In the summer of 1950, Soviet police arrested a young Ukrainian man for riding a train without paying the fare. Just over a decade later, the same man was found guilty of committing two political assassinations for the KGB. His trial in a Western court after his defection became an ideological battleground as journalists, governments, and intelligence agencies crafted competing narratives from the contested facts of the two killings. One detail about the crimes was undisputed: Both murders were committed with a gun that sprayed cyanide into the face of the victim, causing cardiac arrest.
These killings and the political machinations that inspired them are the subject of Serhii Plokhy’s fascinating new book, “The Man With the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story.’’ Plokhy, a Harvard specialist in Russian and Ukrainian history, pieced his story together from trial transcripts, recently declassified CIA files, KGB and Polish archives, and memoirs and interviews of former KGB officers. The resulting yarn has all the drama of a political thriller — tense escapes across international borders, targeted murders, plots, and counterplots implicating officials at the highest levels of various governments.
The 19-year-old student arrested for not buying a train ticket was named Bogdan Stashinsky. He was traveling home to visit family in the countryside in western Ukraine — an area where the underground resistance movement was quite active. The Soviet police offered Stashinsky a stark choice: Either infiltrate the resistance and act as an informant or his parents and sister would be imprisoned. He chose to cooperate.
It soon became apparent that his employers were in fact the KGB. They set to work indoctrinating and training Stashinsky, persuading him to believe that any action undertaken to defend the motherland was justified. The severity and success of this brainwashing would later become an important component of his legal defense. His attorneys, likely with some prodding by the CIA, presented him as a mere tool of Soviet policy.
Stashinsky was entrusted with two targeted assassinations, one in 1957 and the other in 1959. He completed both assignments successfully, concealing his poison-spraying gun under a neatly folded newspaper and stalking his targets throughout Munich until he knew their routines perfectly. Both victims were prominent leaders in the Ukrainian émigré community and ran resistance networks that actively fought Nikita Khrushchev’s stifling rule. Top KGB officials, and possibly Khrushchev himself, seemed to hope that the elimination of these Ukrainian nationalist leaders would spark a power struggle within the movement and weaken it.
Things did not quite work out that way. Just hours before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, Stashinsky and his East German wife fled to West Germany, hoping for CIA protection from the brutal vengeance that the KGB reserved for defectors. Plokhy considers various reasons why Stashinsky defected — self-preservation, an ideological conversion prompted by his wife, the desire to stop committing assassinations. Whatever his motives, he was initially unable to persuade the CIA that he had in fact committed the two killings at the behest of the KGB.
He was turned over to the West German police. After thorough interrogations that established several corroborating details, they believed his story and tried him for the killings. The CIA realized its mistake and became quite interested in the information that Stashinsky could offer about the inner workings of the Soviet intelligence apparatus. His trial became an international flashpoint in the early years of the Cold War — the CIA seized the opportunity to publicly question how many other supposed suicides and deaths of Soviet enemies abroad were in fact murders. The Soviets, meanwhile, did everything they could to distance themselves from the assassinations, claiming they were simply the results of political infighting among different factions of the Ukrainian resistance.
Stashinsky ultimately served six years in a West German prison. The CIA may have pressured the West Germans to release him early, and the CIA almost certainly helped him disappear into hiding. Plokhy makes a strong case that Stashinsky eventually settled in South Africa after receiving plastic surgery and changing his name. He may still be there to this day — a retired assassin hidden by one superpower and hunted by another.Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.