In 2011, a man calling himself Bohdan Stashynsky, reportedly 80 years old, sought out a journalist in Kiev, Ukraine. He said he wanted to “set the record straight” about a story which, fifty years earlier, had made Stashynsky famous. Or infamous. The story he told was very different from the version contained in the history books — so different that this new version ought to be treated with skepticism. As far as I know, nobody has confirmed it. If true, it is utterly remarkable. If false, it is still remarkable because it means that somebody — some person or organization — wanted to distort a story which few people, mostly historians, consider important. But somebody considers it important.
The old man who called himself Stashynsky told the journalist that, fifty years earlier, his romance with an East German woman, the displeasure of his KGB bosses, his defection to the West — all were lies. What was true, he said, is that he did assassinate two Ukrainian nationalist leaders and that he did publicly confess to both murders. But even his confession was a KGB ploy, he said, for the KGB had ordered him to “defect” and then confess his guilt, fully aware that his confession would send him to prison for murder.
Back in 1961, he explained, the head of the KGB, Aleksandr Shelepin, actually worried that too few people were taking him seriously. Being a Stalinist at heart, Shelepin wanted to terrify his enemies, and he even ordered several assassinations that were perpetrated abroad. Stashynsky’s own killings were among those Shelepin had ordered. But the niceties of international politics and diplomacy precluded Shelepin from openly admitting that the KGB was assassinating people — and he found this silence very frustrating. So he devised a solution of sorts: he ordered Stashynsky to “defect” to the West and confess to the world his own two assassinations. Being a “defector” would provide credibility. Everything Stashynsky revealed, Shelepin would officially deny, but unofficially the KGB would get the infamous publicity and sinister reputation Shelepin craved.
But in return, what would Stashynsky get? A prison sentence. Yet, Shelepin managed to portray this outcome as very appealing. The sentence would be served in the relative comfort of a Western prison, not a Communist one, and he assured Stashynsky that the sentence wouldn’t be longer than ten years. (It was eight.) Most importantly, by doing his duty as a loyal KGB operative, Stashynsky would earn the KGB’s gratitude — something he would dearly miss if he disobeyed.
He obeyed. The love story involving an East German woman was just a cover story. He “escaped” to the West just before the Berlin Wall went up, then “surrendered” himself to the West German authorities, confessed to the two assassinations, and generated plenty of media publicity. Stashynsky cast the KGB in the worst possible light — or, depending on your perspective, in the best possible light.
In Moscow, Shelepin deflected embarrassment by denying everything, and he soon departed the KGB — right into a Kremlin promotion. Shelepin’s power grew and grew. Some speculated that he would become the next Soviet leader.
Stashynsky, meanwhile, served only part of his West German prison sentence and afterwards was flown to the United States — for a CIA interrogation. At that time the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence was John Jesus Angleton. Angleton was paranoid about Soviet deceptions, and his people doubted that Stashynsky’s defection was genuine. In the old version of the story, they were wrong. In this new version of the story, they were right. Either way, Stashynsky was released and eventually ended up in South Africa. There, in the old version of the story, he and his East German-born wife Inge lived under new identities but otherwise disappeared from history. In the new version of the story, he never had an East German wife but did return to KGB employment and underwent plastic surgery. He returned to Moscow in 1970 and later retired to Kiev.
Shelepin got to retire too, albeit reluctantly. Shelepin’s ambitions so terrified his Kremlin colleagues that they gradually demoted his party supporters and eventually stripped him of most of his power. In 1975, he led a Soviet trade delegation to Britain. Awaiting him was the embarrassment of a massive rally of protestors, many of them Ukrainian nationalists who called Shelepin a murderer for ordering the assassinations Stashynsky had carried out. Irony indeed, for until Stashynsky’s confession, nobody in the West knew those deaths were not natural. Shelepin “retired.” He died in 1994, outliving the Soviet Union that he once hoped to rule.
In 2011, in concluding this story, the old man who called himself Stashynsky showed no remorse for the two assassinations he committed decades earlier. He said he merely did his job as a loyal KGB operative. The old man then left the journalist. His story, published online, has not been corroborated.
So we now have two stories about Stahynsky and either one could be true, but not both. The old story has the merit of lacking any nagging questions. If it is true, its details are facts, and enough facts exist to make the story feel complete. By contrast, the new story leaves some nagging questions — even if the story is false.
