God, or maybe even a different God, your own private, personal collection of lares and penates.

How long had he been here? There was no way to tell. Better to ask the light, but the light never spoke. It was magisterially silent, as God was. Besides, the calendar was irrelevant when it came to judging his separation from Mother, which seemed infinite. Because she had taken care of him, had promised that she always would, that she would always be at his side, omnipresent, just like God, but better than God, because she was Mother.

The room was small, about ten feet long by six feet wide. There was a slop jar and a rude bed made of packed straw but no other furnishings. There was a window, but it was so high up on the wall, and so small, that he could see nothing out of it, and had long since given up trying. The only other thing in the room was the light, burning bright. Neither prisoner nor jailer, it was simply the light, immutable and immortal, dispassionate and fair.

He seemed to remember that once there was another man in the cell. Mother, however, had warned him about other men; how they were never to be trusted, how they were all traitors, informers, spies; defilers, corrupters, seducers. Men were all alike.

This man had tried to speak with him, to draw him out, to inquire after his crimes, but he had ignored him for as long as he could, concentrating on the light, learning to love its arid luminescence, the light that never gave off warmth no matter how close to you got it, because in the end you could never get close enough, never close enough to be warmed by it, but only to be bathed in its cold, uncaring, relentless brilliance.

One night, when the man was sleeping, he pulled out his tongue. That man was the last human being he had seen. Even the guards no longer came in, no longer peered through the peephole in the door at him; they sent his food in on a tray, and most of the time he had simply put the swill directly into the slop jar, for he was rarely hungry anymore. After a while, they stopped bringing the food and then, because it was no longer necessary, they took away the slop jar too. This they did when he was asleep, like children afraid of the dark. Even though the light was on, as always.

During the day, whenever that was, he was not allowed to recline; at night, just as arbitrary in its diurnal rhythm, he had to lie on his back with his hands outside the covers at all times. This was meant to annoy him, but he had transcended annoyance. The light had given him something to aspire to: grand dispassion, supreme apathy, a godlike indifference to the human condition. By becoming one with the light, he would become like God.

The solitude was designed to break him, to sap his will, to make him beg, or crawl, or plead. But he laughed at it: he had been alone so much of his life, alone except for the times he was with Mother, and now even she had been taken away from him, although he knew she must be near, watching him and watching over him, as she promised.

Other men, he knew fought the light. They were mystified by their sudden isolation, bewildered, confused. They fought, they made demands and shouted questions: on whose authority do you hold me? On whose commission have you arrested me? They screamed that they were victims and protested their innocence, as if that mattered. But here, there were no innocents. Here, there were no victims.

After a while, even the most resolute protest subsided. The punishment was too severe, the hopelessness too overwhelming. Nothing a man said availed him anything, for no one was listening, including God. No man had the strength to protest all his life; acceptance of what you could not change was part of growing up and thus even the most dedicated resisters either died or conformed. In the end all men were collaborators, either with the enemy or with Death. Every man might be a hero to his dog, but no man is a hero to his jailer. No man, caught in the pitiless glare of the light, could harbor heroism in his breast. He could only scrabble for his soul.

And so they gave up, surrendering to the inevitable. They became resigned, contemplative, peaceful and peaceable. They stopped protesting, stopped expecting, stopped awaiting, and they let themselves go, ignoring their surroundings, where once they took such a passionate interest in them; ignoring their fellows; ignoring their captors; ignoring the ever more infrequent swellings of hope that were gradually abandoning them. They ate, rudely shoveling in the foodstuffs, not caring whether they got everything in their mouths because they could no longer taste. They took an inordinate interest in the products of their bowels; the food and the slop jar had become two aspects of the same reality. Neither disgusted them any longer. The two inanimate vessels were all that was left to remind them of their distance from the animals and after a time even that distinction disappeared.

Normally it took four to six weeks to reduce a man to the condition of a beast. He, however was nearly the same man he was when he came in; nearly the same, but better. His mind harbored some of the same thoughts and desires that it always had, but these feelings had become more intense, more refined, more sophisticated. With nothing to do but contemplate the light, he had studied it and learned from it. It had become his beacon, his compass, a lamp unto his feet; it was his leader and teacher; it had become his friend. It even spoke to him.

Tovarish,” it said. Comrade. “Of course you know why you are here?”

