Read This Book with a Martini. Shaken, not Stirred

Harvard Professor Serhii Plokhii talks on Hromadske Radio about 2016 Books, Trends, and More

Show hosts

Marta Dyczok,

Kyrylo Loukerenko

Read This Book with a Martini. Shaken, not Stirred
Read This Book with a Martini. Shaken, not Stirred

Welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main story. I’m Kyrylo Loukerenko for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news this week.

A Look at Books and Intellectual Trends in 2016


FOCUS INTERVIEW: Harvard’s Serhii Plokhii talks to Marta Dyczok about 2016 Books, Trends, and More



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FOCUS INTERVIEW: Harvard’s Serhii Plokhii talks to Marta Dyczok about 2016 Books, Trends, and More

Dyczok: 2016 is drawing to a close. This week we are going to take a look what has been published in English about Ukraine over the past year or so. Joining this conversation is Harvard Professor Serhii Plokhii who is the Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian History and Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. He is an award-winning author of ten books including “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine” and “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union”. His latest book, “The Man with a Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story,” has been just published this week and has been already named ‘Book of the Week’ by the London Times. Professor Plokhii, thank you very much for joining us for this conversation and congratulation on a publication of your latest book. Let’s start with that. The title of the book “The Man with a Poison Gun” sounds like a spy thriller, but it’s actually based on real life events. Could you tell our listeners what the book is about, and why you chose to write about events from back then in 2016.

Plokhii: First of all, thanks for having me. The book is a spy thriller. But it’s an unusual spy thriller in a sense that it’s a non-fiction book that is based on significant research, including research in archives in the Unites States and also in Ukraine in the KGB archives. I’m the author of the book but when it comes to its title I have a predecessor or co-author and this is Ian Fleming. The title is modelled on the “Man with the Golden Gun,” Fleming’s last James Bond novel. And that novel starts with a very interesting episode, where James Bond tries to assassinate his boss using what later became the Stashynsky gun, a spring pistol loaded with cyanide. He fails, he is arrested, he poisons himself in the process. But it’s also interesting that before that happens, Bond and his boss discuss two killings in Munich of people with strange names, which is certainly a reference to the Stashynsky gun and the killings Stepan Bandera and Lev Rebet, which were committed by Stashynsky in 1957 and 1959. So, with Bandera back in the news, and Stashynsky being there as well, there was this interest on my part to take another look at the story of what happened in Munich in 1957 and 1959. The partial opening of the CIA archives, so we now have access to the cia investigation into the causes of Stepan Bandera’s death, and also the opening of archives in Ukraine, including KGB archives, in the last two years allowed me to gain access to the personal file of the KGB officer who was the handler of Stashynsky at the time of the assassinations.

Dyczok: You mentioned Stashynsky. For our listeners who might not be familiar with the name, could you please tell us who was Stashynsky? This is the man with a poison gun, right?

Plokhii: It is the man with the poison gun.  He is the main character of the book indeed.  He was a native of Ukraine who was recruited by the predecessor of KGB in summer 1950. When the recruitment was taking place he was faced with the choice: either start working for KGB or his family and he himself would be arrested, for his really close connection to the Ukrainian nationalist underground, which at that time in 1950, five years after the end of the WWII, was still fighting behind the Iron Curtain in western Ukraine against the Soviet regime. Once recruited, he was sent to Kyiv for training and then sent to Germany. His base of operations was East Berlin, but most of his activities were in Munich at that time. Post-war Munich was center of the American zone of occupation and that was also the place where the headquarters of a number of anti-Soviet organisations, Ukrainian, Baltic, and others were located. So that was the primary target of KGB operations, including assassination, kidnapping, and other so-called active measures, including disinformation campaigns as well.

Dyczok: Would it be fair to say that now we know what happened because archives have been opened and history is becoming familiar to us? That is why you chose to write about this now? 

