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Read this book with a Martini. Shaken, not stirred

Interview with Serhii Plokhii, the director of Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University and the author of The Man with a Poison Gun. Interviewer: Marta Dyczok.

December 14, 2016 - Marta Dyczok - Interviews

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 MARTA DYCZOK: The title of the book The Man with a Poison Gun sounds like a spy thriller, but it is actually based on real life events. Could you tell our listeners what the book is about, and why you chose to write about events from back then in 2016.

SERHII PLOKHII: First of all, thanks for having me. The book is a spy thriller. But it is an unusual spy thriller in a sense that it is a non-fiction book that is based on significant research, including research in archives in the Unites States and also in Ukraine in the KGB archives. I am the author of the book but when it comes to its title I have a predecessor or co-author and this is Ian Fleming. The title is modelled on the “Man with the Golden Gun,” Fleming’s last James Bond novel. And that novel starts with a very interesting episode, where James Bond tries to assassinate his boss using what later became the Stashynsky gun, a spring pistol loaded with cyanide. He fails, he is arrested, he poisons himself in the process. But it is also interesting that before that happens, Bond and his boss discuss two killings in Munich of people with strange names, which is certainly a reference to the Stashynsky gun and the killings Stepan Bandera and Lev Rebet, which were committed by Stashynsky in 1957 and 1959. So, with Bandera back in the news, and Stashynsky being there as well, there was this interest on my part to take another look at the story of what happened in Munich in 1957 and 1959. The partial opening of the CIA archives, so we now have access to the CIA investigation into the causes of Stepan Bandera’s death, and also the opening of archives in Ukraine, including KGB archives, in the last two years allowed me to gain access to the personal file of the KGB officer who was the handler of Stashynsky at the time of the assassinations.

Could you please tell us who was Stashynsky? This is the man with a poison gun, right?

It is the man with the poison gun.  He is the main character of the book indeed.  He was a native of Ukraine who was recruited by the predecessor ofKGBin summer1950. When the recruitment was taking place he was faced with the choice: either start working forKGBor his family and he himself would be arrested, for his really close connection to the Ukrainian nationalist underground, which at that time in1950, five years after the end of theWWII, was still fighting behind the Iron Curtain in western Ukraine against the Soviet regime. Once recruited, he was sent to Kyiv for training and then sent to Germany. His base of operations was East Berlin, but most of his activities were in Munich at that time. Post-war Munich was center of the American zone of occupation and that was also the place where the headquarters of a number of anti-Soviet organisations, Ukrainian, Baltic, and others were located. So that was the primary target ofKGB operations, including assassination, kidnapping, and other so-called active measures, including disinformation campaigns as well.

Would it be fair to say that now we know what happened because archives have been opened and history is becoming familiar to us? That is why you chose to write about this now? 

Well, not all of the archives opened yet but certainly those that are opened allow us to better understand what was happening during the Cold War. In this book there is a personal story of a youngster who was recruited against his will to spy on his family, to spy on his people, and who eventually rebels and escapes. That is how we know the bulk of the story. Now, with opening of archives we know what the person was telling interrogators, and that is extremely important because when he first told the story of a lone gunman going to Munich with a strange spray pistol that no one knew could exist, theCIAdid not believe him. After three weeks of investigation they dumped him on the West Germans because they did not believe him. In theCIAfiles we have a report that was prepared as late as April of1976, where they were still trying to figure out whether he was a defector and the person he was saying he was, or if he was aKGBplant. With the documents coming fromCIAarchives, from some German archives, Polish archives, and finallyKGBarchives in Ukraine, we can not only collaborate parts of the story, but we can also understand the broader context in which these assassinations were taking place, and what impact they had on the conduct of the two main parties in the Cold War, The Soviet Union and the United States.

History has been a major battleground in the current conflict that is happening in Ukraine now. People are writing based on archives, and not just that. What sort of trends do you see in books published in English about Ukraine over the past year or so?

