Serhii Plokhy is the author of the new book The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story. It focuses on Bogdan Stashinsky, a Cold War-era spy who worked for the KGB as an assassin and was put on trial in 1962 after defecting. Plokhy's other books include The Last Empire and The Gates of Europe. He is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, and he directs Harvard's Ukrainian Research Institute. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.
Q: How did you learn about Bogdan Stashinsky, and why did you decide to write a book about him?
A: It was in the early 1990s. I was in Ukraine, and I came across excerpts from the 1962 court proceedings. It was the early post-Soviet time, and from my perspective, that meant judges showed how the Soviet system worked—it was more than espionage, killings, attempts to influence foreign policy, but the internal situation in the Soviet Union and the control the KGB had.
It was a revelation on many levels. I had doubts that what [Stashinsky] was telling was actually what the events were—he was able to do it on his own without support, there were conspiracy theories, there were questions that remained unanswered. Today, the materials one can consult triggered interest in [the topic].
Q: So the new material made it possible to take the research further?
A: Yes—in Ukraine in the past few years, the KGB archives are more open, it’s easier to work with them. I was able to find new materials that corroborated the story, from the KGB and the CIA side. It’s a dream come true for any historian.
Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most?
A: The core was the proceedings of the trial, where the story was told. The idea was to look at whether it was true, and [place] it in a broader context of the Cold War. Today people have to be reminded of what that was—that was the task, placing it into Cold War history from Washington to Bonn to Moscow.
The killing and the revelation that came after had international repercussions. It changed the way clandestine war was waged by the KGB, and the impact was huge on the situation in Western Germany, when Nazi criminals were put on trial, they were trying to use the Stashinsky defense, an accessory to murder rather than perpetrators.
That was the context, the broader impact of what happened, the result of the assassination going public.
Q: So can you say more about the legacy of Stashinsky’s actions, and the impact on the Cold War?
A: He was able to convince judges and the public that the order to kill two leaders of a radical Ukrainian [organization] came from the top of the Soviet Party apparatus. In 1962, it was the height of Cold War tensions, and he was testifying it was the head of the KGB [who was involved].
[At the same time] the head of the KGB was promoted—he became the head of the Central Committee, Aleksandr Shelepin. He was the main rival of Brezhnev. Once they removed Khrushchev in 1964, people believed Brezhnev [was temporary] and Shelepin was the real power behind the throne.
He linked [this leader] with potential killings, and it caused an international scandal and tarnished the image of Nikita Khrushchev, [who was presenting] himself as a promoter of peace. Now there was [the idea] that the Soviet Union used the same methods as in Stalin’s time.
The Soviets recalled many of their officers in the KGB headquarters in Berlin, and the regime considered them responsible for allowing an assassin to escape to the West.
We knew from statements made after the fall of the Soviet Union that they ended the practice of killing opponents of the regime abroad.
There were exceptions. Bogdan Stashinsky ended up on the KGB hit list as a traitor, but the practice was limited in scope…The U.S. followed in the same vein, in the late 1970s with the Church report…
At the time [of Stashinsky’s trial] Ian Fleming wrote novels about James Bond. He was unique because he had a license to kill. That was accepted as the norm. Whether it was British, German, Soviet, American, not everyone had a license to kill but it was part of the toolbox. That started to change with the Stashinsky trial.
Q: I was going to ask you about James Bond! How was your book’s title chosen, and how do you see this story fitting in with the James Bond Cold War spy culture of that era?
A: I’m writing in the book that the Stashinsky trial, in October 1962, was taking place immediately before the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also only one week after the release of the first James Bond movie.
The coincidence was there, but there’s more than that linking my story with James Bond and Ian Fleming. In the last book, The Man with the Golden Gun, the opening scene is James Bond coming back from the Soviet Union where he was brainwashed, and trying to kill his boss in the British intelligence service.
He uses a Stashinsky [weapon], a spray pistol loaded with cyanide. The boss knew what was coming, and was equipped with a glass screen. So the screen falls from the ceiling between him and Bond, and vaporized the liquid shot at him, which ends up on the glass. The scene didn’t make it into the movie.
It comes from the transcripts of the Stashinsky trial. There’s a very direct connection there. I modeled the title on the title of Ian Fleming’s book to acknowledge the connections and point the reader to that we are dealing with the history of the Cold War era.
Q: You write that in some ways, “the Stashinsky story is more than a piece of history. It is also an insight into the present and forewarning for the future.” What do you see looking ahead?
A: Historians knew about the Stashinsky assassinations, there were two of those, but the general public forgot about that…
When for the first time the Stashinsky name comes back, it’s after the assassination of a former KGB agent in Britain, Alexander Litvinenko. There was an exhaustive British investigation and it pointed at the Kremlin. There were some parallels there.
The spokesperson for the successor of the KGB mentioned Stashinsky’s name, and said it had nothing to do with Litvinenko, that they stopped killings after Stashinsky. It was the first official acknowledgment on the part of the KGB that Stashinsky was a KGB agent and the killing was [on orders] from Moscow. It put Stashinsky back in the news.
It was around the time a candidate in the Ukrainian election, Victor Yushchenko, was poisoned with dioxin. It was impossible to figure out how [it happened]. People were discussing the possibility of Moscow being engaged and getting out the old Cold War playbook.
Here in the U.S, it is now less prominent, but a few years ago we had discussions of drones and the use of targeted killings with al Qaeda and [now with] ISIS….
We have a return of international tensions and many people are discussing the return of the Cold War....the issue of assassinations is being discussed in relation to two former Cold War rivals.
Q: So what are you working on now?
A: A number of projects. The one I expect will appear in the fall—the title is Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation. It is a very different kind of history from The Man with the Poison Gun, which is focused on one person. Here, it’s [hundreds of] years of history.
The idea is to try to understand what happens now with Russia and around Russia, and explain the war in Ukraine. Putin keeps saying Russians and Ukrainians are the same people—the argument I’m making is it’s not only that the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union is not over, the process of making the Russian nation is not over.
There’s confusion over where Russia starts and ends, not only as an imperial power but as a modern nation.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The only thing is that the book is available in an audio format, with a wonderful artist reading the book, who does it very well. Those who don’t have time to read can listen!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Serhii Plokhy, please click here.