The voice had come out of the light, and at first he had a hard time locating it. He had been staring at the light forever, appraising its majesty, and so the voice had sounded like an angel’s, disembodied, hortatory, Gabrielian.

But he was no longer in his cell. He was in an office. The man sitting across from him, on the other side of a gunmetal gray desk, was thickset and muscular, bald on the top with a monk’s ring of hair hovering above his ears. He was wearing a dark brown business suit and a pair of cheap black Soviet shoes, the kind made out of cowhide and plastic, the kind that lasted a couple of months if you were lucky and took very good care of them, which mostly involved not wearing them. He could see the tips of the man’s shoes peeking out from underneath the desk.

Tovarish,” the man said. “The State is kind. the State is just. The State is merciful.”

There were, he noticed, guards on either side of the man, wearing big boots, their weapons trained on him. But he was no danger to anyone right now. He felt no anger, no enmity. This is where he belonged. This was where his long journey had been leading all along.

Paris had come and gone in an instant, and then there was the trip across Germany and Denmark, to Sweden and the Finland station, until finally there was the Rodina, just as Mother had promised, a journey from imprisonment to freedom, from strangers to friends, from foreign lands to home, from hate to love. In Russian, the word Rodina means Motherland.

Moscow was golden. Gold-painted were the walls; though they may be crumbling, they yet retained their honeyed gleam, as if to negate the tawdriness that surrounded them, a passive protest against what Marx and Lenin had wrought, yet fruitless because behind and beyond these walls was dirt and mud and filth and decay. But if you closed your eyes, squinted, the way you looked at the light, and saw the city through a haze of moisture and eyelids and lashes, you could forget the grime and see only the gold.

Mother and he shared the flat with two other families, a crude thing in a district that the authorities ignored as surely as the residents ignored the vermin. In memory it was golden, warm in the winter as all Moscow flats were warm in the long hard winter, fresh and cool in the short hot summer. “Ya podvig sily besprimernoi gotov skryvatsya vam v ugodu,” was what he always told Mother before leaving the flat: “A feat of unexampled strength I am now ready to perform for you.” A quick thrust of the knife and the drunk in the gutter, the man on the sidewalk, the woman in her kitchen, even the miliman directing traffic on the lonely street, had given up their fortunes. He knew the Moscow Metro better than its architects; knew how to disappear down the rabbit hole of its many entrances; knew how to make himself invisible in the motley Soviet crowd. During the attenuated summer days and endless winter nights he would ride the Metro to the end of each line until he could name each of the stations by sound and by smell.

Then they took Mother away from him and the gold disappeared. The next day, they came for him too. There had been one last journey, a very long train ride until he had reached the Island.

Tovarish,” said the man with the plastic shoes. “You will take off your trousers and lie down on the floor. On your back, pazhah’lsta.”

He had seen this before. The prisoner was held down while the man with the boots stepped on his testicles, gently at first and then ever harder, until either the man confessed or his manhood was crushed to powder.

They forced him down, his legs wide apart. The man placed the toe of his plastic shoe on his scrotum and pressed down. “Are you ready to confess your crimes?”

“I am ready,” he said. But he showed no pain, he did not cry or cry out, and after a few minutes even the stupidest man in plastic shoes could tell something was not right.

Then they looked at him more carefully, examined him lying there, spread-eagled on the ground, poking and prodding him and summoning the doctor, who squeezed his empty sack and investigated his rectum with thick, probing fingers, and after that they allowed him to dress. He could hear them talking animatedly in the next room.

“The results of your medical examination are most interesting,” the man said.

“I hope I am well,” he said. “I hope there is nothing wrong with me.”

“Nothing wrong, no, comrade,” said the man. “You are, however, an unusual man. A man, and yet not a man. Man, and yet not man. Man, and yet more than man. It is a mystery, which perhaps your mother can answer.”

“My mother,” he said, and tensed. He always tensed when someone spoke of his Mother. “When will I see her?”

The man put down the piece of paper and looked away from him. This man is going to tell me a lie, he thought, and it will be a lie about Mother.

“Soon,” the man said. “Very soon.”

“I am happy to hear this, comrade,” he said. “I am sometimes lonely in my room, without my mother.” In response, the man tossed back his head and laughed.

