Why digging up Richard III tells us more about the present than the past

The body of the last Plantagenet king has been exhumed – but what have we learned?

“Burying people in multi-storey car parks,” the recently exhumed Richard III quipped on Twitter this morning, “that’s wrong on so many levels.” Today’s sensational post-mortem had everything: a press conference, a Guardian live blog, nerdy Twitter storms aplenty and a juicy royal connection. But does it add anything to our knowledge of the man, his times, and the circumstances of his death?

Richard Buckley’s team at the University of Leicester have confirmed “beyond reasonable doubt” that the skeletal remains found underneath a council-owned car park in Leicester do indeed belong to the last Plantagenet king, Richard III. The positive identification was based on DNA evidence, matching genetic materials taken from the bones with that of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian believed to be descended from Richard’s sister, Anne of York, along with one other who has chosen to remain anonymous. The team also took note of contemporary accounts and battle scars. The death-blow appears to have been dealt by a blade along the base of the skull, though the remains (complete with iconic spinal curvature) bear evidence of further damage, possibly inflicted posthumously.

But is the discovery of Britain’s most grotesquely caricatured king likely to shift attention back from the canonical high Tudors to the late-medieval world of Richard of York? Does such a discovery, for all its apparent gravitas, really tell us anything we didn’t already know, or does it simply tread upon the quiet, curiosity-led research being driven from our universities by marketisation and the need to provide students with "value for money". Are these celebrated findings the kind of astonishing but contextually thin results funding bodies like to herald as a legitimate use of taxpayers' money? The Guardian's chief arts writer Charlotte Higgins has voiced her concern that the triumph of "impact" may be overshadowing the diminishment of real learning:

I'm just suggesting that it's rather a limited avenue of historical research that seems to have much to do with the dread word "impact" – in which academics are supposed to show that their work has "real-world" effects, whatever that might mean, though often interpreted to include public recognition and media coverage.

Cambridge classicist and broadcaster Mary Beard had this to say:

It’s probably too soon to tell. No doubt the real insights this discovery will yield, are likely to trickle out without fanfare over the next few years. And yet one can hardly blame the University of Leicester and its School of Archeology and Ancient History for making a little noise. They, like so many other departments in the humanities, are faced with a financial situation that makes them far more vulnerable than Professor Beard's employers in Cambridge. Perhaps today's news is less a boon for the university than for the city; less a triumph for the study of history, than for the Goveite vision of the kings and queens of England. Really, today's discussion says a great deal more about our own times than Richard's.

Canon David Monteith has announced that the king's bones will be interred in Leicester Cathedral in a solemn multi-faith ceremony (to which live television coverage and royal attention will no doubt be devoted). As if wished into reality by the assumptions forming in the back of my head, the Telegraph’s Ed West posted this little beauty earlier today: “Richard III’s burial could be as poignant and beautiful as the royal wedding.” The victory, so far as I can tell, lies with the House of Windsor.

West has argued that Richard should be buried in either London or York, but the announcement made by Canon Monteith makes this accident of history seem much less accidental. Over the last few years, Leicester Cathedral has held ecumenical commemorations of 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings, as well as lead vigils against racial hatred. West writes, "Identity is hard to articulate and attempts to do so always lead people to effectively confuse their own beliefs with the values of the country." I couldn't agree more. And while my own vision, unlike his, looks nothing like last summer's royal nuptials, a morally bankrupt king (name me one who wasn't), buried with a thorough understanding of his life and times by local community members from all faiths and none, certainly does.

Richard III perished in 1485, as was implied by the Welsh soldier bard Guto'r Glyn, from a blow to the head on Bosworth field. Many will have first encountered the story when reading Shakespeare at school, turning from the literary text to their history teachers, bursting with questions. Riding beside the loyal John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Richard arrives as Bosworth and raises his arm:

“Up with my tent there! here I will lie tonight; / But where to-morrow?”

A television screen displays the skull that is believed to be that of King Richard III. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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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