This a Red or Black world. And I'm stuck in it.

If you're going to have a random show, make it a random show.

Chance is such a funny thing. Only the other day, I was politely written to by a potential employer and told that, while I had qualified to be shortlisted for a job, they'd picked the interviewees at random, and sadly I hadn't made the cut. My bingo ball hadn't come up. Such is life. This is the world of Red or Black?, the gameshow that everyone's talking about this week.

We're not really talking about it in a spectacularly good way, though. We're talking about it, saying "My god, I never knew television could be so bad." I had thought that, with Epic Win, the BBC had succeeded in doing the impossible - making an updated version of You Bet! that was even worse than the days of Brucie's sofa-chewingly execrable "don't fret, get set" rap, but no, this was worse.

This is everything about gameshows that vaguely involves skill, or knowledge, and boils it down to a binary choice: red or black, 0 or 1, on or off. "The show where luck, and luck alone, can win £1m," chirps Dec, as if it's something to be proud of. People cheer the lucky (or unlucky) wheel, which has its own, somewhat sinister, rococo leitmotif.

Luck, lucky, luck. That's all it is. It's not just me, surely, who finds something a little unsatisfying about that, something that verges on an insulting whiff of pointlessness.

When you're watching some gimp blunder through a gameshow's multiple choice with guesswork, at least you know there's something slightly better than total and utter blind chance deciding whether they're going to progress or not. They're making educated guesses. With Red or Black, you could just submit your guesses before the show. Red black red black black red. Save time.

It's easy, I suppose, to call a turkey a turkey. If it looks like a turkey, it's probably a turkey. And for the avoidance of doubt, I'd say this turkey is a turkey. Gobble gobble. But I'm more interested in the odd debate that sprung up this week about the morality - or otherwise - of letting a convicted criminal win a million pounds. The first winner was revealed to have been previously convicted of an assault, allegedly against a female victim, which led to a bit of red-top mock outrage about whether he should be allowed to have his cheque. That led to more background checks being done on contestants, and others being sifted out.

I suppose we want to believe, wrongly, in some kind of natural justice. We don't like stories like the one about 'lotto rapist' Iorworth Hoare and we want to think that only the deserving will be winners, or should be allowed to be winners. But an awful lot of undeserving people luck out all the time, every day, in every field. It might be unpalatable, but there it is. Luck doesn't morally censure.

Personally, I think if you're going to have a random show, make it a random show. Don't hone it down to a few contestants who are spotless enough not to have embarrassing things in their pasts; open it up, wider, to people who've really done wrong. Robbers, muggers, paedophiles, all sorts. Imagine one of them with a big beaming grin as their lucky numbers come up.

That's luck. It doesn't care who you are; it just rewards the lucky.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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