In a flash he had crossed over the desk and buried his teeth in the man’s neck. The guards were too slow to stop him, as he knew they would be, and before they could react he had torn out the man’s throat and popped out his eyeballs with his thumbs. They beat him then, of course, beat him into unconsciousness, struck him with their rifle butts and kicked him with their heavy boots, but the blows were like drops of rain, painless, and the oblivion was welcome because, through the haze, he could see Mother, surrounded by the light and smiling at him.

He was awakened by something being shoved down his throat. It was a rubber tube, the narrow end of a kind of baster whose bulbous body was made of rubber. Two of the guards were holding him by the arms while a third was forcing the tube into his mouth. He tried not to swallow the salty liquid, but his stomach filled quickly with warm salt water. Then they put him in the solitary box, a small chamber hacked out of the side of one of the prison’s walls, just barely big enough for a man. It was like being buried alive, and there he stayed for the next twenty-four hours, his stomach burning, his bladder bursting with nowhere to relieve himself but on himself, and when he pissed the salt burned his urethra and almost made him cry out in pain.

Back in the light, it did not occur to him to ask why he was still alive. There was no longer any barrier or border between life and death, no meaningful distinction; he had no love of the former and no fear of the latter. Life brought him closer to Mother, and so he loved his life; death would only take him away from her, and so he loathed it. He would triumph over death, slay the slayer, trample it underfoot. Because death could not kill what had never really lived.

And so he amused himself in his cell, immune to the pangs of loneliness and isolation that corrupted other men. Mother, he knew, was still alive, and as long as she lived he lived too. His life was devoted to her, to the warmth of her body and the radiance of her voice and the gentle stroke of her hand. Were he blind, deaf and dumb, he would yet know Mother. His world had always lay in being close to her, to hearing the soft sounds she made, feeling the warm puff her breath on his face and she bent over him, to touch him, to minister to him, to heal him. For there was no truth but the truth of her flesh; the word was not made flesh; the word was flesh, and he was the word.

Which is why it amused him as well to open his eyes and stare into the light, to see the face of God, which was not so very different, he knew, from the face of Mother. Was God a female? And did it matter? Male and female, He did make them – and some He made both. Which was right, and just. For did not both sexes breathe and defecate and make love? And was not part of every man a woman, and part of every woman a man? Was not the baby in the womb, for a time, a hermaphrodite? Were there not creatures who combined both sexes in one body? And did God not love them equally well? Did God not love him, and Mother? Was he not, as all men were, the son of God?

Still, he knew that women were the supreme beings. And whereas each man was only a man, only one man, each woman was more than a single individual. Each woman was also a part of the great Eternal Feminine, a lone aspect of that sacred Femaleness toward which all men aspired and for which all men longed unto death. There was, in the end, only one Woman, and all women were facets of Her – sacred unto themselves but how much more sanctified by virtue of belonging to the life force that was larger and stronger than any one mortal. Woman was holy, and the font of all holiness. To approach Godhood, one must approach Womanhood. Only God could create; only Woman could give birth. It took a woman to be Mother. Was this not proof that God is Woman?

During his solitary confinement he was no longer permitted any time in the yard, which disappointed him because many amusing things occurred there. Sometimes the men would be mustered to stand, naked and barefoot, in twenty-two-degrees-below-zero-Celsius weather. Floggings with a rubber truncheon were then administered to the most emaciated of prisoners, the weak. The blow would fall across where the buttocks should have been, but that part of the body had long since fallen or rotten away from starvation and pellagra, and so the blow landed on the sciatic nerve, which transmitted the torment directly to the brain. The victims of these beatings would go mad with pain; their fingernails, if they had any left, would snap off at the cuticles as they struggled to clutch the floor, scuttled futilely to escape the blows that were raining down inside of their brains. Then the man would be dragged away, and for the next few days he would shit himself silly, shit himself so hard that the skin of his backside would rip open from the effort, and he would die. After a prisoner was dead they conducted an open-air autopsy, not to discover the cause of death, but to make sure no one was faking. A bayonet through the torso was as effective as a scalpel in determining the presence or absence of life, and if a bayonet was not at hand, then the skull could always be crushed with a hammer or a rock.

It was while he was looking into the light, imagining the life of the world outside, that the door opened and another man appeared. This man’s name, he said, was Herman, and his shoes were no better than the other’s. It must not be a good thing to be an official on the Island; far better to be in the world, even though there the sores of present-day society were especially evident.

