The Man With The Poison Gun

Title:                      The Man With The Poison Gun

Author:                 Serhii Plokhy

Plokhy, Serhii (2016). The Man With The Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story. New York: Basic Books

LCCN:    2016019612

DK266.3 .P463 2016


  • “In the fall of 1961, a KGB agent defected to West Germany. The slim 30-year-old man in police custody had papers in the name of an East German, Josef Lehmann, but claimed that his real name was Bogdan Stashinsky, and he was a citizen of the Soviet Union. On the orders of his KGB bosses, he had traveled on numerous occasions to Munich, where he singlehandedly tracked down and killed two enemies of the communist regime. He used a new, specially designed secret weapon–a spray pistol delivering liquid poison that, if fired into the victim’s face, killed him without leaving any trace. Wracked by a guilty conscience, Stashinsky escaped with his wife under the tragic cover of their infant son’s funeral, and crossed into West Berlin just hours before the Berlin Wall was erected. In 1962, after spilling his secrets to the CIA, Stashinky was put on trial in what would be the most publicized assassination case in Cold War history. Stashinsky’s testimony, implicating the Kremlin rulers in political assassinations carried out abroad, shook the world of international politics. The publicity stirred up by the Stashinsky case forced the KGB to change its modus operandi abroad and helped end the career of one of the most ambitious and dangerous Soviet leaders, the former head of the KGB and Leonid Brezhnev’s rival, Aleksandr Shelepin. In West Germany, the Stashinsky trial changed the way in which Nazi criminals were prosecuted. Using the Stashinsky case as a precedent, many defendants in such cases claimed, as had the Soviet spy, that they were simply accessories to murder, while their superiors, who ordered the killings, were the main perpetrators.”–Provided by publisher.


Date Updated:  October 6, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

One of the longest-running bully-boy relationships in Europe is that of Russia and an oft-victimized Ukraine. Portions of Ukraine previously controlled by Poland were seized by the USSR as a spoils of war under the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, and retained in the post-war period.

But proud Ukrainian nationalists resisted Soviet rule, led by a fierce (if divided) resistance. The Soviets responded with massive troop deployments that killed an estimated 100,000 “bandits” from 1944-46. The leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Stepan Bandera, was driven into refuge in Munich, Germany, where he called for an independent state. In a show of strength, he also arranged the assassination of Yaroslav Halan, a pro-Soviet Ukrainian.

An outraged Joseph Stalin ordered retaliation. His chosen instrument to direct revenge was underling Nikita Khrushchev, then the party boss in Ukraine.

Thus began the transformation of Bogdan Stashinsky, a 19-year-old resident of a small village near Lviv, into one of the KGB’s deadliest assassins. His story is told in a gripping work by Serhii Plokhy that is rich in the tradecraft with which Stalin’s killers stalked opponents — as a matter of state policy. Mr. Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, has written extensively on the country.

Stashinsky fell into hands of a predecessor of the KGB through accident. Detained for avoiding a small train fare, he was given a choice: jail for him and family members, or the secret police. He was ordered to penetrate a resistance group and finger the man who killed Halan. He succeeded, but came under local suspician as an informer. He was pulled out for extensive tradecraft training and routine spy assignments in West Germany.

Then came a quantum jump: Stashinsky was tasked with murdering Lev Reber, a Bandera rival in exile politics. He was introduced to a sophisticated new weapon: “A metal cylinder, eight inches long and less than an inch in diameter.” The cylinder contained an ampoule with liquid. When the trigger was pressed, a striker set off by gunpowder charge hit the ampoule with poison, spraying the face of the target. The poison caused immediate unconsciousness and swift death; it would evaporate without a trace.

To his credit, Stashinsky balked at the assignment. Raised a Christian, he “could not imagine himself killing an unarmed person.” But he felt he had no choice. And he used the “poison gun” to murder Rebel, in 1957. Stashinsky next was ordered to kill Bandera — which he did, in an elevator lobby of his apartment building.

The Bandera killing gave Stashinsky’s KGB career a major boost. He was based permanently in Moscow for intensive training to work undercover in Europe. He met regularly with such big-wigs as Aleksandr Shelepin, KGB chair at age 40, a riser in the Kremlin hierarchy.

But romance intervened. Stashinsky married an East German woman, and the couple experienced the cultural shock of life in Moscow— crammed housing, food shortages, filth everywhere, a sordid existence by every measure.

Their disillusionment was so deep that in 1961 they fled to West Berlin. Stashinsky approached the CIA station, which passed him on to West German security. Authorities there insisted on putting him on trial for murder, with the goal of a life sentence.