If the new story is true, why did Stashynsky, a loyal KGB operative, suddenly feel the need to “set the record straight,” as he put it? And why in 2011? Certainly the man was old, his lifetime was running out, but the timing still feels strange. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, the KGB was disbanded, and Ukraine gained its independence. That was twenty years before the old man sought out a journalist. Why didn’t he care enough to “set the record straight” during those two decades? Indeed, why bother to set the record straight at all? The old story — with romance, an exciting defection, and a moral accounting despite knowing that the reward is prison — is rather flattering. The main character of that story gets remembered as a sort of hero, whatever the hidden facts. But to commit a double-murder for Communism and then publicly admit your undying loyalty to the KGB, long after both Communism and the KGB are gone? What sort of hero is that?
But any old KGB man who is proud of his service may indeed consider himself a hero. Devotion to duty. Accepting a prison sentence in a foreign country to enhance the reputation of your employer. Serving in silence, even suffering in silence, while deceiving the world because that is your mission. Communism is your faith and the KGB is your religious order. If this was Stashynsky’s mind-set, then maybe he wanted some credit that Communism and the KGB could no longer give him. Maybe he wanted the world to know how clever he was, not only as an assassin but as a supposed defector. An actor on the world stage. How many actors’ roles include years in prison to persuade the audience? Such individuals do exist; maybe Stashynsky is one of them. If the new story feels implausible, nevertheless it is not impossible.
If the new story is false, however, who concocted it? It could be a prank or maybe something more. If a prank, the prankster went to great lengths to learn the original Stashynsky case in detail. The prankster might even be the journalist, for we have only the journalist’s article as “evidence” that the interview occurred. Indeed, even that article has become hard to find. Here is the (broken) link:
A cyber-legacy of that article can be found in some Internet search engines, using the keywords bohdan stashynsky kiev. Using Google, the results include this: “A KGB Assassin Speaks. Nov 18, 2011 – One of the KGB’s master assassins reared his head in Kyiv this summer. Bohdan Stashynsky killed two Ukrainian émigré nationalists in Münich…”
If the concocter was an organization, perhaps the Russian Intelligence Service, it could have learned the details of the Stashynsky case fairly easily and just as easily devised a fake back-story involving a long dead KGB head. Implementing the rest would involve merely hiring an old man and/or a willing “journalist” to spread the new fake narrative.
But why? To discredit Stashynsky fifty years later? To portray him as the loyal operative of an organization that no longer exists? I can think of better ways to utilize bureaucratic resources — and yet the answer to both questions might be yes. For while the KGB is gone, the legacy of the KGB lives on, as do many of its past employees, including Vladimir Putin. Among such people with their mind-set, perhaps the embarrassment Stashynsky caused the KGB has never been forgotten, nor forgiven. For all we know, Stashynsky may have died peacefully in his sleep years ago, under an assumed name and after a happy life with Inge. Or maybe the KGB somehow tracked him down and assassinated the former assassin. I don’t know. But history has recorded his original story, a story his enemies might deem intolerable. Since they cannot erase his story, the alternative is to change it, distort it, make it less flattering. Ironically, in order to do this, his enemies created an alternate persona that was surprisingly like themselves: the loyal KGB man, utterly devoted to the State and the Center, never questioning either, hardened against Western values, willing to sacrifice any freedom in order to further the Cause.
But why perpetrate this scheme in 2011? Perhaps because Russian-Ukrainian relations in 2011 were starting to deteriorate as Russia’s influence in Ukraine began to slip away. Stashynsky had assassinated two Ukrainian nationalists — but at least the Stashynsky story ended with a love interest, a defection, and a public confession. Love conquered a killing machine, proving that Might does not make Right. But by changing the narrative — no love interest, no real defection, a public confession not entirely sincere — it can encourage the idea that Might does make Right. Even when the downtrodden believe they are winning, at least morally, it suggests that the powerful are actually manipulating them.
For conspiracy theorists, the two stories of Bohden Stashynsky ought to be a boon — except for two details. First, the new version of the story has not gained much traction, not even online, leaving the old story as the most accepted story. Second, today, almost nobody knows the Stashynsky case, nor cares to. Whatever remains a mystery about his case, if any mystery exists at all, is left to a few historians to solve. If they even care to.
— John G. Heidenrich