"Emotions burst out like molehills on an immaculate lawn": family tension in The Legacy
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Greed, lust and great knitwear: The Legacy is a Danish drama that’s smarter than Borgen

Everyone is white, and everyone is rich – or about to be. Where’s the grit in that? But grit there is: it is stupid to assume that for a drama to be a hit, it must be filled with “people like us”.

The Legacy
Sky Arts 1

Why didn’t the BBC snap up the Danish drama The Legacy (Wednesdays, 10pm)? Did Sky outbid it, or did its executives take one look at the series’ irredeemably middle-class characters and run a mile? It’s not difficult to imagine some nervous BBC type watching the antics of Veronika Grønnegaard (Kirsten Olesen), the bohemian matriarch at its heart, and thinking: hasn’t Alan Yentob got this stuff covered in Arts? Yes, Grønnegaard, who is basically Tracey Emin with a pension and vastly more taste, conveniently dies at the end of the first episode. But even in her absence, the show is peopled with the kind of metropolitan pseuds one usually only comes across in tiny art-house cinemas: an avant-garde composer who looks just like Catweazle; a gallerist who speaks to waiters in roughly the same tone as David Mellor addresses cabbies; a spoiled hippie who’s building a dodgy eco resort in Thailand. Everyone is white, and everyone is rich – or about to be. Where’s the grit in that?

But grit there is: it is stupid and not a little patronising to assume that for a drama to be a hit, it must be filled with “people like us”. Emotions are universal, and in The Legacy they keep bursting out all over the place, like molehills on an immaculate lawn. Here are greed, envy, loss, lust and, above all, sibling rivalry. Grønnegaard’s children, however wealthy, privileged and articulate, are the victims both of her spite – her deathbed will is about to cause all kinds of trouble – and of their family being so very modern, by which I mean complicated (four children by three different fathers). Rather predictably, the series has already been compared to Hamlet and to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (Trine Dyrholm, who plays Veronika’s elder daughter, Gro, also starred in that film). But it’s also very much its own thing, singular and odd, as if the Turner Prize ceremony had suddenly morphed into a novel by Edward St Aubyn.

Episode two (3 December), like St Aubyn’s At Last, centred entirely on a funeral: Veronika’s, to which she was late, the undertaker’s satnav having failed en route to Grønnegaard, her vast house. Unbeknown to her three elder children, she has left this palace to her daughter Signe (Marie Bach Hansen), who until about five minutes ago believed her mother was someone else entirely. As a result, her face throughout was a picture of controlled amazement. So many new relatives, and all of them so very peculiar. Signe moves tentatively, as if there were a Ming vase hidden in her jeans – come to think of it, she does have a bomb in her pocket, given that she’s in possession of Veronika’s last will and testament.

The coffin was white, and thanks to Gro, became a kind of installation, winched into the house like one of her mother’s sculptures; two vast wings were then draped above it, as if she would literally ascend to heaven from the drawing room. Meanwhile, everyone else was in hell. Gro’s lover had unhelpfully brought his wife to the bash; her brother Frederick had stormed off, having discovered that his mother had done a Chapman brothers and defaced an oil painting of his grandfather; her mother’s lawyer had revealed that Veronika had failed to sign the crucial papers that would ensure the house would be placed in trust and become a gallery under Gro’s direction. Worst of all, there was her father (Catweazle): he performed Veronika’s favourite song: “Riddle-me-ree”! It was as if Lou Reed had decided to channel the Sixth Form Poet.

I don’t discount the chic factor when it comes to The Legacy. Danish furnishings, sweaters, haircuts and jewellery are extremely attractive. And subtitles act as a distraction when there’s bad dialogue (I give you the plodding, cheesy Borgen, acclaimed by plenty who should have known better). Yet even taking these things into account, it looks to be an absorbing series. In coming weeks, allegiances will be built and broken, and many rattling skeletons exposed to the bright winter light of Veronika’s studio. Is Signe a latter-day Cordelia? Or is she in possession of sufficiently Goneril-like qualities to take on Gro? Either way, I’m in. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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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