A Gun to Your Head: Inside Post-Soviet Interrogation Rooms

Donald Weber—VII
Donald Weber—VII
Interrogations Series, 2011

In academic and literary criticism, the verb “to interrogate” is often a neutral term, stripped of its more violent, forceful resonance. But in Donald Weber’s new book, Interrogations, itself an “interrogation” of the way state power plays out across stretches of Eastern Europe, the Canadian photographer seeks to show the brutality and helplessness that undergirds almost all societies.

The images above are scenes from interrogation rooms, the product of seven years of exploring Russia and the Ukraine and befriending and winning the trust of ordinary police officers. They are stark and bleak. Detained suspects sit slumped in empty rooms, their faces stretched in terror, shame and resignation. A teenager under suspicion of shoplifting bursts into tears; when his interrogation goes wrong, a supposed car thief finds himself pinioned to the table, his hands limply warding against a gun pointed down on his skull.

Weber says the scenes are not out of the ordinary. The interrogations are conducted by officers who are “respected in their departments,” he says. “They rose through the ranks and did the job required. What I think is so powerful is that this is not a rogue set of cops. This is standard practice, it is what it is. It’s the utter terror of a wayward bureaucracy.”

On one level, that’s an indictment of the ethical vagaries of policing in post-Soviet countries. But on another, Weber is illustrating—dramatically, to be sure—how state power essentially functions the world over. French philosopher Louis Althusser famously placed the moment we recognize our subservience to the authority of a state in a street scene where one is confronted by a police officer. The officer, writes Althusser, shouts: “‘Hey, you there!’… Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject.”

That subjection—that subjugation—is all too apparent in the suspects Weber photographs. Even in full-fledged, mature democracies, one still feels a kind of nakedness when in the crosshairs of the law, a vulnerability that can only be mitigated after the fact by norms of due process and habeas corpus. Says Weber: “This is work not about Ukraine or Russia or even the former Soviet Union, but instead a way to see the modern State as a primitive and sacrificial rite.”

That’s a particularly dark interpretation of how power gets wielded and realized, but it’s echoed in public opinion polls throughout the post-Soviet world. Twenty years since the fall of Communism, a significant majority of people in Ukraine and Russia have lost faith in both the promise of free-market capitalism as well as multiparty democracy. This disillusionment with politics has much to do with disgust at what some say are kleptocratic, domineering elites in both countries. But it also indicates a deeper gloominess: the sense perhaps that, whatever the dominant ideology of the day, there’s always the prospect of the interrogation room, and the grim, subterranean power that it holds over of us.

Interrogations was published this month by Schilt Publishing. Weber’s series recently won first place at the World Press Photo awards in the Portraits—Stories category.

Ishaan Tharoor writes for TIME and is editor of Global Spin. You can find him on Twitter at ishaantharoor

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