Plokhii: Well, not all of the archives opened yet but certainly those that are opened allow us to better understand what was happening during the Cold War. In this book there is a personal story of a youngster who was recruited against his will to spy on his family, to spy on his people, and who eventually rebels and escapes. That’s how we know the bulk of the story. Now, with opening of archives we know what the person was telling interrogators, and that is extremely important because when he first told the story of a lone gunman going to Munich with a strange spray pistol that no one knew could exist, the CIA didn’t believe him. After three weeks of investigation they dumped him on the West Germans because they didn’t believe him. In the CIA files we have a report that was prepared as late as April of 1976, where they were still trying to figure out whether he was a defector and the person he was saying he was, or if he was a KGB plant. With the documents coming from CIA archives, from some German archives, Polish archives, and finally KGB archives in Ukraine, we can not only collaborate parts of the story, but we can also understand the broader context in which these assassinations were taking place, and what impact they had on the conduct of the two main parties in the Cold War, The Soviet Union and the United States.

Dyczok: Sounds like a fascinating story. I can’t wait to read the book. I will be reading it over Christmas holidays. History has been a major battleground in the current conflict that is happening in Ukraine now. People are writing based on archives, and not just that. What sort of trends do you see in books published in English about Ukraine over the past year or so?

Plokhii:  Normally it takes a while to research and write the book, so I don’t think there are immediate reactions when it comes to books. The exception would be people who write on current history and mostly political scientists. In that sense the most amazing authors are in Britain. We know Andrew Wilsons’ book on the so-called “Ukrainian crisis” and Richard Sakwa’s book “Frontline Ukraine,” books with different takes on what is happening in Ukraine. They appeared almost immediately. When it comes to history, there is work in archives libraries and not just following the news, so it takes longer to write and publish them. There are some interesting books appearing now. One of them was published this year in Toronto, a book by Paul Robert Magocsi and YohananPetrovsky–Shtern, “Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence”, which doesn’t necessarily deal with the current crisis, but is very interesting in the sense of the formation of the political nation in Ukraine. There are two parallel stories of Ukrainians and Jews and how they interconnect over millennium as the title of the book suggests. 

Another book that made strong impression and interestingly enough was published in Toronto is George Liber’s “Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914-1954,”which looks at the Ukrainian history in the context of global history from WWI to the end of WWII, and the immediate years after the war. Putting Ukrainian history in the context of global history is something that we’ve been talking in the field for a while for long period of time. This is one of the first books. Not just a collection of articles that, but a book with this goal. I think both books indicate new interest in trends that emerge in writing on Ukraine here in the west in the last two-three years.

Dyczok: You’ve mentioned books that are written by scholars and experts on Ukraine. A trend that I have noticed is that since EuroMaidan erupted there has been an increase in attention to Ukraine, and people who are not experts on Ukraine have been writing on Ukraine with more or less success. Would you like to comment on that?

Plokhii:  Overall, this is a very welcome occurrence, that people who write on Ukraine are not necessarily Ukrainians, or are not necessarily focused exclusively or primarily on Ukraine. This trend brings new perspectives. It creates new framework and formulates new questions. Of course, it’s a very difficult task to write on the country that you really in many cases don’t know much about, and that’s why we have here really a very mixed blessing, and we have interventions of different kinds. It would be better for some people not to write or not to agree to give interviews. But there are some very important editions, and really very strong informed voices. One of them belongs to an author who didn’t write on Ukraine before, and this is Marci Shore. Those who are interested in Ukraine noticed her recent publication in The New Yorker on Serhiy Zhadan. She also publishes in Britain, and in the US on Ukraine, Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity. She is now working on the book that deals with that subject.  Overall, it is difficult to characterize the situation positively or negatively, because we have a lot of people who really don’t know much about Ukraine. But the fact that there is an interest in Ukraine, that there are people who were not doing research on Ukraine before are now trying do it, and that is very positive. Marci Shore is one of the examples of this positive trend in the field as a whole.

Dyczok: The increased interest in Ukraine you have just mentioned…Do you see there is an increased contact between scholars in Ukraine and outside of Ukraine that perhaps is improving the quality of scholarship on Ukraine?

Plokhii: Absolutely, that is indeed what is happening. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you are a journalist researching current crises, you go there, you meet locals, you have a fixer normally, you have a person who helps you to do that and that provides a perspective on the events that is inside perspective, something that people normally don’t have. The same is true when you are a political scientist: you go and work with people in the field, either in the field of political science, or for example sociologists, gathering data. This is also true for historians who go to the archives and work together with colleagues in Ukraine. When it comes to history, like everywhere else, it increases the field for cooperation. My concern is that sometimes you have a situation which reminds of a colonial type of relationship where the data, for example, is harvested in Ukraine, but then the final academic product is really produced somewhere else outside of Ukraine. I guess the trick here would be that with this increased traffic to Ukraine, and increased interested in Ukraine, the Ukrainian voices would be heard here as well and that those would be the voices that would talk and be on par with the commentators here in the west.  One obvious thing is that there is a lot of expertise, there are a lot of talking, there are a lot of publications on Ukraine but mostly what we hear more or less well informed voices coming from the West. We rarely have Ukrainian academics and journalists publishing their materials here in the West and making their voice to be heard. I hope that will change in the future. Things don’t change overnight, but I think this increased context eventually will lead to this reformatting, reimagining the field of Ukrainian studies and commentary on Ukraine here in the West.

