Books of the decade

Here's our top ten -- now name yours

Just in case you missed it, buried in the pile of goodies that was our Review of the Decade, here is our list of the top ten books of the past ten years. But what did we miss? Have your say in the comment box below.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

The definitive post-apocalyptic novel. An unspecified disaster has befallen America, and a father and son wander unconsoled and afraid through a blasted landscape. Charting the pair's peregrinations across this "cauterised terrain", McCarthy's prose achieves a pitch of poetic intensity and terrible beauty that few, if any, of his contemporaries could dream of matching.

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen (2009)

Sen's magisterial critique of the dominant mode of liberal political philosophy, which chases after the chimera of an ideally just society rather than identifying existing injustices, confirmed him as the English-speaking world's pre-eminent public intellectual. By 2009, leading politicians from all sides were falling over themselves to claim Sen as their own.

Austerlitz by W G Sebald (2001)

Austerlitz was Sebald's final book; he died in a car crash shortly after it was published. Like its critically lauded predecessors, it mixes fiction and memoir in order to cast light on the darkest hours of European history in the middle of the 20th century.

The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda's Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (2006)

The 11 September 2001 attacks may have shaped the world as we now know it, but al-Qaeda remains a mysterious and misunderstood organisation. Wright's meticulously researched account of the events leading up to the attacks shed light on Osama Bin Laden and his network of followers.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

Didion has been one of America's sharpest essayists for many decades. In The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the year that followed her husband's sudden death in 2003, she turns her skill as a writer to the most profoundly personal and traumatic events. The result is an unmatched study of grief.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

Anticipating the public's hunger for books that explain the world with a catchy-sounding theory, The Tipping Point told us why certain ideas catch on, and others don't. The Tipping Point, like Gladwell's subsequent books, sold millions of copies and launched an entire new genre.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)

Written while Smith was still a literature student at Cambridge, White Teeth announced a major new talent. Drawing on her upbringing as a mixed-race child in north London, the novel captured a certain kind of confusion and longing at the heart of post-colonial Britain as it teetered on the edge of the 21st century.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)

Wilkinson and Pickett's study gave scientific weight to a long-held claim of the left: that people are happier and healthier when they live in societies where wealth is distributed more equally. But the book's influence stretches across party lines and its findings are likely to shape political debate for many years to come.

No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000)

This was the work that turned Klein, a Canadian journalist, into the world's foremost critic of globalisation. An investigation into corporate branding, No Logo was a rallying call for activists across the world. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand radical politics -- including its failures -- during the past decade.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)

In the vein of Art Spiegelman's Holocaust tale Maus or Joe Sacco's Palestine, Satrapi's memoir was a comic book with literary weight. A global bestseller that was then turned into a film, the book struck a chord with western readers in particular, desperate for human stories behind their countries' antagonistic relationship with Iran.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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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