Unsurprisingly, the loudest cries for vengeance came from Bandera supporters. One journalist decried Stashinsky as “the degenerate who will go down in history as a personification of baseness.”

But Stashinsky’s testimony was damning to the Soviet leadership. The murder apparatus he described went all the way to the top—to Premier Khrushchev and the KGB’s Shelepin. Stashinsky made a convincing argument that he joined KGB under duress not of free will. And he defected because “it was my duty somehow to make up for my misdeed and try to warn people against anything of the kind.” He admitted his guilt, but asked that the court “be guided more by considerations of mercy than of law.”

Stashinsky contended that his experience dis-played the realities of “peaceful coexistence” that marked Soviet foreign policy.

His plea succeeded. He was sentenced to six years. As events worked out, Stashinsky served only three years. Subsequent press reports said CIA spirited him to the US to protect him from vengeful KGB assassins. Mr. Plokhy, who had access to CIA archives, found no such involvement by Washington.

In fact, Stashinsky found refuge in South Africa, whose polyglot population made anonymity easier, and whose security agency, BOSS, could make life safe for him.

With Russian assassins once again on the roam as part of Vladimir Putin’s attempt to regain former Soviet holdings, including Ukraine, Stashinsky’s story, although more than half a century old, is a grim reminder of the institutional criminality that continues to pervade Moscow.

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

On 12 August 1961, Josef Lehmann and his wife Inge took an S-Bahn train in the Soviet zone of Berlin, got off in West Berlin, and turned themselves in to the police. The Wall went up the next day. As was the custom then, they were promptly turned over to the CIA Berlin base, where Josef gave his true name—Bogdan Stashinsky—and confessed to having murdered, under orders from the KGB, two Ukrainian émigrés, Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, with a special gun that shot acid in the victims’ faces. After several months of interrogation, the skeptical CIA decided Stashinsky was no longer of use to them and returned the couple to the West German authorities, who verified their story. In a sensational public trial, Stashinsky was convicted of murder and sentenced to eight years.

This much of the Stashinsky case was told in a 1967 book by Karl Anders (true name: Hendrik van Bergh).[3] Harvard professor of Ukrainian history, Serhii Plokhy, after examining recently released documents from the archives of several countries, adds much more to the story.

The Man With the Poison Gun describes what is now known and suspected about Stashinsky’s life. There are brief comments about his childhood in Ukraine and his recruitment by the KGB. The assassinations he performed are covered in detail from the KGB perspective with considerable emphasis on the tradecraft employed. Equally important is Plokhy’s discussion of the Soviet political justification for eliminating the leaders of the Ukrainian autonomy movement and how Stashinsky’s defection influenced Soviet assassination policy. Intermixed with all this, Plokhy describes how Stashinsky met his wife and how the murders contributed to their defection.

Some aspects of Stashinsky’s life are still not well understood. In 1964, while in prison, he was interviewed by US senator Thomas Dodd about the KGB as background for the Kennedy assassination investigation, and links to Oswald that Plokhy considers improbable. Another puzzle is what followed after Stashinsky’s unannounced early release from prison in 1967. The German press claimed he was met by the CIA (p. 296) and Plokhy speculates about what might have happened to him, had he been turned over to James Angleton. (p. 299) Another report says he was retrained in Germany and later resettled elsewhere.

Other stories about Stashinsky have surfaced from time to time since then. The most bizarre was the assertion by the KGB that his defection was a KGB-controlled operation all along, and that he had been rescued from South America and returned to the Soviet Union. Plokhy dismisses the claim and, citing reliable South African sources, writes that he was sent to live in South Africa—“he is probably still living there”—from where he reportedly made occasional visits to his boyhood home in Ukraine. (p. xiii)

The Man With the Poison Gun concludes with allegations by Plokhy that “both Soviet and American intelligence services in the 1950s and 1960s resorted to assassination in order to deal with the same phenomena—insurgency aroused by the weakening or disintegration of empires.” (p. 320) No examples of US assassinations are cited. Moreover, he suggests the Russians have continued this policy into the present and, to make his point, equates alleged FSB assassinations of Russian journalists and former FSB office Alexander Litvinenko with US drone operations in the Middle East, omitting any mention of 9/11.

Professor Plokhy has added many well-documented details and some speculation to the Stashinsky story. Readers should value the former and treat the latter with caution.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3 Winter 2016-17, pp. 106-108). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted in the Intelligencer by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 128-129). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[3] Anders, Karl [pseud. for Hendrik van Bergh] (1967). Murder to Order [Mord auf Befehl]. New York, Devin-Adair Co. [LCCN : 67018232]


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