Support independent journalism in Central & Eastern Europe.
Donate to TOL!

× Learn more
No, thanks Photo: Abbas Atilay
back  |  printBookmark and Share

Time of the Poisoners

A thorough account of the killings of Ukrainian nationalists by the KGB brings up parallels between the Russia of the 1950s and today.

by Taras Kuzio 23 May 2017

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



The Soviet secret police assassinated four Ukrainian nationalist leaders in the West: Symon Petlura in Paris (1926), Yevhen Konovalets in Rotterdam (1938), and Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera in Munich (1957 and 1959).


Of these, the greatest drama is associated with the last two, thanks to the first-hand accounts by the KGB assassin who carried them out, Bogdan Stashinsky, after he defected to the West in 1961.


Rebet is a much less contentious figure than Bandera. Together with Yaroslav Stetsko, he headed the short-lived Ukrainian government set up in Lviv in 1941, subsequently dismantled by the invading Germans, who imprisoned them for the entire war. After the war, Rebet, an intellectual, led a wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) that split from Bandera’s faction in 1952. Always the smallest of the three branches of OUN, it was at the same time the most democratic and was allied with the external branch of the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council, the underground “parliament” created by OUN and its political allies in Ukraine in 1944.


Bandera was only briefly leader of OUN in 1940-1941, and when he, too, was detained by the Nazis, Mykola Lebed and Roman Shukhevych took over the leadership. On his release from captivity in September 1944, Bandera became the leader of an émigré wing of OUN. Although members of this branch described themselves as “revolutionaries,” he never opted to return to Ukraine to join the partisan war against Stalin’s Soviet Union, which lasted until the early 1950s.


In his new book, Serhii Plokhy, the Harvard University doyen of Ukrainian history, writes that following the death of Shukhevych in 1950, Bandera’s symbolism as “leader of the underground and emblem of its continuing resistance grew disproportionately to his actual involvement in Ukrainian developments.” The irony is that Bandera never actually took part in any combat after 1940.


Yet it was Bandera who became a hero in death to some Ukrainians, and a bogey man in the eyes of the Soviets and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a Nazi collaborator whose followers ran a band of anti-Soviet killers known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.


The Case of the Fake Insurgency


Plokhy describes in detail the plot to assassinate Bandera and his killer’s checkered career. After four years’ imprisonment in Germany and interrogation by the CIA, Stashinsky eventually went into hiding in South Africa in 1984 and kept a very low profile, although a Ukrainian journalist claimed to have interviewed him in Kyiv six years ago.


In exile, Bandera was known to be lax about his personal security and shrugged off the serious threats on his life, Plokhy writes in his masterful account, the first full study of the Rebet and Bandera assassinations, based on material in the KGB archives. The Soviet secret police were trying to track down Bandera, “one of the most mysterious and reclusive leaders” of the Ukrainian nationalist movement in the West. The key they needed dropped into their hands when Myron Matviyeyko, Bandera’s head of security, was parachuted into Ukraine in May 1951 in a joint MI6-CIA operation, only to be swiftly captured because British double agent Kim Philby revealed the landing sites of the group and other drops to his Soviet handlers.


Monument to Bandera in Ternopil, western Ukraine. Image via Mykola Vasylechko/Wikimedia Commons.


Matviyeyko agreed to cooperate with the KGB and sent 32 radio messages to OUNb, the Bandera wing of the organization, which believed his claims of the continued existence of a nationalist underground in Ukraine through to the late 1950s. The Matviyeyko affair brought to light different approaches by American and British intelligence services. MI6, with which OUNb cooperated until the mid-1950s, was not scrupulous in whom it worked with. The CIA and its forerunner always had reservations about Bandera and the OUNb as extremists, also suspecting the group had been infiltrated by the Soviets, and chose to work with the democratic wing of Ukrainian nationalism, such as Rebet’s OUNz and the Lebed-led external branch of the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council, whose CIA-funded Prolog Research Corporation promoted non-violent resistance decades before the slogan became trendy. These groups’ transition away from support for armed resistance acknowledged that the nationalist armed underground had ceased to exist by the early 1950s. Bandera, though, refused to believe this and for eight years accepted Matviyeyko’s claim to be the authentic voice of the nationalist underground in Ukraine.


