13 June 1953: There's nothing like a Coronation to test one's scepticism, one's innate Republicanism

The novelist and short story writer Angus Wilson writing in the New Statesman on the Coronation festivities in Essex in 1953: "As our car came down the hill, we could see the jolly jack tar hats and ribbons that mark the merry morris, and there indeed it

"Throughout the country," the faintly contemptuous, ascetic voice of the B.B.C. news reader has told us to often in the last week, people have been doing this or that— "hoping against hope that the weather," "accompanying the Queen in their thoughts," rejoicing, and then, somewhat solemnly "taking their well-earned rest," or "going once more about their daily business," or, somewhat facetiously, "nursing the inevitable headache." The phrases are so stale that they probably evoke no image. Or, if they do, it is at the most a fleeting, slightly uncomfortable remembrance of that vast, disquieting body of people who do not live in London and whose actions, therefore, are at once "so important a social factor" and so improbable. A quick succession of visual images — provincial town balls, streets with trams, market crosses, slag heaps and seaside piers — may pass across one's mind like the horrible intimations of a thousand private lives outside our own that make an express train's progress through the London suburbs so disquieting an experience.

The whole thing is not a private London dream, sweet or nightmarish according to taste, not just yours and mine, but of all those familiar figures of "Housewives' Choice" and "Family Favourites." This time, indeed, I did not try to preserve the comfortable, little Londoner's view of England's rejoicings. Urged perhaps by some innate Republicanism, but far more probably by my foolish failure to secure a seat on the Procession route, I spent Coronation day in the most beautiful of Essex towns, and, undeterred by the rain that had swept the market square so carefully prepared for Olde Tyme Dancing and had dripped from the thatched roofs of a hundred stockbrokers', journalists' and publishers' country cottages, I returned there again last weekend to see the celebrations that closed this week of festivity.

The Trust hotel had been careful to provide television, so that Coronation day passed for us as it did for most others. Perhaps if I had viewed the ceremony in my home, I should have been able to preserve my scepticism, my innate Republicanism. Soothed by the familiarity of my own surroundings, the comments of my own small world, I should have sunk easily into my comfortable prejudices. As it was, I sat in a draught, surrounded by the uneasy comments of the saloon bar gang. Never have I seen Good-Scoutery less at ease; they had come with that Rotarian, have-the-next-one-on-me-old-boy jollity that they had found so infallible at a thousand business dinners, Legion reunions and family gatherings. It was a big, British occasion, and no people, of course, were more British than they. It was fascinating to see them fight the strange beauty, the formal Byzantinism of the ceremony that appeared upon the screen. They were prepared, of course, for an occasional catch in the throat, a moment of lowered head, but the elaborate grace before them demanded less perfunctory reverence. There is no English milieu less sympathetic than that of the Frothblowers' Anthem; it was nice to see the "gang" so put out when they least expected it.

It was a people, then, dazed with ritual that poured out at the afternoon's end into the Essex countryside, itself lush and sodden with rain, but lit with those strange grey and lemon lights that are a peculiar East Anglian beauty. We were promised dancing (modern) on the town square and dancing (Olde Tyme) in the Exchange. The same ubiquity of police, so peculiar in face of the much advertised inadequacy of the Force, reigned here as in London. The policemen, who forbade the few cars that ventured out to park in the space reserved for dancing, would have served to protect a minor Tito or Akihito. As it was, they helped to move the piano indoors, when it was finally decided to abandon outdoor dancing. It is usually said that youth today likes its pleasures machine-processed, ready made. I suspect that this means that they take pleasure for granted, which seems to me excellent; at any rate, it worked very well on a wet Coronation evening. They just went indoors and danced to an extremely good pair of dance bands, neither the typical B.B.C. genteel "sweet" band, nor its phoney idea of "hot" but first-rate rhythm, which to my delight was amplified so that I could hear "Bye, Bye Blues" in my bedroom well after midnight. It was Mum and Dad who were lost, not the young. For the older 1914 generation, of course, fun on such occasions has to be spontaneous, which means the old stereotyped singing of "A Long, Long Trail" and "Knees-up, Mother Brown." A few sad matrons and their British Legion men tried to keep up the tradition, but even their hearts of oak were eventually daunted by the drizzle. As they departed, dejected, the strains of "Pat Him on the Boko " could be heard triumphant from the dance hall. The moral of which is that old English fun may be all very well, but the Palais de Dance lasts forever.

