End of an era

What the Harry Potter generation read next.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that your life is being novelised as a coming-of-age story for young adults. Let us also suppose that the author plans to centre the novel on the climactic moment where you finally realise your childhood is over and a world of responsibility beckons. How did your childhood end? Can you picture the scene? Was it one specific moment? Two? You saw both of mine live on television.

It is likely that ours will be remembered as the generation that smashed the windows of Foot Locker. But perhaps I can convince you to remember us also as the generation that formed orderly queues outside Waterstones and waited, dripping with excitement and rainwater, for the last Harry Potter book? When you saw us on the news, you were watching our childhoods end. We were in denial, though; cries of "we still have three films left!" were stifled only this summer, when you saw us in Trafalgar Square, waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

So our childhoods really were over, and when things in the real world got too scary, there was nothing left of Harry Potter's world to hide in. We are a generation that needs fantasy. Unfortunately, it is likely you will remember us fulfilling this need with fantastically violent video games. But perhaps I can convince you to remember us also pulling fantasy novels off shelves and reading them on bookshop floors.

With Potter finished, the great hunt for more fantasy began. We re-read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. We tried Twilight along with everyone else, but slightly snobbishly turned our noses up at it, tweeting and blogging Stephen King's quote: "Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend." We tried Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, but having grown up with Hermione, Luna and Mrs Weasley as strong female role models, we struggled with female fantasy characters who existed only as a fantasy for teenage boys. Exasperated, we wondered if we were just too old.

But as the withdrawal grew worse, we finally found our fix. All three installations of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy had been published by 2010 and we hadn't read any of them, it seemed no one had read any of them. Someone prominent amongst the Potterheads tweeted or blogged or vlogged about it and suddenly it went viral. We were all talking about it, breathless and excited in the way we used to be. It was hypnotically fast-paced, set in a world so close yet so far from home, the heroine was full of flaws and so was the love story. There were characters of every age to adore and abhor. And were those some morals hiding between the lines? We had grown so used to feeling guilty about "fast-paced books" and "easy reads" - ' but, just as Potter had been, this was different and we handed it to our little brothers in the hope they would learn something from it.

Perhaps you will remember us as the generation that refused to pay for our music, but please remember that we also continued to spend our pocket money on books. They cost about £3 each on the Kindle - I downloaded and read three books in four days, then called a friend of mine and instructed him to do the same. "OK," he said, "I'm busy. I'll take a look later." My voice rose a little. "You don't understand. This is a book recommendation." The Potter generation is a tough crowd to please; I thought he might take me a little more seriously. "Yeah OK, I'll look it up later." I gripped the phone a little tighter. "I am recommending this book to you because I haven't been this excited about new fiction since Harry Potter." He was silent for a moment as he processed this. "OK. I'm buying it right now."

You see, teenagers don't use Twitter, Blackberry Messenger and "word of mouth" just to pass messages of fear and violence, but also to pass the message that magic, hope and excitement can still be found between the covers of a hardback novel.

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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