Assassinating political undesirables is nothing new but “The man with the poison gun” is original in providing a detailed account of its planning and practice. It reads like fiction but the writer is an academic historian who knows all about checking source material.
The result is a novelistic page-turner and bang up to date one because it reminds us that US drones are continuing the policy of secretly targeting and executing without trial individuals deemed undesirable.
The setting is post-World War II Europe, with the Cold War heating up as relations between the Soviet Union and the US-led West become increasingly intransigent. At that time – as it still is today – the national identity of Ukraine was a bone of contention.
Ukrainian nationalists contested their country’s absorption into the Soviet Union, in denial of close links with Russia had existed since the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The KGB, the Soviet Union’s security service, decides to kill the exiled leaders of two Ukrainian nationalist groups in Germany.
They develop a new weapon, a silent gun that emits a spray of cyanide, causing instant cardiac arrest if the victim is sprayed in the face. It leaves behind no trace but the assassin has to take a pill an hour before to minimise the risk of self-poisoning.
Killing the first victim is a success and he is thought to have suffered a heart attack by the authorities. The second target, Stephan Bandera, has a higher profile and a bodyguard but now the poison gun is fitted with a second barrel so that two people can be murdered together.
A young Ukrainian, Bogdan Stashinsky, is forced into working for the KGB and dispatched to Munich for the killings. He finds Bandera without his bodyguard but fires both barrels and this time an autopsy finds traces of the poison. Stashinsky escapes to Berlin but he wants to marry the German woman he has met.
The KGB reluctantly accept this but the border between East and West Berlin is being closed and they have only hours to make good their escape.
Bandera remains a nationalist hero for pro-West Ukrainian nationalists but for others he has a tainted past – involving Nazi Germany and atrocities against Poles and Jews – that is as poisonous as the cyanide spray that Stashinsky fires into the faces of his victims.
“The man with the poison gun” is a cliffhanging narrative that unfolds a fresh drama at a lively pace. At the heart of it are the fates of Stashinsky, the woman he risks everything for and Stephan Bandera, his second victim.
It brings home what is true about the fictional worlds of James Bond and Jason Bourne: governments are prepared to kill people they object to, special weapons are invented for just this purpose and morality is stretched paper thin by justifying it in the interest of ‘national security’.
“The man with the poison gun”, Serhii Plokhy, is published by One World.