The only peculiar feature of these Coronation celebrations occurred during the firework display. I was busy dissociating myself from the children, who in face of all police prohibitions were determined to get in the line of fire, when I turned to see a line of dwarfs drawn up black and threatening on the edge of the common against the skyline. Who could they be? Martians, no doubt. What better time and place for an interplanetary invasion? But no, I was informed that this was a nearby private school come to observe the pyrotechnics, drawn up at a safe distance from the town's possible infection. It cannot be said that the townspeople objected. They were used no doubt to the private school headmaster's medieval belief that they were infected with bubonic.

In short, the Coronation celebrations, though pleasant, were quiet. The real festivities, we were told, would come at the weekend. And so Saturday morning found us speeding beneath an Essex sky less impressionistically impressive but more promising. At Dunmow, the usual collection of commuting gentry in careful tweeds and yellow waistcoats were saying "Here's how," while their wives discussed Princess Margaret's dress over double gins. They had all "had seats.” But as we passed through the villages, stands and marquees gave promise of the day's entertainment.

We prepared for the festivities by lunch at Long Melford, where some of the best food in England may be eaten. (This is not an advertisement, for there are two hotels in the village.) We then set off for the pageant at Castle Hedingham. On a green sward before the Norman Keep — curiously unreal and like a Victorian stage set — Queen Elizabeth received addresses from Will Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and Lord Burghley dressed — God knows why! — as a clergyman. If the Keep was Victorian, so indeed were the actors, dressed in Elizabethan costume of that curious frumpy kind that recalls photographs of Ellen Terry as Viola and Beerbohm Tree as Wolsey. The high note, perhaps, was reached when Thomas Morley introduced Her Majesty — always and entirely like Joyce Grenfell — to the madrigal singers, who proceeded to give us that sort of Elizabethan part-singing that belongs irrevocably to Edward German's Merrie England. However, the Pageant was certainly the big draw for the gentry, mostly the commuting barristers and stockbrokers in their shooting brakes and land-rovers. There were, however, one or two of that fabulous species — the really rich — busy with field glasses on the steps of their Rolls. I was particularly pleased with an elderly lady who showed her high Nancy Mitford station by a flashing array of diamonds worn with a tweed suit. She had carefully enamelled, inches thick, that disappointed, sulky face which only the very wealthy former beauties wear. For myself, I was happier in the lovely village of Finchingfield where sports were in progress run by the villagers for the villagers. But England is a class-conscious country and, after watching the under-tens bob for apples and the over-sixteens joust over a stream, we suddenly felt intruders and left for Thaxted, the Mecca of all intellectuals.

Already, as our car came down the hill, we could see the jolly jack tar hats and ribbons that mark the merry morris, and there indeed it was, the annual festival, with more than fifty schoolmasters sitting cross-legged in coloured braces, some earnest and hearty, others like Sir Stafford Cripps. A large crowd contained a sprinkling of first-rate Osbert Lancaster intellectuals, including an old lady with grey earphones, purple ribbons round her hair and throat, a purple cloak, and a flatly benign expression that smiled at once upon a Co-operative Guild future and a Maypole past. In a very short time, however, the charm both of the music and steps banished my sense of patronage. The truth was that I thoroughly enjoyed the morris. Indeed, so much so, that the pageant at Toppesfield was almost over when we reached there, too far gone, at any rate, to do more than register the look on all faces that means "the afternoon has been a success." Afterwards at supper at a nearby house I was told that the hostess had been a great success as Roxana; another guest told me he had been playing Wamba the Jester, while a lady who arrived late explained how exhausted she was what with the rehearsal of Benjie's opera and playing Katharine Howard." Roxana, Wamba and Katharine Howard, a combination that nicely expresses the eclectic, faintly mysterious note of our English countryside festivities. 

The newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II on the road in 1953. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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