The groom­ing of a KGB as­sas­sin

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Joseph C. Goulden Joseph C. Goulden writes fre­quently on es­pi­onage and mil­i­tary af­fairs.

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.

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