Andrić Grad: the broken bridge of the Balkans

Why Bosnia is spending 12 million euros building a town dreamed up by a novelist.

It seems almost too neat a symbol of the region's identity crises: one of the Balkans' most famous contemporary cultural figures building a town named after the most famous Balkan writer. But it's not only a symbol, laden as it is with implications. The plans for Andrić Grad are real, located by Visegrad at the mouth of the Drina River, the setting of Ivo Andrić's novel, The Bridge on the Drina. The main financial contributor to the project is film director Emir Kusturica, and it is expected that the project will take four years to complete, costing around 10-12 million Euros. The construction has already been met with resistance from victims of the wartime atrocities in Visegrad, and reignited Bosnia's divisions.

The legacy of Ivo Andrić fragmented in the fifty years since he won the Nobel Prize during what was then Yugoslavia. Andrić lived, at different times, in Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Zagreb, and is often taken to embody the Rubik's cube of Yugoslavian identity: a Croat Catholic by birth, he favoured the (Serbian) Cyrillic script in his writing. While his historical novels are generally seen as embodying a Yugoslavian mosaic, after the breakup of Yugoslavia the successor states "inherited" his legacy in different ways, with Serbia most enthusiastically embracing Andrić as "theirs".

Some have since argued that his novels' portrayal of Bosnian Muslims contributed to the development of Serbian ultra-nationalism, while his juxtaposition of the Habsburg Empire as a more "civilised" occupier than the Ottomans denigrated the Balkans' Muslim heritage.

Then there is the symbol of the bridge, which, between Mostar and The Bridge on the Drina, has become the dominating regional metaphor. Marina Antić has written on how the elevation of Andrić as the most celebrated Balkan writer is part of a quasi-colonial western European viewing of the region: that the book itself acts, for west Europeans, as a "bridge" linking "us" and "them"; the Balkans lazily positioned as "bridge" between east and west. All of this echoes through in the construction of Andrić Grad.

Perhaps the most curious part of the project is who's behind it: Kusturica, the film director who's been hailed everything from hero to traitor and Milošević sympathiser. The trajectory of Kusturica's identity is well-documented, and a mirror to Andrić's - after his childhood with secular Muslim parents in Bosnia, with the breakup of Yugoslavia Kusturica claimed a kind of "Yugoslav without Yugoslavia" identity that, by the end of the conflict, some read as an apology for Serbian nationalism. Underscoring what many saw as his gradual retreat from reality, after the war Kusturica moved into his specially-constructed "ethno-village" Drvengrad, built as a set for his film Life Is A Miracle, with streets named after his icons: Maradona, Che Guevara, Ivo Andrić.

Kusturica is funding the construction of Andrić Grad in collaboration with Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Sprska, and this alliance is perhaps most disconcerting - the alignment of Kusturica's vision with Dodik, the man who denies Srebrenica was a genocide, amongst his other nationalist statements. This fuels fears by Bosniaks in Visegrad that Andrić Grad is part of a Serbian nationalist plan to "finish off what they didn't complete during the war". What at first sounded like a quaint architectural reconstruction of a novel potentially becomes stitched to the concept of cultural cleansing.

Andrić's tangled history, Kusturica's fraught political position, and the violent history of Visegrad layer over one another in the construction of Andric Grad. But the flipside of ethno-politics is always economics, and the question remains: in what world would someone spend 12 million euros building a town dreamt up by a novelist?

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter @heathermcrobie

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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