Complementing my interviews, today’s Author Spotlight, the two hundred and eighty-eighth, is of memoirist and interviewee Yvonne Bornstein. If you would like to take part in an author spotlight, take a look at author-spotlights.
Yvonne Bornstein, author of “Eleven Days of Hell, A terrifying True Story of Kidnap, Torture and dramatic rescue by the FBI and KGB” wrote her new book because she was compelled to. It took her twelve years to get far enough past the trauma of her kidnapping, torture and rescue to be able to relay her story. It was in January of 1992 that Bornstein, a wife, mother of two, and businesswoman, found herself caught up in the political disintegration of the Soviet Union. The KGB was disbanded, and many of its operatives moved into the shady underbelly of criminal society. Capitalism was taking hold and new business ventures were springing up between the international business community and the newly monetarily motivated Russian. It is against this backdrop that Yvonne and then husband Daniel Weinstock found themselves caught. Under the auspices of a deal gone bad, the couple was kidnapped, tortured and held for $1.6 US ransom.
Bornstein was born in Perth, Western Australia in 1955 where she spent the first 20 of her life. She married in1976. A nasty divorce took place four years later.
A subsequent engagement ended several months before her wedding when her fiancé was murdered during a robbery that took place in the driveway while Yvonne looked on from inside the home they shared. After almost 7 years, she met the charismatic young widower, Daniel Weinstock with whom she fell in love and soon married. She became a successful businesswoman jointly operating the couples lucrative international barter trade business. The expansion of the business took them to Russia. It is this part of Yvonne’s life that is the basis of her book.
Sadly, the postscript of the kidnapping was the break-up of Yvonne’s marriage to Daniel Weinstock, they became two people isolated in their own fear. Today, Yvonne Bornstein lives in Australia.
And now from the author herself:
Eleven Days Of Hell
My book tells the story of 11 days out of my lifetime, 11 days of terrible events, frozen fear, unimaginable degradation and constant anticipation. And yet, at the risk of sounding flippant, I can honestly say that the thought of writing this book was just as terrifying, in its own way. Actually, the thought of writing any book would be a challenge for me on the order of climbing Mt. Everest. I would hardly describe myself as a shrinking violet – talking about myself has never been as easy as going out and being myself. I’ve done many things, admirable and otherwise, but it has only been recently that I’ve been able to learn what’s inside me that makes me, well, me.
My book posed an enormous challenge, one much more stringent than merely scaling Everest. It required that I look back at things I had pushed hard out of my memory, never again wishing them to come back in. It also forced me to look so deeply inside of me that it felt like I was performing surgery on myself. Imagine excavating your own liver and you’ll get the point, and a very painful point, I might add. Only in my case, I wasn’t aiming at my liver but something more vulnerable – my innermost feelings.
In the same way that my ordeal of terror had a happy ending, I am pleased to say the operation went quite well, thank you. Both patient and surgeon are doing fine, in the end writing all of these pages seemed to have exorcised the pain, if I may be so trite. It was no picnic, but to have gotten through the whole book is the dessert, the Pavlova pie. It really tastes delicious!
Not that I am pronouncing myself completely cured of the residual fear with which I have lives.
Far from it. The old saying that goes, “Time heals all wounds.” It’s not true, at least not for me. Some wounds can never heal. Some are too intimate, too brutal, too dehumanizing. That is why it took 12 years for me to even attempt to write my story. Many times during those years I tried another form of self-surgery, using a home lobotomy kit to numb my memories and feelings. However, there could never have been enough anaesthetic to fully numb myself, and not enough brick and mortar in the world to build a wall high enough around the memories. If I pat myself on the back for writing a whole book, that same patting hand will still tremble when I awake from a nightmare in a cold sweat, as I do often.
Reliving those terrible 11 days with pen in hand is one thing; reliving them involuntarily in a dreamlike state and not knowing if it’s real and happening all over again is quite another. Dealing with them – and the unyielding fear that I’m still in danger, that people are lying in wait for me around the next corner – is what psychiatrists get paid for. I know. I’ve paid enough of them. If I can walk alone outside in the glorious sunshine and smile, if I can laugh or spend time with my beautiful children, it’s a good day. A very good day.
There are more of them now. In a very real sense, writing the book was a form of therapy, though I take no credit for understanding that beforehand.
One consequence of those events had been the collapse of my previous marriage to Daniel Weinstock. Danny, like me, is a native Australian. Together, we built up a thriving global-wide commodity barter/trade business. We were one of the very few Australian companies to do business in Russia, both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. If you are not familiar with this shadowy occupation, the pages of my book will open up your eyes. Suffice it to say, we sometimes bent the rules of business and ethics and partnered up with shady characters that we could never really trust.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, we fell into a spider’s web of Russian villains that included underworld gangsters, defrocked KGB agents, and half-crazed gypsies from freshly-minted Russian republics given their freedom in the early 1990s. Those who are familiar with post-Iron Curtain events may know the particularly bloody history of one such republic, Chechnya, where bloodthirsty nationalist rebels evolved into the monsters we know today as al-Qaeda. Although my husband and I knew little of this developing history at the time, we may have been known to them. In the early ‘90s, terrorist “sleepers” began to practice methods of financing their bloody deeds by kidnapping and extorting Western business people.
