The tortoise knows it’s what’s inside that counts

In our Nature column, poet Ruth Padel considers the tortoise - the animal which refuses to be read.

Visiting the salt-spattered brown and blue isles of the Galapagos is as harrowing as it is wonderful. You think how life could be, or could have been. The islands were never part of any continent, so their animals evolved without the presence of human beings. There are no predators except hawks. Nothing tells these creatures how dangerous we are. You step into Eden, where the sea lion lies down with the iguana, you clear your boots of harmful non-native seeds and avoid treading on blue-footed boobies – but you are bringing in the human stain.
 
The 16th-century Spanish who discovered the islands called them Galapagos after the giant tortoises that, 300 years later, helped Charles Darwin work out how individuals and species change to fit each particular environment. “The vice-governor,” he said, “declar[ed] that the tortoises differed on different islands . . . he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought.” When the ornithologist John Gould studied birds Darwin brought back, and told him the finches and mockingbirds from different islands differed, too, he realised how important this was.
 
But of all Galapagos wildlife, their eponymous giant tortoises were the most destroyed by human goings-on. Pirates and whalers caught them and stacked them in the ships’ holds, where they survived miserably, without food or drink, for a year. Their meat was “more delicious than chicken or beef”. Settlers introduced goats, pigs and rats; these ate tortoise eggs and destroyed tortoise habitat. Giant tortoises nearly died out: half of the original 15 subspecies are now extinct, including the Pinta Island tortoise, whose last representative, known as Lonesome George, died in 2012.
 
But though human beings destroy, they also sometimes save. Since the 1960s, in a parable of exemplary conservation and one of the most successful breed-and-release programmes in the world, the Galapagos National Park has brought seven subspecies back to viable numbers. They collect the eggs; breeding centres hatch and raise the young through their vulnerable early years, and then release them.
 
Once upon a time (says an African story), God told the animals he would award a prize for the best dance. Lion shook sparks from his mane, Ostrich perfected a feathery high kick, Impala leaped about in arabesques, Giraffe improvised a dreamy sarabande. Tortoise just drew in his head, legs and tail. “You didn’t try,” jeered the others, but God gave the prize to him. “You danced for yourselves,” God told the rest, “but Tortoise’s dance was inside himself. He danced only for me.”
 
A tortoise refuses to be read: God knows what’s going on inside. In a lovely poem by Mark Doty, children rush excitedly into a grown-ups’ dinner party carrying a wild tortoise. They know this creature can “make night/anytime he wants, so perhaps/he feels at the center of everything,/as they do”. They hope “he might, like God, show his face”. They show him to the adults, so they can experience his “prayer,/the single word of the shell,/which is no”.
 
As a symbol, the tortoise links identity to privacy. So do islands. The remaining subspecies of Galapagos tortoise now symbolise the ways in which we, too, sometimes say no. The Galapagos National Park has got rid of human-introduced feral goats, pigs and rats and is re-tortoising islands where tortoises used to live.
 
No more waiting in the hold to be dinner: the giants are back in the habitat that evolution gave them. Their slow dance may seem only for them, but it is dispersing native seeds and trampling vegetation so that light penetrates and seeds germinate. They are ecosystem engineers, bringing the habitat back to how it was before humans came. We benefit, too. We can stand like Adam in Eden and watch.
 
Ruth Padel is curating this year’s writers’ talks at ZSL London Zoo. Details: zsl.org/writerstalks 
A clue in your shell-like: as we encroach on other creatures' worlds, tortoises retreat into their own. Photograph: Frans Lanting / Gallery Stock.

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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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