Normally it takes a while to research and write the book, so I don’t think there are immediate reactions when it comes to books. The exception would be people who write on current history and mostly political scientists. In that sense the most amazing authors are in Britain. We know Andrew Wilsons’ book on the so-called “Ukrainian crisis” and Richard Sakwa’s book “Frontline Ukraine,” books with different takes on what is happening in Ukraine. They appeared almost immediately. When it comes to history, there is work in archives libraries and not just following the news, so it takes longer to write and publish them. There are some interesting books appearing now. One of them was published this year in Toronto, a book by Paul Robert Magocsi and YohananPetrovsky–Shtern, “Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence”, which does not necessarily deal with the current crisis, but is very interesting in the sense of the formation of the political nation in Ukraine. There are two parallel stories of Ukrainians and Jews and how they interconnect over millennium as the title of the book suggests. 

Another book that made strong impression and interestingly enough was published in Toronto is George Liber’s “Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine,1914-1954,”which looks at the Ukrainian history in the context of global history fromWWIto the end ofWWII, and the immediate years after the war. Putting Ukrainian history in the context of global history is something that we have been talking in the field for a while for long period of time. This is one of the first books. Not just a collection of articles that, but abookwith this goal. I think both books indicate new interest in trends that emerge in writing on Ukraine here in the west in the last two-three years.

You have mentioned books that are written by scholars and experts on Ukraine. A trend that I have noticed is that since EuroMaidan erupted there has been an increase in attention to Ukraine, and people who are not experts on Ukraine have been writing on Ukraine with more or less success. Would you like to comment on that?

Overall, this is a very welcome occurrence, that people who write on Ukraine are not necessarily Ukrainians, or are not necessarily focused exclusively or primarily on Ukraine. This trend brings new perspectives. It creates new framework and formulates new questions. Of course, it is a very difficult task to write on the country that you really in many cases do not know much about, and that is why we have here really a very mixed blessing, and we have interventions of different kinds. It would be better for some people not to write or not to agree to give interviews. But there are some very important editions and really very strong informed voices. One of them belongs to an author who did not write on Ukraine before and this is Marci Shore. Those who are interested in Ukraine noticed her recentpublicationin The New Yorker on Serhiy Zhadan. She also publishes in Britain and in theUSon Ukraine, Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity. She is now working on the book that deals with that subject.  Overall, it is difficult to characterise the situation positively or negatively, because we have a lot of people who really do not know much about Ukraine. But the fact that there is an interest in Ukraine, that there are people who were not doing research on Ukraine before are now trying do it and that is very positive. Marci Shore is one of the examples of this positive trend in the field as a whole.

Do you see there is an increased contact between scholars in Ukraine and outside of Ukraine that perhaps is improving the quality of scholarship on Ukraine?

Absolutely, that is indeed what is happening. It does not matter who you are. If you are a journalist researching current crises, you go there, you meet locals, you have a fixer normally, you have a person who helps you to do that and that provides a perspective on the events that is inside perspective, something that people normally do not have. The same is true when you are a political scientist: you go and work with people in the field, either in the field of political science, or for example sociologists, gathering data. This is also true for historians who go to the archives and work together with colleagues in Ukraine. When it comes to history, like everywhere else, it increases the field for cooperation. My concern is that sometimes you have a situation which reminds of a colonial type of relationship where the data, for example, is harvested in Ukraine, but then the final academic product is really produced somewhere else outside of Ukraine. I guess the trick here would be that with this increased traffic to Ukraine and increased interested in Ukraine, the Ukrainian voices would be heard here as well and that those would be the voices that would talk and be on par with the commentators here in the west.  One obvious thing is that there is a lot of expertise, there are a lot of talking, there are a lot of publications on Ukraine but mostly what we hear more or less well informed voices coming from the West. We rarely have Ukrainian academics and journalists publishing their materials here in the West and making their voice to be heard. I hope that will change in the future. Things do not change overnight, but I think this increased context eventually will lead to this reformatting, reimagining the field of Ukrainian studies and commentary on Ukraine here in the West.

And we really, very rarely, have people and academics in particular, and journalists as well, publishing their materials here in the West and making their voice heard. And I hope that will change in the future. Again, things do not change overnight, but I think these increased contacts will eventually lead to reforming, reimagining the field of Ukrainian Studies and commentary here in the West.

