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Search For Truth

by A. Maureen Rouhi
February 18, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 7

On page 47 is the extraordinary story of a life-changing encounter with history.

In the early 1960s, Marvin W. Makinen was imprisoned for espionage in Vladimir Prison, in the Soviet Union, for more than two years after taking photos of the Soviet military on behalf of U.S. intelligence services. Much of the time, he was in solitary confinement. He subsequently was interned in a labor camp. After his release in 1963, Makinen earned an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 and a D.Phil. from Oxford University in 1976. He joined the University of Chicago in 1974 and is now a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Makinen’s life took the normal course of a successful academic scientist, until one day in 1980, when he chanced upon a story about Raoul Wallenberg, a name unfamiliar to him then. The Swedish diplomat saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from annihilation in Auschwitz. What happened after he was detained in 1945 by the Soviets is unknown. The Soviets claim he died of a heart attack in Lubyanka Prison, in Moscow, in 1947. But Wallenberg sightings were reported long after 1947, and Makinen recalls hearing from two prison cellmates about a Swedish prisoner named “van den Berg” having been held at Vladimir Prison. Makinen has since dedicated himself to finding the truth about Wallenberg’s fate. Among other activities, he and a colleague, using records from Russian archives, analyzed the occupancy of Vladimir Prison’s cells to corroborate a retired prison employee’s identification of Wallenberg from unpublished photographs as a prisoner in solitary confinement.

“Solitary confinement can be very disorienting at first,” Makinen tells me. “The important matter is to keep a schedule and habits that keep one’s behavior from deteriorating.” For example, he made a point of eating slowly “the watery soup (mostly fish bones, a small amount of fish meat, and often fish eyes floating on top), kapusta (coarse cabbage salad), or watery mashed potatoes (occasionally there was a small piece of pork), even though I was generally ravenous.” He would divide for three meals the 200-g ration of black Russian bread he received daily, but sometimes he couldn’t wait and ate the rest by midafternoon. “That brought about a feeling of being very dehumanized,” he says. “That is the beginning of deterioration of behavior.”

Telling about his imprisonment “has been a slow, gradual process,” Makinen says. To explain how slow, he recalls that in his fourth year of medical school, he mentioned something trivial about Vladimir Prison to a good friend and classmate of three years. The friend, Makinen says, “turned to me and said, ‘Marvin, you have never mentioned anything about that before.’ That is the nature of this process. In modern terminology, it is called posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Regarding Wallenberg, Makinen says: “I have to consider myself a witness to his imprisonment. The claim of his death in 1947 is simply false and is full of contradictions. Wallenberg’s arrest and subsequent incarceration is surely one of the most egregious crimes of the last century.”

Furthermore, Makinen says that his work regarding Wallenberg is consistent with his life after imprisonment. He tried to find relatives of prisoners he met in labor camp, he says. And when relatives of prisoners came to him for help, whether he knew the prisoners or not, he always gave as much information as he could. Makinen even helped obtain the release of one prisoner through the human rights organization Amnesty International.

The search for Wallenberg is currently “on hold,” Makinen says, until he and others can go back to work in the Russian archives. “Of course, I want to find the complete history and the truth. Both the Swedish and Russian governments are responsible for Wallenberg’s fate. Sweden has not been forceful enough at critical times to demand information and to help extricate him. Also, the Soviet and Russian governments are clearly responsible. To me, it is a very interesting question why Sweden has been so lacking in demanding to learn the truth. What is the government hiding?”

Professor Makinen, we wish you success in your search for the truth.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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