Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review of The Man With the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy (Oneworld, 2016)

In the late 1950s two leading Ukrainian nationalist leaders were murdered in Munich. Both deaths baffled the nationalist groups and West German police. In the fall of 1961, just before the Berlin wall was erected, Bogdan Stashinsky and his East German wife skipped the funeral of their baby and made a dash into West Berlin. Stashinsky headed to the local CIA headquarters and claimed he was a KGB assassin who had murdered Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera using a secret poison gun. The Americans were suspicious that he might be a plant and passed him over to their West German colleagues. Slowly, Stashinsky, also a Ukrainian forced to work for the KGB, persuaded the police that he was who he said he was, and that he had murdered his compatriots. The subsequent trial placed the Soviet Union on trial as much as Stashinsky and the result had long term implications – Stashinsky was effectively deemed a puppet, with the real murderers those who controlled him, creating a legitimate new legal defence for Nazi war criminals; the KGB was forced to change its policy of overseas political assassination; there was a reshuffle at the top of the Soviet political system, with Aleksandr Shelepin’s career cut short; and the plight of Ukrainian nationalist movement was highlighted.

Serhii Plokhy’s book traces the life of Bogdan Stashinsky, particularly from his entrapment recruitment by the KGB through to his disappearance after his short prison stay post-trial. It’s a factual account that tries to cut through all the misinformation about Stashinsky created by the Ukrainian nationalists, the KGB and East Germans, especially at the time of the trial, when the Cold War propaganda machine went into overdrive. While it does seek to provide an objective view, it is also a largely sympathetic account of a man trying to survive inside the KGB and Soviet system that had a habit of severely punishing its own members for supposed and real transgressions. Usefully, it provides an everyday account of Soviet spycraft, Cold War relations between East and West, and the fragmented overseas Ukrainian nationalist movement that sought to highlight the plight of captive nations of the Soviet Union. It is only towards the end that books drifts to speculation given that what became of Stashinsky after prison is publicly unknown. I found it a fascinating read, especially given the present context of strained relations between the Ukraine and Russia.

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