Pop will eat itself

The Stone Roses reunion shows how much we love revisiting our musical past.

"The day after Man City win the European Cup"- that was bass player Mani's prediction for the day when an eager public could expect to see a reformation of one of the great Nineties groups yet to jump on the reunion band wagon. United-supporting Mani probably thought his quip, made back in 2006 following City's modest 15th place finish in the Premier League and two years before Abu Dhabi investment transformed the club, was the sporting equivalent of declaring "when hell freezes over". Well times, as we know, have changed; maybe he jumped before he was pushed.

The Stone Roses' reunion, initially two concerts in Heaton Park, Manchester next June that will be followed by a world tour, grew to seem increasingly likely, not just as the fortunes of Manchester City improved, but also as a growing number of their peers succumbed to the temptation of one last swansong and, let's face it, one last payday. Mancunian compatriots The Happy Mondays did it in 2004, as did James in 2007, when Tim Booth rejoined the band's original line-up. Blur finally set aside their differences in 2008 only to be rewarded with a headline slot at the following year's Glastonbury, as were Pulp, the band who struck lucky when they replaced the unavailable Stone Roses for the festival in 1995, who reformed in May and made a critically acclaimed cameo at Worthy Farm this June.

Going further back, the list of rock and roll second comings is pretty illustrious: Led Zeppelin, the Police, the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground. But given that all those reunions ended up being temporary and not a single studio album was recorded in the brief hiatus when all those hatchets were buried, are we foolish to get excited by the latest get-togethers, and what is the effect of this phenomenon on artists trying to make a name for themselves for the first time?

Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, is clearly concerned about the potentially stifling impact that the "bands reunited" trend may have on creativity: "There is something peculiar, even eerie, about pop's vulnerability to its own history ... When we listen back to the early 21st century, will we hear anything that defines the epoch?" he writes. It's easy to see why, for many festival and concert organisers, booking acts made famous in days gone by is a safer option. The secret to the success of reunions like those of Blur and Pulp is that they chose to play a limited number of high profile concerts, thus maximising their appeal to their pre-existing and newly acquired fan bases. The limited edition approach to the comeback if you like. And for many fans that is the appeal: tick a box you didn't think you'd be able to, say you've seen Jimmy Page play live, never mind that he's in his sixties, not this thirties. This, though, clearly leaves the returning artists with a limited shelf-life - once the novelty of their reappearance has worn off, so will their ability to fill stadiums. Indeed, in the modern era it is only Take That who have managed to maintain their popularity in both their pre and post break-up eras, and that largely is due to the fact that they aren't still churning out the same old tunes they were 15 years ago.

Whether the Stone Roses reunion endures long enough for them to make a long overdue appearance at Michael Eavis's festival in 2013 (there is no Glastonbury next year) remains to be seen. But if it does it'll be hard to shake the feeling that the crowd is participating in the mass re-enactment of a musical era long since passed. Although there will always be those über-nostalgics on hand to tell you it's not as good second time around. Now, what odds on Oasis headlining Glastonbury 2020?

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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