Those air heads are off the rails

Over short distances, train travel trumps air travel in every department.

It is rare that I am seized by the desire to grab a complete stranger and urge them to change their ways. I don't consider myself to take the moral high ground on many issues. I eat animals even though I'm aware it would probably be more ethical to stop, and I regularly pour massive quantities of oil on to previously unpolluted stretches of countryside (in the light of the recent Twitter joke trial, I should probably place on record immediately that the last remark was humorous, with no basis in reality). "Live and let live" would be my philosophy, if I didn't come from a generation too vacuous and addled by MTV to have philosophies.

But this week I found myself overhearing (by which I mean deliberately eavesdropping on) a conversation in a café. A businesswoman was looking ahead to a trip from London to Manchester. "I was all set to drive," she said proudly, "and then I thought to myself, what about the plane?! Booked myself a flight. Only takes an hour. Brilliant. It's got to be the best way to travel up and down the country."

Completely nuts

“What about trains?" I longed to scream at her. "Think about your carbon footprint. Think about the ridiculous false economy of flying to and from isolated airports miles out of town, against the ease of gliding into Manchester city centre! Ask yourself whether you really want to climb thousands of feet into the air, only to begin your descent before you've managed to get the packet of pretzels open!"

I would like to report that I did yell all these things at my fellow diner, but honesty compels me to admit that I lost my nerve. However, I gave her a searching look that communicated all of the above. I would be surprised if she hadn't left the café and immediately started rebooking her travel.

This is not really a moral stance at all, though. I'm just amazed at the number of internal flights that take place every day, and the number of people who can be bothered to go through the tedious routine - shoes off, laptop out of the bag, queuing for a taxi at the other end - when they could be on a train. Even flying to Paris seems bizarre to me, when the infinitely more romantic Eurostar awaits. But flying London-Manchester? Or for that matter London-Glasgow, or London-Newcastle? It's not just using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; it's doing that when there is a perfectly good nutcracker on the table right next to you.

Over short distances, train travel trumps air travel in every department. You can plug in your laptop and get things done. It's cheaper, provided you book in advance, which in the age of the internet surely doesn't present a big obstacle to the sort of web-savvy business-folk who are making these journeys. You arrive smack-bang in the middle of your chosen destination, rather than at an airport sheepishly bearing the name of a city situated more than 100 miles away.

It's at least as time-efficient: the time plane travel supposedly saves you is nullified by the getting-there-early and the hanging around at the other end. And, yes, it is a lot more environmentally friendly. All right, the world may be doomed anyway, but do we really have to rub it in by using carbon-hungry planes to fly us up the road?

Plane stupid

Then there's the idea that trains are somehow too unreliable for the hotshot traveller. Perhaps at one time this was true. But having spent almost every minute of my waking life since 2002 on a train, I can assure you that they are now at least as reliable as planes, and you don't have the suspicion that they might plummet out of the sky. All train operators have got more punctual and efficient in the past few years: that's not based on statistics, but on experience of visiting every station in the United Kingdom. It's more than five years since I was delayed for more than an hour on a train. Can you really tell me that planes beat that?

I apologise for venting here what I should have taken out on that hapless business traveller in the café, but it really is time we all got on trains more. I'm writing this in first class from Edinburgh to London: it cost me £29. We've had breathtaking coastal views all the way. I've got a lot of work done. I'm thoroughly relaxed. Actually, on second thoughts, leave this for me. Don't you dare book a train ticket. You keep getting on those aeroplanes. I'll wave at you from my deserted luxury carriage. You won't see me, of course, because you'll be in a cloud, or in turbulence, or watching part of a film that will be interrupted when you land, or congratulating yourself on the time saved.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron

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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