Like us, most people had never heard of the sinister group until after that tragic and horrendous September 11th morning of 2001. It certainly surprised – shocked is a better Word – that I may well have been a seminal target of opportunity for Osama bin Laden.
When Bob Woodward, the reporter who blew the lid off the Watergate scandal so long ago, came out with his inside account of the march to war against Iraq,
Plan of Attack, I read with great fascination that the Bush administration’s Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz entertained the theory that today’s terrorists are linked to remnants of old Iron Curtain spy operatives, and that unnamed “heads of state” had warned him specifically that al-Qaeda may be working with ex-KGB officers. No offense Mr. Wolfowitz, but I already knew that, having been victimized by those conjoined forces of evil.
I can only imagine how many other unfortunate Western business people have been caught in that frightful nexus and suffered a similar – and, sadly, worse fate than I.
For this reason, I live with the fear that the saga did not end, and will not end until the people who kidnapped me finish the job. I have been told that those al-Qaeda sleepers have long memories and an unquenchable thirst for revenge; that once they start something, they will complete it, no matter how many years it takes. I suppose I will forever have that fear. I must live my life in spite of it.
My book will open your eyes about many things, including the utter breakdown of anything resembling law and order in Russia in the years since the fall of Communism – an ironic consequence indeed, given the wide-eyed expectation of a free and democratic society when the Wall came tumbling down. I hope that one of the enlightening elements in my book is presenting this under-reported story, which serves as a critical backdrop to my own.
All of the diverse and terrifying conditions that surrounded our business and the Devolution of Russian society coalesced for me on January 6, 1992, minutes after landing at the airport in Moscow, commencing what would be seemingly endless physical and mental torture by swarthy, greasy men obviously hired to carry out a very detailed plot of abduction and ransom – in our case, $1.6 million. As much as I try, I cannot wash away the faces of those men. They were like masks of death. Worse, I cannot wash away their smell. It is a stench I will never be able to forget.
In a page-one article in The New York Times dated January 18, 1992, the drama was described, aptly, as something out of the novel Gorky Park, while the always-colorful Australian tabloids played the story with headlines such as, “TORTURE HELL IN MOSCOW” and “TERRIFIED TWO THRASHED BY GIPSY SADISTS.” For Danny and me, unaware of the entertainment value of the abduction, there was only one thing that mattered – survival.
Only in later years did I become fascinated and riveted by the breadth of the story.
Thus, I have gone to great lengths to reconstruct and retrace the steps and the players of the rescue mission I had no idea was even going on at the time. This task required much research that included personal interviews with many people, some merely remotely involved with the case. The filing of the Freedom of Information Act requests that initially were met with stalling or outright refusals. Finally, I was allowed to see the sheaf of documents attendant to my case, albeit some had pages with so many sentences stricken by big black strokes of Magic Marker that almost nothing was left to read. Even so, the clues they provided were priceless.
I should say a few words about the structure of the text, lest anyone gets confused. My part in the story is related in a first-person narrative. However, there were events I was not part of and therefore did not see occurring; these, as well as some necessary speculation about why those events occurred, how they evolved, and what the motivations of certain people were, are set in italics with descriptive subheads. Certain events centering on Danny I learned about only later, from Danny, and I am indebted to him for reliving the story along with me.
I should also point out that the names of some of the characters in the book have been changed for legal reasons. The fact is, certain people simply prefer that their identities not be revealed in a book, and the nature of this book justifies such a concern. Some who committed crimes were, for reasons to be seen, never convicted, or given light sentences without having to own up to the full extent of their crimes. Others committed crimes of omission, failing to prevent crimes they saw. These people, who know who they are, live with private guilt. Still others realize the bloodthirsty nature of the people who kidnapped Danny and me, and the sense of retribution they harbor. While I gratefully thank the characters who gave their permission to be identified, I wish to see no one to become a target of vengeance. Indeed, I share the same fear, every day of my life. However, I want to stress that the factual veracity of the story has not been compromised. Every other detail has been scrupulously verified.
Although I did survive, my life would break into pieces. Fortunately, the pieces were put back together. Part of my method was to tell me, in no uncertain terms, to forget about my self-pity and confront my devils head-on, and to appreciate how good it is to be alive so I could finally drive on down the road instead of spinning my wheels in the mud.
In challenging myself and in creating my own growth, I hope that others – especially women who read my book – can grow as well, through me. One lesson of my story is this currently-in-vogue notion of women’s self-empowerment. For me, that’s just a fancy way of saying we can do anything, survive anything, and come away more complete.
Never did I believe I could be as strong on the inside as I turned out to be. I may have thought I was, but deep down I didn’t really believe it. Now I do.
Maybe the best thing I can say about myself is that at least I’m up to climbing Everests now. So I hope you’ll pardon me if you pass me on the street and you hear me shouting encouragement to myself. All I really would like you to know about me is that the person behind the words on these pages is a lucky and grateful ducky from Down Under who can say she has lived many lifetimes already – and hopefully has several more patiently waiting their turn, And wait they’ll have to do.
For me, it’s not one day at a time but one lifetime at a time.
The defining moment of my life came on that bleak morning in 1992 when I fully believed I was about to die, and prepared myself for death to come. As it turned out, that was the moment when I had just begun to live.
You can find more about Yvonne and her writing via… her website: http://www.yvonnebornstein.com.
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