The unexpected ups and downs of radio presenting in the Highlands

One time I switched on to Two Lochs Radio to find a lady in despair looking at a ruined pie dish. “I don’t know what to suggest, Glenys,” said one of the station’s 38 volunteer presenters. “But I definitely think you should take it back. Pyrex is supposed

Sunday Brunch With Mike
Two Lochs Radio, 106
and 106.6FM

“It’s such a dire day at the moment, it’s unbelievable. I imagine you’re going to stay in but if you’re still in your PJs, remember it’s actually probably not the time you thought it was.”

DJ Mike is manning Two Lochs Radio at 11am on clocks-back Sunday, with the St Jude’s Day storm brewing. He squints, Magoo-like, at the darkening loch. “Has anyone thought about my quiz yet?” On the community broadcaster for the Wester Ross area in the Highlands, Mike gets unnecessarily anxious about feedback or requests.

Undirected, his music can range bewilderingly from rap to “The Ballad of Frank Spencer” but there is little doubting his tact. “Nobody’s come in with an answer yet,” he says, transmitting with great delicacy only a millisecond of umbrage. “So here are the questions again: what 2002 novel by Alice Sebold is the story of a teenage girl who after being murdered watches from heaven as her family and friends struggle to move on with their lives, while she comes to terms with her own death? And, the Aberdeen terrier is better known as what kind of dog?” I suck my pencil. This is absolutely my kind of quiz.

TLR is ten years old this month. Now followed by over 2,000 listeners in the region and several hundred online across the world, it forever conveys a sense that all fences can be mended with a cup of instant around the table, while also remaining a very serious little operation, running all the necessary local notices and magnificently inclusive updates concerning the various trials of its listeners. One time I switched on to find a lady in despair looking at a ruined pie dish. “I don’t know what to suggest, Glenys,” said one of the station’s 38 volunteer presenters. “But I definitely think you should take it back. Pyrex is supposed to be unbreakable.”

At last, a text to the studio! It’s Doreen, requesting “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”. Mike pauses. One senses that: a) he knows Doreen and everyone at Doreen’s house, and that this presents a major problem because b) he is keenly aware the lyrics to “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” are written to sound sad but are in fact unconscionably violent and bitter (“You hardly talk to me when I walk through the door at the end of the day/you just roll over and turn out the light”).

Bringing Barbra Streisand – she of the terrifyingly manicured nails – into a marital dispute? Now that is violent. Mike blanches. “Dennis,” he says quietly, cutting to the chase. “I think the message is very, very clear. You’re going to have get your finger out and get some flowers.”

The best of broadcasting from the Scottish highlands. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge