A Cold War assassin who used a poison spray gun inspired Ian Fleming's last book, finds Lewis Jones
The title of Serhii Plokhy’s new book echoes that of Ian Fleming’s last and feeblest James Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, published posthumously in 1965. Fleming’s story opens with Bond, presumed dead after his last duel with Blofeld, turning up in London, brainwashed by the KGB to assassinate M with a “curious sort of contraption” that shoots a poisonous liquid.
Plokhy points out that, before Bond tries to kill him, M mentions the recent murders of “Horcher and Stutz” in Munich. Fleming must have had in mind the 1962 trial of Bogdan Stashinsky, a KGB assassin, for the murders in Munich of two of his fellow Ukrainians – Lev Rebet, a journalist, and Stepan Bandera, the leader of the nationalist underground – with just such a device.
The man with the golden gun was Francisco Scaramanga, who grew up in a Catalan travelling circus, as the mahout of Max the elephant. When Max went berserk in Italy, the carabinieri killed him with such upsetting brutality that Scaramanga ran away from the circus to become a paranoiac fetishist and the world’s most feared assassin. The subject of The Man with the Poison Gun is a more prosaic figure – his career began with dodging a train fare – but really a more interesting one.
Plokhy writes rather badly, and tells us that M’s “true name remains a secret to us”, which does not inspire confidence when Bond himself names him as Admiral Sir Miles Messervy. But as a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, Plokhy knows his stuff, and his account of Bogdan Stashinsky’s life brims with skulduggery. The Stashinskys were peasants near Lviv, and keen patriots, supporters of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). As a student in 1945, Stashinsky was caught dodging a train fare, and passed to a secret policeman who presented him with a choice: 25 years in prison and the exile of his parents to Siberia, or inform on the OUN.
In 1951, Stashinsky betrayed the leader of his local OUN cadre, and in the purge that followed his family was spared. But they now knew that he was an informer, and wanted no more to do with him. Having “saved his family by betraying it”, he became a salaried agent of the NKVD, precursor of the KGB, and in 1954 he was posted to East Berlin.
After a few years following Ukrainian émigrés, he was presented with a poison gun. In 1957, having tested it on a dog, which tried to lick his hand and which he could not bear to look at, he smuggled the gun to the West, hidden in a tin of sausages, and used it to kill Lev Rebet. Two years later, he was summoned to Moscow, issued with an improved spray pistol and told to assassinate Stepan Bandera. At the last minute, he changed his mind. Moscow ordered him to try again, and in October 1959 he killed Bandera in the hall of his apartment building. Stashinsky was recommended by Khruschev, who had fought the “Banderites” in the Ukraine, for the Order of the Red Banner of Valour.
In 1960, Stashinsky married Inge Pohl, an East German hairdresser, and they were given a KGB flat in Moscow. Inge was appalled by the drunkenness, poverty and squalor of Moscow – she called the lavatories a “public tragedy” – and convinced Stashinsky that there was no difference between the KGB and the Gestapo. She persuaded him to defect, which they eventually managed in Berlin, hours before the border was closed on 12 August 1961.
Stashinsky surrendered to the CIA, but his stories about spray pistols not only sounded suspicious but made no sense at all. After a few weeks, the CIA in Frankfurt decided that he had no operational value and handed him over to the police. Prison was now his only alternative to liquidation by the Russians, so he had to convince the West German court of his guilt. For much of his double-murder trial, it looked as though he would receive two life sentences, but towards its end his actions were set in the historical context of Soviet policy towards the Ukraine, and it became clear that the real criminals were the Russian government. He was sentenced to eight years.
Stashinsky was released in 1967, and his whereabouts remained mysterious until 1984, when a former head of BOSS, the South African security service, told a newspaper that the West Germans had requested asylum for him in South Africa, as the only country in the world where he would be safe from the KGB.
The Man with the Poison Gun balances its cloak-and-dagger element with historical insight. Stashinsky’s case had profound legal implications. Since the Nuremberg trials, the West German courts had rejected the “only obeying orders” defense, but in accepting that Stashinsky was merely an accessory to murder, they reversed that policy, and invented a new avenue of defense for Nazi criminals – the “Stashinsky defense” – which was used in the 1965 Auschwitz trial. Plokhy also argues that Bandera’s murder was counterproductive for Russia, as it “removed a leader who was no longer popular or dangerous… turning him into a martyr”. His name was paraded on banners by protesters in Maidan Square in Kiev in 2014.
Western intelligence agencies never suffered the embarrassment caused to the KGB by the Stashinsky affair because, while the Soviets used their own service to assassinate those they regarded as their citizens, the Americans outsourced such killings to “freelancers”. Russia has continued that tradition, argues Plokhy. He points to the 2006 poisoning of Aleksandr Litvinenko in London, which a report this year concluded was “probably approved” by Nikolai Patrushev (head of the FSB) and Vladimir Putin.