Lucy Wadham: "Class is this great, open wound that nobody can leave alone"

The Books Interview.

Your book Heads and Straights is part of the “Penguin Lines” series, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. Why did you choose the Circle Line?
I was floored when Penguin asked me to write about the Tube but I knew I had to do it. When I thought about the various lines, I realised the only one I knew anything about was the Circle Line, because I’d been brought up near it. I also liked the metaphor, the paradox, of the circle and the line.

There were a number of key events in the life of my family, in my grandmother’s life in particular, that had happened near Circle Line stops. One of my sisters, when she found out about the project, said: “Of course, that’s the posh line.” And immediately there were alarm bells going off in my head, because I’d very carefully managed to elude questions of class in my writing.

You’ve lived in France for over 25 years. Is class handled differently there?
It still feels to me, every time I come back to Britain, that class is this great, open wound that nobody can leave alone – and, in a way, that it isn’t in France. In this country, class provides endless fodder for television programmes and newspaper articles; you don’t get that in France.

You write about returning to the King’s Road, where you grew up, and finding it terribly homogeneous. The French like to congratulate themselves for avoiding the worst of globalisation, don’t they?
They do. Though Paris hasn’t avoided becoming a museum. And Paris has a homogeneity of its own, doesn’t it? It has done since [the renovation of the city by Georges-Eugène] Haussmann in the mid-19th century. But yes, France has definitely avoided the homogeneity of unbridled capitalism.

How would you describe your relationship with London now?
There were two opportunities that were offered to me by this book: one was to look back at my relationship with Britain and London in particular; the other was to look at my relationship with family. In both cases, it became clear to me that I’d been running away from them for a long time.

Your grandmother sounds remarkable – she met Virginia Woolf when she was a child.
I’ve searched high and low in Woolf’s letters for any mention of Gran! The thing you have to remember about my grandmother is that she had a very loose relationship with the truth. So she could have made it up. I like to think she didn’t but she may well have.

My mother always warned my sisters and I to be careful in our understanding of what Gran told us about her life. I think the gap between my grandmother’s loquacity about her life and the restraint and silence of my mother is partly what made me – as a child and an adolescent – very eager to know the truth, to dig for psychological explanations.

It made you a writer, in other words?
Yes.

You organise the book around the distinction between “heads” and “straights”. The interesting thing about this distinction is that it’s not generational.
Not only does it slice across generations, it slices across class. I think that was the usefulness of it as a label for my rebellious sisters in the early 1970s – they could elude the distinctions of class by categorising people in that way.

Your parents, by contrast, were straights, weren’t they?
They were. They were definitely straights. My father liked to live dangerously but I think it was very important for us to believe he was a straight – but actually, with hindsight, I’m not sure he was.

A lot of people of their generation woke up to the excitement of the 1960s, belatedly, in the 1970s. They were clawing to recapture a touch of experimentation and excess. My parents were definitely in that category. But then, suddenly, it was too late – suddenly, you were looking at Thatcher and the party was over.

Lucy Wadham’s “Heads and Straights” is published by Particular Books (£4.99)

Lucy Wadham.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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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