And we really, very rarely, have people, and academics in particular, and journalists as well, publishing their materials here in the West, and making their voice heard. And I hope that will change in the future. Again, things don’t change overnight, but I think these increased contacts will eventually lead to reforming, reimagining the field of Ukrainian Studies and commentary here in the West.

Dyczok: You actually anticipated my next question. I was wondering have you seen any books published by Ukrainians in English that have made it to an international audience? The book that I remember from the Maidan period was Andrey Kurkov’sThe Maidan Diaries, or the Ukraine Diaries, that became quite well known in the West. But I haven’t come across really anything this past year by Ukrainian authors in English. So the voices from Ukraine, I don’t see them making it into the western audience. I don’t know if you’ve seen anything.

Plokhii: Exactly, Kurkov, Andrukhovych, Zabuzhko. These are names that are recognizable in the West, but again not by the general public. More by people who are interested in the subject one way or another. And it’s very good that those people are there, that there is name recognition, that those voices exist. You have also people from Ukraine, like Volodymyr Kulyk, for example, publishing scholarly political science articles and assessment in the West in scholarly journals. So that is happening. The question is whether there are people who would have name recognition and would be able to talk if, let’s say, if CNN is interested in the commentary. Normally they are not interested. They have a bunch of journalists who can talk on almost anything. But then again, there are not really people who can contribute to the debate, not just on the academic level, but can speak to a broader audience.

Dyczok: So contacts between experts in Ukraine and Western audiences is still an area that needs to be developed. Book distribution is something I also wanted to ask you about. Western scholars like yourself have people who help distribute your books. But there are voices writing in Ukraine that perhaps are not reaching international audiences. Is that something that you see could be improved? So, the distribution of work that is produced in Ukraine, somehow to make it reachable to international audiences?

Plokhii: Yes absolutely, that can be improved. As far as I know, for example, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies in Edmonton and Toronto is now involved in the project of translation of Stanislav Kulchytsky’s work on the Famine of 1932-1933, making the work of one of the leading Ukrainian experts on this subject known to the academic world. But these are projects that take unfortunately, years, that take a lot of effort, that take a lot of resources. So probably we can’t expect immediate return on those kind of investments. But on the other hand, there is no other way around, so the trick is that either people from Ukraine have to write in English and German, or those works have to be translated. And that’s the way how this situation can be changed. On the other hand again, Ukraine is not exactly unique in this case. Look at any other East European country, look at Romania, look even at Poland. The situation is not much better there as well.  Better in the Polish case than in Ukraine. But this is a common challenge that intellectuals, that writers, from the region face when they try to enter the debate that is happening in places like London or New York, or Toronto, or Boston.

Dyczok: Books. How many people are reading books these days? As professors we assign books to our students and… I guess where I was going with this question is: the foundation of our knowledge and our understanding about Ukraine really continues to rest in books. What are the formats that you can think of to transmit, to get people reading more books, whether they are students or the general audience? Are there perhaps new platforms, new formats that can be beneficial to getting books to audiences?

Plokhii: The book publishing industry is of course out there. It is healthy. It of course changes the way how it tries to reach readers. So again Kindle is one of the examples, that people read relatively less in the traditional format and more and more things, people get information from the screen of their lap-top, from the screen of their i-phone and so on. So that is changing. But at the end of the day you still have to have the text, you have to have this message, you have to have that argument. So that didn’t change. And the challenge is how to make whatever you say not just topical but interesting for other people to read. And these other people are not your students who have to do that to pass the exam or mid-term test or something like that. And that’s actually the challenge to the entire field of all of us, working on Ukrainian topics, not only Ukrainian. How to make what you do interesting, not only for yourself. And how to make the argument that you are making important enough for other people to care about that. And that is an ongoing challenge. In my personal opinion, the British in this sense are doing much, much better. It’s almost a job description of British intellectuals to go out there and write for a broader audience as well. But i’s a different situation certainly in Canada or the United States and certainly it is different in Ukraine or Eastern Europe for that matter as a whole, where the tradition is rooted in the value of the academic knowledge per se and it is: I wrote something interesting, I wrote something important, but this is not my task to go out there and to inform people about these things or present that in a way that would generate interest if not excitement. So it is the task of people out there to discover what a wonderful thing I have written. Again that has to change.