Have you seen any books published by Ukrainians in English that have made it to an international audience? The book that I remember from the Maidan period was Andrey Kurkov’sThe Maidan Diaries, or the Ukraine Diaries, that became quite well known in the West. But I have not come across really anything this past year by Ukrainian authors in English.

Exactly, Kurkov, Andrukhovych, Zabuzhko. These are names that are recognisable in the West, but again not by the general public. More by people who are interested in the subject one way or another. And it is very good that those people are there, that there is name recognition, that those voices exist. You have also people from Ukraine, like Volodymyr Kulyk, for example, publishing scholarly political science articles and assessment in the West in scholarly journals. So that is happening. The question is whether there are people who would have name recognition and would be able to talk if, let’s say, if CNN is interested in the commentary. Normally they are not interested. They have a bunch of journalists who can talk on almost anything. But then again, there are not really people who can contribute to the debate, not just on the academic level, but can speak to a broader audience.

So contacts between experts in Ukraine and Western audiences is still an area that needs to be developed. Book distribution is something I also wanted to ask you about. Western scholars like yourself have people who help distribute your books. But there are voices writing in Ukraine that perhaps are not reaching international audiences. Is that something that you see could be improved? So, the distribution of work that is produced in Ukraine, somehow to make it reachable to international audiences?

Yes absolutely, that can be improved. As far as I know, for example, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies in Edmonton and Toronto is now involved in the project of translation of Stanislav Kulchytsky’s work on the Famine of1932-1933, making the work of one of the leading Ukrainian experts on this subject known to the academic world. But these are projects that take unfortunately, years, that take a lot of effort, that take a lot of resources. So probably we cannot expect immediate return on those kind of investments. But on the other hand, there is no other way around, so the trick is that either people from Ukraine have to write in English and German, or those works have to be translated. And that is the way how this situation can be changed. On the other hand, again, Ukraine is not exactly unique in this case. Look at any other East European country, look at Romania, look even at Poland. The situation is not much better there as well.  Better in the Polish case than in Ukraine. But this is a common challenge that intellectuals, that writers, from the region face when they try to enter the debate that is happening in places like London or New York, or Toronto, or Boston.

The foundation of our knowledge and our understanding about Ukraine really continues to rest in books. What are the formats that you can think of to transmit, to get people reading more books, whether they are students or the general audience? Are there perhaps new platforms, new formats that can be beneficial to getting books to audiences?

The book publishing industry is of course out there. It is healthy. It of course changes the way how it tries to reach readers. So again Kindle is one of the examples, that people read relatively less in the traditional format and more and more things, people get information from the screen of their lap-top, from the screen of their i-phone and so on. So that is changing. But at the end of the day you still have to have the text, you have to have this message, you have to have that argument. So that did not change. And the challenge is how to make whatever you say not just topical but interesting for other people to read. And these other people are not your students who have to do that to pass the exam or mid-term test or something like that. And that is actually the challenge to the entire field of all of us, working on Ukrainian topics, not only Ukrainian. How to make what you do interesting, not only for yourself. And how to make the argument that you are making important enough for other people to care about that. And that is an ongoing challenge. In my personal opinion, the British in this sense are doing much, much better. It is almost a job description of British intellectuals to go out there and write for a broader audience as well. But it is a different situation certainly in Canada or the United States and certainly it is different in Ukraine or Eastern Europe for that matter as a whole, where the tradition is rooted in the value of the academic knowledge per se and it is: I wrote something interesting, I wrote something important, but this is not my task to go out there and to inform people about these things or present that in a way that would generate interest if not excitement. So it is the task of people out there to discover what a wonderful thing I have written. Again that has to change.

*This conversation is a fragment of Hromadske Radio’s Ukraine Calling show hosted by Marta Dyczok. It has been republished here courtesy of Hromadske Radio.

Serhii Plokhii is Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian History and the director of Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University. He is the author of a number of books, including The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (2015), The Last empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (2015) and the Man with a Poison Gun (2016), among others.

Marta Dyczok hosts Ukraine Calling, a weekly roundup of what’s been happening in Ukraine. She is also Associate Professor of History and Political Science at the University of Western Ontario, and CERES Fellow at the University of Toronto, Canada. 

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