Book Review: The Man with the Poison Gun
by Serhii Plokhy
Basic Books, 2016
Serhii Plokhy, the Harvard professor whose 2015 history of Ukraine, The Gates of Europe, made timely and gripping reading, narrows his focus considerably in his new book, The Man with the Poison Gun. Instead of the broad canvas of history, this is the personal, granular story of one man: KGB assassin Bogdan Stashinsky, the “man” in the book’s title.
The “poison gun” in the title is the remarkable device – if this were a spy novel like the most famous one it inspired, Ian Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun, book critics would inevitably have called it a far-fetched remarkable device – at the heart of Stashinsky’s crimes during the height of the Cold War: a specially-designed gun that fires an ampule of poison up to a body-length from its intended target. The ampule shatters, the victim is exposed to a lethal dose of poison and dies on the spot, but there’s no trauma to the body and no trace left of the poison – anyone investigating the death would attribute it to a heart attack: a perfect trace-free weapon for an assassin, or so Stashinsky’s KGB handlers thought.
In the autumn of 1957, they introduced Stashinsky to his new weapon – and to his new task of murdering people, mostly people connected with the vigorous movement among Ukrainian émigrés dedicated to resisting Soviet domination of their poor beleaguered country. According to Plokhy, the idea of graduating from anonymous spying and parcel-drops to murder was disturbing for Stashinsky:
Stashinsky was confused. He was not a novice in the game of betrayal, and he had experienced brutal life-and-death skirmishes with the insurgents in the woods and mountains of the Carpathians. But he simply could not imagine himself killing an unarmed person. He had been raised a Christian, and some of the values his parents had taught him had stayed with him. At the same time, he was equally convinced he could not turn down the assignment. Once again, he felt trapped – increasingly so as time passed. He spent days and nights trying to find a solution to his moral dilemma. He failed to find one.
Luckily, The Man with the Poison Gun only very occasionally indulges in this kind of wishy-washy villain-sympathizing (the solution to Stashinsky’s “moral dilemma” was as simple as the solution to moral dilemmas always are); the bulk of the book is smart and involving narrative history, every bit as thrilling as the novel-thrillers it so resembles. Despite his “moral dilemma,” Stashinsky does indeed go on to kill unarmed persons, one of whom, Stepan Bandera, was the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. This murder is at the heart of the book, a murder that wasn’t even at first considered a murder by Professor Wolfgang Laves, commissioned with investigating it:
When Frau Bandera and her husband’s associates continued to argue that suicide was hardly possible, given the character of the deceased, Dr. Laves lost his temper. “Then who killed him? A ghost?” he asked his interlocutors, not without condescension. The case seemed closed.
But the case wasn’t closed, and in 1962, a year after Stashinsky defected to the United States, he stood trial for the murder. The dramatic reconstruction of this trial is the climax of Plokhy’s book, and it’s worth the wait even in terms of its unabashed theatrics alone:
When Stashinsky moved on to the descriptions of the actual killing, [Heinrich, the presiding judge] Jagusch asked another of his characteristically brief questions: “What did you do?” “I understood that I could not refuse to carry out the assassination,” responded Stashinsky. “I had to do it!” The tension in the courtroom peaked again. “Some listeners leaned forward, bracing themselves for the impending shock,” wrote [reporter Borys] Vitoshynsky. “No one stirs; there is no whispering to be heard, nor coughing. Five judges in crimson robes, with broad white fronts and bow ties, sit motionless, like sculptures against the background of the front wall, and do not take their eyes off Stashinsky. And he keeps his head down, speaking irregularly, almost in a whisper, and continues his terrible story.”
In 1957, the same year in which Stashinsky murdered his first victim, Graham Greene and Hugh Greene came out with their now-forgotten classic anthology, The Spy’s Bedside Book, which opened with a famous quip by, of all people, Balzac: “The trade of a spy is a very fine one, when the spy is working on his own account. Is it not in fact enjoying the excitements of thief, while still retaining the character of an honest citizen?” Graham Greene particularly had reasons to promulgate such a silly bit of propaganda, since a chunk of his writing livelihood depended on readers believing it. If in his wayward youth Serhii Plokhy was one of those readers and never quite shook the yearning to believe that somebody could murder people for money and still have a soul, that might explain the exculpatory feel of much of The Man with the Poison Gun. And regardless of how it portrays its central character, the book positively leaps with storytelling energy; as another veteran of the spy-thriller genre used to comment, “If people knew how interesting the real stories were, they’d never buy my [dubious fictional versions] again.”