Dyczok: Well Professor Plokhii, your writing is an example of that. You not only have great ideas and extremely solid research but you write so well that your books read like novels. And I really look forward to reading “The Man with the Poison Gun,” and I hope others will be able to enjoy it over the holidays as well.

Plokhii: Oh that would be wonderful. There was a short review here in a newspaper that I didn’t know existed. It’s the New York Post, and it ends with the suggestion “Read this book with a martini, shaken, not stirred.” So that’s the advice for the Christmas season.

Dyczok: Thank you very much for joining us.

Plokhii: Thanks for having me.


EU Unblocks Visa Free Travel for Ukrainians and Georgians

On Thursday the EU announced on that it’s in the final stretch of granting Ukraine and Georgia visa free travel. In a late night meeting member states overcame their internal disagreements. European Council President Donald Tusk said, “Almost there. Visa suspension mechanism dispute over.” It’s been a long process. EU announced that it would grant Ukraine visa free status after the Euromaidan protests, if Ukraine met a series of conditions. Things were moving along, until about a year ago. When millions of refugees began flooding into Europe and the EU from the Middle East and Africa, the EU scrambled to put up walls. They introduced new rules and Ukraine got caught up in them, despite having fulfilled all of its obligations. Now it seems that the EU found a mechanism which will keep the new legislation in place yet allow Ukraine and Georgia visa free travel. The latest decision still has to be ratified by all EU member states and European Parliament, a process which should take a few weeks. 

Google Makes 300 Ukrainian Cities Virtually Accessible

You can now see 300 Ukrainian cities on Google Street View! This service first appeared in Ukraine in April 2012 as five Ukrainian cities became virtually available to the world. The Google Street View team then all travelled around Ukraine, with specially equipped vehicles, and collected data from other cities and towns. The updated service is now available for anyone who wants a virtual tour of Ukraine, just go to google maps and type in the name of the city you’d like to visit. 

Synchronizing the Holidays

Some Ukrainian parliamentarians want their country to celebrate Christmas on December the 25th. This week they submitted a draft law to parliament that would make that day an official holiday. Ukraine Calling listeners will know that in Ukraine, Christmas is celebrated on January the 7th. This is in accordance to the Julian Calendar, which most orthodox churches use. It’s only been an official holiday in Ukraine since the collapse of communism in 1991. During the Soviet era, religious holidays were banned. But the state moved to the Gregorian calendar that much of the world uses, and made New Year’s Eve the main winter holiday. So Soviet citizens celebrated on December 31st, like the rest of Europe. Now, a cross-party coalition wants Ukrainians to celebrate Christmas on the same day as other Europeans do.


President Poroshenko visited the Donets’k region this week, on December 5th. He wore fatigues while inspecting the reconstruction of a bridge over the Kazennyi Torets River. It was destroyed back in 2014, before Sloviansk was liberated by Ukrainian forces. Poroshenko said he wants to see it operational by the end of the year. He also visited a TV and radio transmitting station that has been restored near Kramatorsk. The tower will now enable Ukrainian media content to reach residents of the area.

The following day was Armed Forces of Ukraine Day. So the President visited wounded soldiers in Kyiv’s Main Military Hospital, handed out awards to families of fallen soldiers, and participated in an opening ceremony of a Special Forces Training Center in Berdychiv.

BBC journalist David Stern reported from Kyiv that corruption claims are tainting Ukraine’s military. He cited Victor Plakhuta who resigned from his government post in the military procurement sector. According to Plakhuta, defence contracts are inflated and given to insiders.  

The OSCE reported that in the Donets’k there were a similar number of explosions but fewer ceasefire violations in the Luhans’k region compared to the previous reporting period. Over the past week, one Ukrainian soldier was killed, 16 were wounded. A UN report released this week focused on civilians. It said that between mid-August and mid-November at least 32 civilians were killed and 132 injured in conflict-related incidents. 

