History is more thrilling than a spy novel

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  The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy, Basic Books, US $28.99,   Pp 384 , December 2016, ISBN 978-0465035908

KGB assassin Bogdan Stashinsky’s defection to West German in the fall of 1961, forced KGB to change its modus operandi abroad and led to the end of the career of Aleksandr Shelepin, one of the most ambitious and dangerous Soviet leaders. In The Man with the Poison Gun, Serhii Plokhy says that Stashinsky’s escape to the West, and his readiness to reveal what he knew about the Soviet assassination program, severely damaged the credibility of the Soviet leadership and tarnished the image of the Soviet Union abroad. The assassin’s testimony and the public relations disaster that followed – risks involved in any government-backed assassination – were ultimately the result of major blunders on the part of the Soviet security apparatus in East Berlin and a breach of established Soviet practice of forbidding intelligence officers and agents to marry foreign nationals. Stashinsky’s story inspired films, plays, and books that included Ian Fleming’s last James Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun.

Plokhy, who is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard and author of nine books, says that when it comes to the use of the poison gun, Stashinsky succeeded where Bond failed. But the Stashinsky saga, its popular culture incarnations notwithstanding, presents a classic example of the failure of assassination as a tool of international policy. Although the assassins fulfilled his task, the murders themselves failed to achieve their ultimate goal, and on becoming public knowledge, they did major damage to the masterminds behind them.

The Western spy agencies running assassination programs never experienced the embarrassment that befell the Soviet agencies during the Stashinsky trial. Plokhy argues that this was primarily because despite what the James Bond novels and movies suggest, in reality, such killings were largely outsourced to free-lancers, quite often common criminals. The Western services supplied only the targeting and planning, finances, and logistical support. If the Soviets generally went after leaders of émigré groups whom they considered citizens of the Soviet Union, the Americans stayed away from their own citizens and targeted foreigners. This was a significant difference between the political cultures of the two Cold War superpowers. In the traditions of the tzar, the Soviets believed that people like Bandera, who may never have been Soviet citizens but were born on territory later acquired by the Soviet Union, were their subjects and thus legitimate targets for assassination.

Plokhy’s meticulously researched book is a very important addition to the literature on espionage. Plokhy’s scholarship as a historian remains unmatched. It is written so beautifully that it is more breathtaking and thrilling than any thrilling spy novel. Plokhy has shed light on some unexplored corners of Soviet-America rivalry during the cold war. Reviewed by Jonathan T. Rich