Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Ben Goldacre, Slavoj Žižek and Philip Norman.

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

Doctor, author and uncaged monkey Ben Goldacre’s second foray into the world of science-oriented abuse has been neatly reviewed by The Economist: “The book is slightly technical, eminently readable, consistently shocking, occasionally hectoring and unapologetically polemical. ‘Medicine is broken,’ it declares on its first page, and ‘the people you should have been able to trust to fix [its] problems have failed you.’” Helen Lewis, writing in the New Statesman, emphasises the difficultly of bringing an industry-wide malaise to public attention. “Explaining the myriad ways in which the evidence base is distorted, and the effect that has on real people, will never fit in a slogan, a headline or a tweet,” she writes, although the 137 character quote above would make a good starting point. Many reviewers express shock at the examples Goldacre gives, often too scandalous to be believed. “GlaxoSmithKline concealed the fact that one of its anti-depressants, paroxetine, increased the risk of suicide among children. It managed this because the drug was officially only licensed for use by over-18s and because it mixed the safety data for children in with that of adults, diluting the apparent risk.” The real strength of the book, Lewis decides, is that Goldacre is prepared to provide alternative models: “If poorly funded and easily swayed regulators can’t police the industry, then make the data available to everyone. Replace bewildering consent forms with shorter ones in plain English. Scrap the endless drug information labels that list every conceivable side effect (from heart attacks to bad breath) with simple checklists that show how common they are.”

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously by Slavoj Žižek

Reflecting on last year’s uprisings in New York, London, Greece and the Middle East, Žižek’s new book has been praised for its characteristically reorienting analysis, but criticised for its lack of direction. Poet Theo Dorgan, writing in the Irish Times, says: “This short book covers an immense amount of ground, with Žižek as a kind of manic avatar, a cosmic advance guard of the unborn future, examining and pronouncing on domination and exploitation under late capitalism, the return of ethnicity as a negative political driver, the Occupy movement (he’s for and against), the desert of post-ideology, unrest and upheaval in the Arab worlds, and what it means that we live in nonevental times.” Benjamin Kunkel, founding co-editor of n+1, wrote for the New Statesman that Žižek’s communism is “a heavy name very light of meaning.” “He disdains the idea, characteristic of ‘the archetypal left-liberal European moron’, that we need ‘a new political party that will return to the good old principles’ and ‘regulate the banks and control financial excesses, guarantee free universal health care and education, etc, etc’.” A good example of Žižek’s inimitable inability to finish his sentences there, which he often deems too tedious to bother following through. Yet Kunkel astutely recognises that instead of the entropic impasses which were the end of all of last year’s “dreams” (the death of Occupy, religion filling the political vacuum in the Arab world, nihilism and sneaker-grabbing in London), the period of greatest radical thinking was in fact amid the years of post-war reform, not in response to the neoliberal consensus that followed, “which demoralised radicals and reformers alike.” “Projects of reform, in other words, have tended to nourish hopes of revolution and vice versa. In present circumstances, the achievement of reforms might well pave, rather than bar, the way to a new society, not to mention relieving some of the human misery to be endured before the advent of the communist millennium,” Kunkel concludes, “If, on the other hand, the system were to prove incapable of incorporating any serious reforms, this would demonstrate the need for revolution that Žižek merely asserts.

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman

The chrysalis that miraculously turned into a butterfly “is a recurring motif in Philip Norman’s new biography of Mick Jagger, in which he charts in riveting detail Jagger’s own transformation from a humdrum LSE student in striped college scarf and cardigan into the beautiful renegade and rock star, living symbol of that naïve but in some ways rather wonderful 60s rebellious nonconformity,” Fiona MacCarthy writes in the Guardian. Norman, a former Times journalist who has written a biography of John Lennon and group-biographies of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (twice), has “a novelist’s awareness of the oddities of human relationships, and Mick’s father emerges as a fascinating figure”. MacCarthy praises the book’s treatment of Jagger’s younger life, preferring some of incidents from later years as recorded in Keith Richard’s recent autobiography, Life. Charles Shaar Murray, writing in the Daily Mail, values Norman’s presentation of Jagger’s role as both “entrepreneur and entertainer, lord of the manor and lout of the parish”, and agrees with both MacCarthy and Norman that the first quarter-century of the Stones story is far more interesting than the second: “Fast-forwarding through the latter stages harms the story not at all. Norman tells it with commendable thoroughness, engaging wit and boundless energy, much as Jagger has shown over the decades. At tale’s end, rock ‘n’ roll toddlers will drift off into platinum slumbers.” He does add, “Sadly, Norman omits my favourite Jagger story: those famous rubber features had long hardened into seamed granite when the late George Melly ribbed him about his wrinkles. ‘Not wrinkles,’ Jagger replied. ‘Laughter lines.’ ‘Mick,’ retorted Melly, ‘nothing’s that funny.’” Mick Jagger will be reviewed in this week's issue of the New Statesman.

David Cameron takes a tour around GlaxoSmithKline. 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