Gail Rebuck and Victoria Barnsley: The dethroned queens of the publishing industry

It's just like when Thatcher was toppled - only nobody is cheering.

Recent times have felt like publishing’s equivalent of the week Margaret Thatcher was toppled, but with fewer cheers. On 1 July Gail Rebuck abdicated after 22 years as queen of Random House UK. The following day the chief executive of HarperCollins UK, Victoria Barnsley, was dethroned after 13 years. Suddenly, women have a lot less power in publishing.

Rebuck’s move from chief executive to chair was a not unexpected consequence of the merger of Penguin and Random House, announced last October and cleared by regulators with remarkable speed. The new UK head of the combined group is Tom Weldon, whose hunger to lead Penguin led to the premature retirement of Helen Fraser in 2009. It’s a big job for Weldon, a 47-year-old whose success owes less to literary distinction than to the sales of Jamie Oliver, Jeremy Clarkson and Paul Burrell, Diana’s butler.

Still, the publishing world consoles itself, at least Weldon has spent his life in books. At HarperCollins, the new chief executive, Charlie Redmayne, cut his teeth at BSkyB and has lately led J K Rowling’s Pottermore website.

The two dethroned queens were inevitably seen as rivals, and when a nanny ricocheted between them it upped the ante. Rebuck’s damehood in the 2009 Birthday Honours took the shine off Barnsley’s OBE, awarded six months earlier.

Rebuck was always regarded as the heavyweight – her portfolio included Chatto & Windus and Jonathan Cape, arguably Britain’s most literary imprints. Yet her roots are commercial. She first made her mark with Susie Orbach at Hamlyn, and life came full circle with the publication in 2012 of Fifty Shades of Grey, as she began her career with Ralph Stokes, who published erotica.

Meanwhile, Barnsley was just 30 when she founded the determinedly upmarket Fourth Estate, where she presided over the publication of Carol Shields (whom everyone had turned down) and Dava Sobel’s Longitude. Fourth Estate never made any money, but HarperCollins bought it in 2000 to instal Barnsley as CEO and it has since thrived.

Inevitably, the focus this past week has been on how two powerful women who care passionately about books are being succeeded by two young(ish) men fixated on celebrity, brand and technology – on product, a word too tidy and businesslike to describe a proper book. Moreover, Penguin – that most British of companies, founded by Allen Lane in 1935 to bring high-quality books to the mass market – will now be headquartered in New York City, a mere imprint of Penguin Random House. Markus Dohle, the global head of Penguin Random House, comes from the printing business and when he was appointed five years ago the New York Times observed that it was “roughly akin to putting the head mechanic in charge of an entire airline”.

Liz Thomson is co-editor of bookbrunch.co.uk

Book of Dave: Victoria Barnsley, ex-chief executive of HarperCollins, pictured in 2004. Photograph: Harry Borden/National Portrait Gallery.

Liz Thomson edited, with Patrick Humphries, the revised and updated edition of Robert Shelton’s “No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan”

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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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