Tovarish,” said Herman. “We have much to discuss. Do you know why you are here?”

“Yes, comrade,” he replied. “Because of my crimes.”

“No,” corrected Herman. “For your crimes we should have killed you and then you would not be here. No, tovarish, you are here because of your father.”

“My father,” he said, “is a very great man. Mother tells me so.”

“A very great man – and a very great criminal,” replied the man called Herman. “A very great criminal who comes from a very great family. A weak man, who found strength; a fatuous man who found wisdom; a commonplace man whose cleverness could not be surpassed. A brilliant blackguard, a holy fool – this is your father.”

“My father,” he repeated.

“Your father betrayed us, and by rights we should have liquidated you to atone for his sins. That we did not speaks well of us.”

“Very well of you, tovarish,” he agreed.

“But your father’s family – now that is a different story,” Herman told him. “It is a very great family. All the greater, then, the shame he has brought on them – and upon your mother.”

“My mother,” he said.

“This is why we did not kill you,” explained the man. “Because of your father. And his family. And because of your mother. A feat of unexampled strength you will now perform for us.”

He took instruction well. Pistols, previously a mystery, became his friends, although no mere pistol could ever take the place of his razor or his knife, because with a pistol, although you were close, you were never close enough to really enjoy your work. They made him shoot, sometimes six hours a day, at targets shaped like humans, popping up here and there, this way and that. He learned quickly, and after a month or so he could put down all the figures with one shot apiece, never more. If you could not put down your man with one shot then you were shooting in the wrong place. Some men went for the body because it was bigger and easier to hit, but that did not guarantee a one-shot kill; even if you hit your man directly in the heart, he sometimes could get off a round in return and that round, the one you did not hear and could not see, might be the one with your name on it. So you shot him in the head, because no one could survive a bullet in the brain, a bullet that blew out the side or back of your head, a bullet whose explosive force was so great that when the shell penetrated the skull the head was thrown violently in the other direction, the result of the jet effect of exploding brain matter; it was almost as though your man was coming back toward you, coming back for more, long after he had had more than enough.

He already knew the American and Russian and French languages, but they drilled still more tongues into his head, which was not very difficult because he apprehended speech the same way he apprehended the light, and God, and Mother. There were long hours of lectures about the Party and the Committee, which were boring because it was clear that the men delivering the homilies did not really believe what they were telling him. But they did believe in weapons, and in languages, in the skills he must learn in order to become more perfect, more Godlike, more worthy of his Mother, and so he did too.

And when he was finished, he was brought before the man named Herman once more. “Honor thy mother,” commanded Herman. “Because of her, you live.”

“Because of her, I was given life,” he corrected. “Without her, there is no life.”

“Then you shall have life once more,” said the man. “To me has been given the power of life and death over you. I am the creator, and you are my creature. I am, to you, like God.”

“There is no God,” he reproved. “So you have told me.”

“And you believe us?”

“No,” he said. “But for you to say you are like God makes me want to kill you. No one should have God’s power over me, except my mother.”

Horasho!” exclaimed the man. Both hands came down hard on his desk, and the guards flinched. “You are strong, not weak; brave, not fearful; deft, not dull. How unlike him you are!”

Ya podvig sily besprimernoi gotov skryvatsya vam v ugodu,” he said.

“You are the executioner of God’s judgments,” said Herman. “The instrument of the State. That is what the tattoo we have given you signifies. By this sign shall you be known: and let all men who see know that this is what you are, and let them fear you. Vengeance, retribution, justice – the revenge of the People against the traitor. Henceforth so shall you be known.”

“‘God hears.’ This shall be my name. For I am the son of God. With every death, I partake of God, I become like God. With this death, I shall become God, one with the Mother.”

Horasho! This death…” said Herman.

“The death of my father,” he said.

Herman said: “They will try to stop you. Every man’s hand shall be against you, and yours against every man’s. Ishmael: God hears. So shalt thou be.”

“I will find him, and kill him. For the Rodina. For the Motherland. For my Mother.”

Horasho,” said Herman, for the third time. “There is much anger inside you.”

“And much love.”

“Always remember,” said Herman. “One must never kill in anger, but only in love, as God does.”

“And who better than I,” said Vanya, “knows what love is.”


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