Humans have a unique ability to imagine a world beyond their immediate surroundings. Image: Getty
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Gods and monsters

The ability to ask the question "What makes us human?" is what makes us human, argues P D James.

Editor's Note, 27 November 2014: PD James has died aged 94. This article first appeared in the New Statesman in July 2013.

What makes us human is the brain which enables us to ask just this question. We are aware how much we share with the animal kingdom and how close our DNA is to that of the higher mammals. We increasingly hear how much we all have in common with animals. Animals often show at least an equal concern with looking after their young. We know that elephants can grieve, that chimpanzees and other apes learn to use tools and even to share them, so there is the beginning of what we think of as unselfish sharing for mutual benefit. But animals, even those whose DNA is closest to ours, cannot make or control fire.

One wonders how this powerful tool was first discovered, perhaps by primitive man constantly rubbing two dry sticks together in a moment of boredom and producing a spark that lighted a pile of dry leaves. With this apparent miracle a significant step in the long rise to humanity was taken. Fire could be used to frighten away predators, provided the warmth which enabled early man to survive extreme cold and gave him the ability to cook meat and render it more digestible and life-sustaining. The making of fire was one of the most important discoveries which set human beings on the path to domination.

But most people, when faced with the question of what makes us human, give thought to a wider dimension than the difference between Homo sapiens and the animal kingdom, a dimension which includes ethics and morality and the recognition of responsibility for other than the immediate family or species. An animal has no concept of reality outside its own life and that of its young, and its place in the herd. Because we have the capacity to imagine and sympathise with the emotions including the pain of others, surely that implies a responsibility to alleviate suffering and promote well-being among all sentient creatures, including the animals of which we make use for our sustenance, convenience and pleasure.

To describe a person as acting like an animal is an insult, while the expression, “crime against humanity”, implies that there is some behaviour regarded as so appalling that the perpetrator is offending against a recognised code of what is acceptable from human beings. If the offence is committed by a single individual he is commonly labelled a psychopath, a diagnosis which it is seldom possible to follow with effective treatment. If the outrage is committed by a country, as with genocide, international opprobrium and a system of reparation, where this is possible, usually follow. We have the ability, both internationally and at home, to militate against behaviour we view as unacceptable and to make it illegal and punishable by law. We set up complicated legal and social contrivances designed to enable us to live together in peace and safety and which, in all civilised societies, are accepted and incorporated in words. The extent and richness of a country’s language is among the most important measures of its civilisation, and it is primarily language which makes us human.

When we think about what it means to be human, often we are considering what personal preoccupations, ambitions and conduct to others make us unique creatures on the planet. Unlike animals, human beings occupy their minds with concerns outside the compulsions of sex, food, shelter and the herd: the creation of our universe, the possibilities that other planets might sustain life and that eventually we shall make contact with other intelligent beings and communicate with them. We create gods ranging from tribal images in wood and stone to complicated theological arguments, and set up organisations to accommodate these deities and define the obligations of belief and worship.

But in the end the simple difference remains. Over millions of years the Darwinian process of evolution which has given us a Newton, a Shakespeare and a Mozart, has resulted in the human capacity to think, to wonder, to create and to invent. The capacity which enables us to use science to destroy each other in wars is also used to conquer disease, with the risk that we reproduce in numbers which inevitably outstrip the natural resources on which we depend. Unlike animals, we have the means to destroy Planet Earth by our greed, or to make it a safer place in which all living creatures can live.

How should we relate to each other? How do we deal with those aggressive impulses which seem to be in our nature? How do we tolerate people who are different, especially when they come to live among us? How should we educate our young? Is the nuclear family the only right pattern for marriage and parenthood? How can we save the planet which we alone among living creatures have the power to destroy? This is the ultimate question which faces us as humans and it is one of which the animal kingdom is oblivious. It is our responsibility, and it is this responsibility that makes us human.

P D James’s most recent book is “Death Comes to Pemberley” (Faber & Faber, £7.99) This article is the twelfth in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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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