How the 1980s Explains Vladimir Putin

As the Soviet system disintegrated, the Russian president was a young KGB agent serving in an isolated part of East Germany. Here's how the experience would shape him -- and his country.

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In 1996, Vladimir Putin and a group of friends and acquaintances from St. Petersburg would gather in an idyllic lakeside setting -- barely an hour and a half north of the city. The location, on the Karelian Isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, was only an hour and 20 minute's drive to the Finnish border, in an area that has variously been part of the Swedish Empire, the tsarist Russian empire, independent Finland, the Soviet Union, and now Russia. This was a wonderful place for Mr. Putin to reflect on the twists and turns of fate and Russia's evolving borders over the centuries. It also put Mr. Putin far away from the Russian center,  Moscow.

Putin had built a dacha, a weekend house, in this locale not long after he returned to St. Petersburg from his KGB service in Dresden, East Germany, but it had burned down in 1996. He had a new one built identical to the original and was joined by a group of seven friends who built dachas beside his. In the fall of 1996, the group formally registered their fraternity, calling it Ozero (Lake) and turning it into a gated community. Reportedly, the group members were so close that they often carpooled out from St. Petersburg to the dachas.

Close though they seem to have been, Putin was an outsider to this group. Of the eight founders of Ozero, seven were businessmen and one was a civil servant. Seven had degrees in physics or engineering, and one had a law degree. The odd man out was Vladimir Putin. What they had in common was the archetypical Petersburg mentality that they were outsiders to the Russian capital. They were the outsiders looking from afar, watching all the mistakes made by Russian politicians in Moscow in the 1990s, yet generally powerless to change things. It is not hard to imagine that at least some of their vodka-infused conversations on the porches or in the saunas at Ozero that summer ran something like: "Think how much better off this country would be if people like us were running it! Don't 'they' see how they're taking us to the brink of ruin and collapse?"

Many in the Ozero group had, like Putin, spent periods of time outside Russia and the USSR, where they were able to detach themselves from ongoing events and form a more dispassionate analysis of the current state of affairs. Unlike men from "the provinces" (glubinka in Russian), St. Petersburgers do not really accept the role of being second-class citizens. The city's downgrade from imperial capital to provincial city in the Soviet period, and the Bolshevik decision to rename it Leningrad, created a sense of resentment, a grudge against Moscow. St. Petersburg was supposed to be important. It had been built as the capital and the center of high culture for Peter the Great's new Russian Empire. But its citizens were abruptly designated second rank.

Putin was doubly or triply an outsider in the St. Petersburg Ozero group and the Soviet nomenklatura (those who occupied state administrative positions). His family was never part of the intelligentsia. Putin was not part of the traditional structures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In many respects he was an outsider even within the KGB. He was not a KGB "golden boy" like his contemporary Sergei Ivanov -- who later served as defense minister and deputy prime minister under Putin. The latter enjoyed early postings to Helsinki and London and always seemed to be on a fast track as he rose through the academies and ranks of the KGB. In contrast, Vladimir Putin did not reach the upper echelons of the institution until he suddenly secured a political appointment to head the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1998.

Putin was an outsider even to Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring or transformation). He was posted in Dresden during the critical period when Gorbachev took the helm of the USSR. Gorbachev was elected head of the CPSU in May 1985; Putin received his orders to relocate to Dresden that August. He remained there until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and returned to Soviet Leningrad early in 1990. After his tenure as a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin was specifically brought into Moscow in summer 1996 as an outsider -- he was an operative on a mission to collect information on, monitor, and ultimately help the Kremlin rein in Russia's unruly oligarchs.

In an interview she gave shortly after Putin was appointed prime minister in 1999, Russian analyst Lilia Shevtsova described him as "an outsider who previously served in St. Petersburg. ... He has not had the time to develop the personal relationships and the network of allies within the bureaucracy of the security services that is necessary to establish firm control." Shevtsova and many others cautioned in 1999 against seeing Putin "as some kind of superman" based on his previous, and brief, position as head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB. They concluded that "he [Putin] will be greatly limited in what he is able to do."

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Russian President Vladimir Putin walks along the embankment of the Elbe River during sightseeing tour of Dresden, Germany, before meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 11, 2006. (Dmitry Astakhov/Reuters)

The group of outsiders, who watched what the insiders did -- and probably begrudged them for their arrogance and incompetence -- defines the brotherhood Putin identifies with. Most of his inner circle falls into this outsider category. In particular, Putin has a very ambiguous relationship with the so-called siloviki -- the insiders from the KGB/FSB and other security or power ministries like the ministries of Defense and the Interior. This is not his fraternity. Apart from a very short period spent heading the FSB as a political appointee, Putin never served in the central apparatus of any of these entities and he never rose to the KGB's highest ranks during his official service. His formal positions in the KGB were always on the periphery -- in Leningrad and in Dresden.

