Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University. A three-time recipient of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies prize, his books include Yalta: The Price of Peace, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, and the recently released The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story. The Man with the Poison Gun focuses on KGB assassin Bogdan Stashinsky, who defected to West Germany in 1961, and his trial.
From Plokhy's Q&A with Deborah Kalb:
Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most?--Marshal Zeringue
A: The core was the proceedings of the trial, where the story was told. The idea was to look at whether it was true, and [place] it in a broader context of the Cold War. Today people have to be reminded of what that was—that was the task, placing it into Cold War history from Washington to Bonn to Moscow.
The killing and the revelation that came after had international repercussions. It changed the way clandestine war was waged by the KGB, and the impact was huge on the situation in Western Germany, when Nazi criminals were put on trial, they were trying to use the Stashinsky defense, an accessory to murder rather than perpetrators.
That was the context, the broader impact of what happened, the result of the assassination going public.
Q: So can you say more about the legacy of Stashinsky’s actions, and the impact on the Cold War?
A: He was able to convince judges and the public that the order to kill two leaders of a radical Ukrainian [organization] came from the top of the Soviet Party apparatus. In 1962, it was the height of Cold War tensions, and he was testifying it was the head of the KGB [who was involved].
[At the same time] the head of the KGB was promoted—he became the head of the Central Committee, Aleksandr Shelepin. He was the main rival of Brezhnev. Once they removed Khrushchev in 1964, people believed Brezhnev [was temporary] and Shelepin was the real power behind the throne.
He linked [this leader] with potential killings, and it caused...[read on]