Russia’s combat losses seem to be starting to appear in demographic statistics. Official Russian records show that the number of dead have soared in Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, and Krasnoyarsk oblasts, yet there has been no increase in deaths from accidents or alcoholism. Tatyana Kolesova works with the Petersburg Observers Group and shared the information with Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty.) She also mentioned that there are problems with official records in Russia, but the anomalous statistics are striking, suggesting that these may well be combat losses from Ukraine and Syria. 

Major Health Care System Reforms Coming in January

Ukraine’s government has adopted a new Health Reform Strategy that aims to improve health care delivery in the country. Starting in January, Ukrainians will have more freedom in choosing their doctors, a move away from the state directed system that is currently in place. Everyone will be eligible for a new state funded health insurance, regardless of their place of residence or financial status. This will be particularly helpful for the millions who’ve been displaced from their homes. People who live with cardiovascular diseases, type-2 diabetes, and asthma will have free access to 25 medications through a national reimbursement programme. Family physicians will receive a raise, and hospitals will be given more financial freedom. These, and other measures were spearheaded by the acting Health Minister, UlanaSuprun. Ukraine Calling listeners might remember we reported that the American born doctor was appointed to the position in July. Despite facing opposition, she has been working at streamlining the bureaucracy of Ukraine’s health care system and putting measures in place aimed at weeding out corrupt practices which plague the system. 


Films. They’re popular. And can be expensive to make. Last week Ukraine Calling reported about Ukrainian films that have recently been made it to the big screen. This week, representatives of Ukraine’s film industry met with President Petro Poroshenko. They talked about the Law on State Support for Cinematography. Poroshenko reportedly promised to back the law, saying, ‘You do not have to convince me that the cinematography requires state support.’ 

The International Women’s Club of Kyiv held its 24th annual Charity Bazaar last weekend. It’s something the non-profit organization does on the first Saturday of December, to raise funds for people in need. This year they held it in the Olympic Stadium that was built in 2012 for the Euro Cup Games. The event is supported by the diplomatic community in Kyiv, since one of its founding members back in 1992 was then Belgian Ambassador to Ukraine, IngaborKristofasse. This year 41 Embassies organized stalls where they sold goodies from their countries not easily available in Ukraine, like maple syrup from Canada. Proceeds from the bazaar go to help hospitals, children’s organizations, the disabled and elderly. Last year it raised close to 2.5 million hryvnia, this year they hope to raise more.

Crimea hasn’t been in the news too much lately. So, to keep you thinking about the place, here’s a song by the Crimean Tatar rap band Red Neks Chatalov called “Tikaran Sabr,” which means “A Bit of Patience.” 


An international dispute over Scythian gold from Ukraine will be coming to a head next week. Artifacts from five Ukrainian museums went on an international tour to Germany and the Netherlands in early 2014. The exhibit was called “Crimea – the golden island in the Black Sea.” Shortly after the exhibit opened in Amsterdam on 7 February 2014, Crimea was annexed by Russia. When the exhibit closed that August, the Dutch returned only the items on loan from the Museum in Kyiv. Items from other four loaning museums are in Crimea, so the Dutch decided to hold on to them. Ukraine has been asking for their return. According to Ukrainian law, all the items are owned by the state, and museums are simply custodians. Crimean authorities are also demanding their return. Russia became involved too, laying their claim to the gold. UNESCO has gone on record, saying that all heritage monuments of Crimea belong to Ukraine. The matter went to court in Holland. The Amsterdam District court is due to announce its decision on December the 14th.

Ukraine Calling will be following this, and other stories. Tune in next week, and write to us at [email protected].

I’m Kyrylo Loukerenko for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv.

Headlines by Marta Dyczok and Kyrylo Loukerenko. Focus idea by Larysa Iarovenko. Interview by Marta Dyczok, transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko, Alexander Konovalov, and Oksana Smerechuk. Culture and Music, Looking Forward by Marta Dyczok and Oksana Smerechuk. Sound engineers Andriy Izdryk, Anna Kyrychevska, and Alex Maclean. Web support Natalia Kucheriava.

Special thanks to Richard Raycraft and CHRW student radio at Western University for providing their studio and technical support for recording the interview with Prof. Plokhii.