Putin was one of a generation of young recruits, a cohort of outsiders, brought into the KGB by chairman Yury Andropov in the 1970s. Andropov's career had been made in the CPSU, not the security services. He also served as Soviet ambassador to Budapest during the fateful Hungarian uprising of 1956, an experience that in some respects mirrors Vladimir Putin's own time in Dresden as the German Democratic Republic fell apart. In the late 1960s, he was closely associated with spearheading the KGB's efforts to crush political dissent and with creating the notorious network of psychiatric hospitals that prominent dissidents were often dispatched to "for treatment."

Andropov was also aware, however, that the entrenched and increasingly enfeebled Soviet system was in dire need of reform. In an effort to bring some new perspectives into the KGB and create an atmosphere for finding new ideas and dealing with the state's myriad problems, Andropov implemented a policy to expand the institution's recruitment of critical-minded young officers from different societal groups who could change the organization. Andropov left the KGB in 1982 to become leader of the USSR. After Andropov's sudden death in February 1984, tensions between this group of recruits, which was widely referred to as the Andropov levy (or Andropov draft), and older KGB insiders increased. Vladimir Putin's recruitment to the KGB in 1975 as part of this general group compounded his sense of being an outsider.

Putin's assignment to Dresden put him even further outside mainstream structures. He was also outside the USSR -- during the crucial years of perestroika, 1985 to 1989, Putin could only look in from afar. Those back home, including people who would later sit in Putin's inner circle, like erstwhile President Dmitry Medvedev, were caught up in the heat of the dramatic political, social and cultural events of this period. While Putin now uses the 1990s as the touchstone for his presidency and spends an inordinate amount of channeling the debates and ideas of this decade, he has remarkably little to say about the 1980s. Putin probably also has a very different, much more uniformly negative, version of events of the late 1980s than his peers in St. Petersburg or Moscow.

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Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II stand at the podium during a reception in the Kremlin in Moscow on January 11, 2000, less than two weeks after Putin became acting president of Russia, following Boris Yeltsin's resignation. (AP Images)

As a foreigner in Dresden from 1985 to 1989, Putin was also an outsider to the system and events in East Germany. This must have been a strange position for him. It undoubtedly reinforced his view of his identity and role as the critical outsider learning from the mistakes of others. When Putin was posted to Dresden, the GDR was supposedly a Soviet ally, but the leadership of Eric Honecker sometimes acted as if its counterparts in Moscow were as much an enemy as the West. There was no love lost between the inflexible East German leader and Mikhail Gorbachev, who used every occasion, including a public toast to Honecker in September 1988, to remind his German counterpart of the need for political change.

The accepted story about Putin's KGB service is that Dresden -- which was the third-largest city in the GDR with a population of about 500,000 -- was an unimportant backwater. Putin's work there has also routinely been described as unimportant and even unsuccessful. There is no official version of what Putin was doing in Dresden, and he has not offered much personal detail. Nor is there any concrete information about which directorate of the KGB Putin worked for. One suggestion is that he was in an operation, "Operation Luch" ("beam" or "ray"), to steal technological secrets. Another says that while he was indeed part of Operation Luch, the mission was in fact an undercover operation to recruit top officials in the East German Communist Party and secret police (Stasi). The goal was to secure their support for the reformist, perestroika, line of the Soviet leadership in Moscow against opposition from Honecker and his hardline East German allies. A third says simply that the goal of the KGB in Dresden was to contact, entrap, compromise, and generally recruit Westerners who happened to be in Dresden studying and doing business. Other versions suggest that the KGB was focused on recruiting East Germans who had relatives in the West. Some versions of the story have said Putin traveled undercover himself to West Germany on occasion.

Not only is it likely that Putin engaged in some or all of these activities, it is virtually inconceivable that he did not. The KGB was stealing technological secrets everywhere it could. As for entrapping, compromising, and recruiting Westerners or people with connections to the West, that too was a permanent assignment for anyone in the KGB. Regardless of what exactly Putin did in Dresden, one thing is certain -- Dresden was not a political backwater in East Germany. While Putin was far removed from political events in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1980s, he was not outside politics or world events in Dresden. The GDR was imploding. Dresden was one of the centers of opposition within the German Communist Party to the retrograde Honecker regime -- an intra-party opposition in which Hans Modrow, the party's Dresden leader, was an active participant.

Given the ferment at home, Putin's KGB counterparts back in the USSR were unlikely to be paying a great deal of attention to what was happening in East Germany. But if Putin had even the slightest interest in political developments in the GDR, there could hardly have been a much better place to be than Dresden. Putin was close enough to the ground that he could observe the activities of the East German opposition first-hand, just as Andropov observed the Hungarian opposition in the mid-1950s during his posting to Budapest. Putin was also likely charged with monitoring and to trying to understand the opposition, their motivations, their strengths, and weaknesses.


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