The grooming of a KGB assassin
THE MAN WITH THE POISON GUN: A COLD WAR SPY STORY By Serhii Plokhy Basic Books, $28.98, 384 pages
One of the longest-running bully-boy relationships in Europe is that of Russia and an oft-victimized Ukraine. Portions of Ukraine previously controlled by Poland were seized by the USSR as a spoil-of-war under the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, and retained in the post-war period.
But proud Ukrainian nationalists resisted Soviet rule, led by a fierce (if divided) resistance. The Soviets responded with massive troop deployments that killed an estimated 100,000 “bandits” from 1944-46. The leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Stepan Bandera, was driven into refuge in Munich, Germany, where he called for an independent state. In a show of strength, he also arranged the assassination of Yaroslav Halan, a pro-Soviet Ukrainian.
An outraged Joseph Stalin ordered retaliation. His chosen instrument to direct revenge was underling Nikita Khrushchev, then the party boss in Ukraine.
Thus began the transformation of Bogdan Stashinsky, a 19-year-old resident of a small village near Lviv, into one of the KGB’s deadliest assassins. His story is told in a gripping work by Serhii Plokhy that is rich in the tradecraft with which Stalin’s killers stalked opponents — as a matter of state policy. Mr. Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, has written extensively on the country.
Stashinsky fell into hands of a predecessor of the KGB through accident. Detained for avoiding a small train fare, he was given a choice: jail for him and family members, or the secret police. He was ordered to penetrate a resistance group and finger the man who killed Halan. He succeeded, but came under local suspicion as an informer. He was pulled out for extensive tradecraft training and routine spy assignments in West Germany.
Then came a quantum jump: Stashinsky was tasked with murdering Lev Rebet, a Bandera rival In exile politics. He was introduced to a sophisticated new weapon: “a metal cylinder, eight inches long and less than an inch in diameter.” The cylinder contained an ampoule with liquid. When the trigger was pressed, a striker set off by a gunpowder charge hit the ampoule with poison, spraying the face of the target. The poison caused immediate unconsciousness and swift death; it would evaporate without a trace.
To his credit, Stashinsky balked at the assignment. Raised a Christian, he “could not imagine himself killing an unarmed person.” But he felt he had no choice. And he used the “poison gun” to murder Rebet, in 1957. Stashinsky next was ordered to kill Bandera — which he did, in an elevator lobby of his apartment building.
The Bandera killing gave Stashinsky’s KGB career a major boost. He was based permanently in Moscow for intensive training to work under-cover in Europe. He met regularly with such big-wigs as Aleksandr Shelepin, KGB chair at age 40, a riser in the Kremlin hierarchy.
But romance intervened. Stashinsky married an East German woman, and the couple experienced the cultural shock of life in Moscow — crammed housing, food shortages, filth everywhere, a sordid existence by every measure.
Their disillusionment was so deep that in 1961 they fled to West Berlin. Stashinsky approached the CIA station, which passed him on to West German security. Authorities there insisted on putting him on trial for murder, with the goal of a life sentence.
Unsurprisingly, the loudest cries for vengeance came from Bandera supporters. One journalist decried Stashinsky as “the degenerate who will go down in history as a personification of baseness.”
But Stashinsky’s testimony was damning to the Soviet leadership. The murder apparatus he described went all the way to the top — to Premier Khrushchev and the KGB’s Shelepin. Stashinsky made a convincing argument that he joined KGB under duress not of free will. And he defected because “it was my duty somehow to make up for my misdeed and try to warn people against anything of the kind.” He admitted his guilt, but asked that the court “be guided more by considerations of mercy than of law.”
Stashinsky contended that his experience displayed the realities of “peaceful coexistence” that marked Soviet foreign policy.
His plea succeeded. He was sentenced to six years. As events worked out, Stashinsky served only three years. Subsequent press reports said CIA spirited him to the U.S. to protect him from vengeful KGB assassins. Mr. Plokhy, who had access to CIA archives, found no such involvement by Washington.
In fact, Stashinsky found refuge in South Africa, whose polyglot population made anonymity easier, and whose security agency, BOSS, could make life safe for him.
With Russian assassins once again on the roam as part of Vladimir Putin’s attempt to regain former Soviet holdings, including Ukraine, Stashinsky’s story, although more than half a century old, is a grim reminder of the institutional criminality that continues to pervade in Moscow.