The Search for Latter-Day Banderas


Beyond making for a breathless true-life spy drama, what relevance does the Stashinsky story have today? Quite a lot. Far from being a relic of the Stalinist past, the application of extreme measures against those Moscow condemns as traitors has continued into the present day with the assassinations abroad of anti-Moscow Chechen figures, FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, and whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny in 2012. Russian agents were convicted in Qatar for the 2004 car-bomb killing of former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.


Today’s disinformation campaigns likewise draw on KGB models. The chief of the agency when it undertook to assassinate Bandera, Aleksandr Shelepin, oversaw the establishment of a new department for dezinformatsiya. KGB fake news portrayed West Germany as a hotbed of anti-Semitism and its leaders as ex-Nazis who employed the BND foreign intelligence service to murder Bandera.


The assassination of Rebet was viewed as a trial run for the Bandera hit, using a cyanide poison gun that the KGB had developed that left no traces and simulated a heart attack. The regime in Russia has been accused of continuing to use deadly poisons against domestic opponents such as Anna Politkovskaya, who was poisoned in 2004 but survived only to be murdered two years later, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, who survived an apparent poisoning this February. The assassination of Bandera was quick, and he was unable to defend himself using a pistol he had ensconced under his right arm. Stashinsky fired both barrels of the cyanide weapon, rather than the one shot used against Rebet, leaving traces of cyanide in Bandera’s stomach. Knowledge of what had really killed Bandera would only come to light after Stashinsky’s defection.


Plokhy does not delve into the question of how honey traps may have played a role in these and other Soviet assassinations, mentioning only that because the husband of Bandera’s lover Eugenia Matviyeyko had been turned by the Soviet secret police, “one had to consider a connection between Eugenia, her husband, Bandera’s death, and the KGB.” In Stashinsky’s case, he was encouraged to defect by his wife, Inge, a virulently anti-communist native of East Germany who was not entranced by the idea of living with a KGB pensioner in the USSR.


Plokhy cites Soviet claims that foreign assassinations came to an end when the Stashinsky trial revealed the scope of the KGB’s activities. But the USSR continued to run “wet operations” and many other forms of violence against opponents long after. This was evident in the assassination of Bulgarian BBC journalist Georgi Markov in London in 1978 using a poison-tipped umbrella and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II by a Turkish terrorist in 1981 working unknowingly on behalf of the Bulgarian secret police. Through its client states the USSR supported terrorist groups in Western Europe and pro-Soviet “national liberation movements” in Africa and Latin America. In similar fashion, Putin’s Russia has offered support for nationalist and neo-fascist “liberation movements” in the European Union (France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen), and Moscow is again intervening in support of former Soviet-sponsored despots in the Middle East.


The KGB archives smuggled out by defector Vasili Mitrokhin contained evidence that the Soviet military intelligence agency GRU was behind the attempted assassination of the pope, the very same GRU that led the invasions of Afghanistan in 1979 and the Crimea in 2014. On every occasion, the USSR or Russia have been “invited” into the countries they have invaded and occupied.


A comparison of the KGB’s assassinations of civilians with U.S. drone attacks against terrorists forms the rather bizarre conclusion to Plokhy’s otherwise well-researched and excellent book, which overall provides a lucid and original study of Soviet secret police methods that continue to be used by Putin’s Russia at home and abroad. This should be not surprising for a leader who believes that the disintegration of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

Taras Kuzio is a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta. His book Putin’s War Against Ukraine: Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime has just been published.



This review was supported by the Fund for Central & East European Book Projects, Amsterdam.

back  |  printBookmark and Share




Going on Assignment in Prague – January 7-15, 2018

Do you have a passion for foreign reporting? Would you like to develop your skills further or simply gain more confidence? This course is aimed at university students, freelance journalists or activists who would like to gain some practical skills in this field. You’ll learn the best tricks of the trade from storytelling and interviewing techniques to locating your sources and incorporating multimedia.

Throughout the course you will be guided by experienced foreign correspondents from media such as Reuters, the BBC, the Financial Times, and the New York Times. You’ll leave equipped with a publishable story to add to your portfolio. Early bird fee available until September 1, 2017. Apply now! or see more info.


Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


© Transitions Online 2017. All rights reserved. ISSN 1214-1615
Published by Transitions o.s., Baranova 33, 130 00 Prague 3, Czech Republic.