Rules Of Power

How the Fall of the Berlin Wall Radicalized Putin

In 1989, as East Germany collapsed around him, a KGB spy in Dresden named Vladimir Putin came to some hard conclusions about power and its paralysis—lessons that would later inform his bellicose geopolitics.

11.09.14 10:45 AM ET

Just when the Putins left the Soviet Union, that country began to change drastically and irrevocably. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Two years later, he had released all Soviet dissidents from prison and was beginning to loosen the reins on Soviet bloc countries. The KGB leadership as well as its rank and file perceived Gorbachev’s actions as disastrous. Over the next few years, a chasm would open up between the Party and the KGB, culminating with the failed coup in August 1991.

Watching the changes from afar, surrounded by other secret police officers—and no one else—Putin must have felt a hopeless, helpless fury. Back home, KGB leadership was pledging loyalty to the secretary general and his planned reforms. In June 1989, the head of the KGB in Leningrad issued a public statement condemning secret-police crimes committed under Stalin. In East Germany, as in the Soviet Union, people were beginning to come out into the streets to protest, and the unthinkable was quickly beginning to look probable: the two Germanys might be reunited—the land Vladimir Putin had been sent here to guard would just be handed over to the enemy. Everything Putin had worked for was now in doubt; everything he had believed was being mocked. This is the sort of insult that would have prompted the agile little boy and young man that Putin had been to jump the offender and pound him until his fury had subsided. Middle-aged, out-of-shape Putin sat idle and silent as his dreams and hopes for the future were destroyed.

In the late spring and early summer of 1989, Dresden faced its first unsanctioned gatherings: handfuls of people collecting in public squares, first protesting the rigging of local elections in May and then, like the rest of Germany, demanding the right to emigrate to the West. In August, tens of thousands of East Germans actually traveled east—taking advantage of the lifting of travel restrictions within the Soviet bloc—only to descend on West German embassies in Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw. A series of Monday-night protests began across the cities of East Germany, growing bigger every week. East Germany shut its borders, but it was too late to stem the tide of both emigrants and protesters, and an agreement was ultimately brokered to transport the Germans from east to west. They would travel by train, and the trains would pass through Dresden, the East German city closest to Prague. Indeed, first the empty trains would travel through Dresden on their way to pick up the nearly eight thousand East Germans who were occupying the West German embassy in Prague. In the early days of October, thousands of people began to gather at the train station in Dresden—some of them carrying heavy luggage, hoping somehow to hitch a ride to the West, others simply there to witness the most astonishing event in the city’s postwar history.

The crowds met with all the law enforcement Dresden could gather: regular police were joined by various auxiliary security forces, and together they threatened, beat, and detained as many people as they could. Unrest continued for several days. On October 7, Vladimir Putin’s thirty-seventh birthday, East Germany celebrated the official fortieth anniversary of its formation, and riots broke out in Berlin; more than a thousand people were arrested. Two days later, hundreds of thousands came out across the country for another Monday-night demonstration, and their numbers more than doubled two weeks later. On November 9, the Berlin Wall fell, but demonstrations in East Germany continued until the first free elections in March.

On January 15, 1990, a crowd formed outside the Stasi headquarters in Berlin to protest the reported destruction of documents by the secret police. The protesters managed to overcome the security forces and enter the building. Elsewhere in East Germany, protesters began storming Ministry of State Security buildings even earlier.

Putin told his biographers that he had been in the crowd and watched people storm the Stasi building in Dresden. “One of the women was screaming, ‘Look for the entrance to the tunnel under the Elbe River! They have inmates there, standing up to their knees in water.’ What inmates was she talking about? Why did she think they were under the Elbe? There were some detention cells there, but, of course, they were not under the Elbe.” Putin generally found the protesters’ rage excessive and bewildering. It was his friends and neighbors under attack, the very people with whom he had lived and socialized—exclusively—for the last four years, and he could not imagine any of them were as evil as the crowd claimed: they were just ordinary paper-pushers, like Putin himself.

When the protesters descended on the building where he worked, he was outraged. “I accept the Germans’ crashing their own Ministry of State Security headquarters,” he told his biographers a dozen years later. “That’s their internal affair. But we were not their internal affair. It was a serious threat. And we had documents in our building. And no one seemed to care enough to protect us.” The guards at the KGB building must have fired warning shots—Putin said only that they demonstrated their will to do whatever was necessary to protect the building—and the protesters quieted down for a time. When they grew riotous again, Putin claimed, he himself stepped outside. “I asked them what they wanted. I explained that this was a Soviet organization. And someone in the crowd asks, ‘Why do you have cars with German license plates? What are you doing here, anyway?’ Like they knew exactly what we were doing there. I said that our contract allowed us to use German license plates. ‘And who are you? Your German is too good,’  they started screaming. I told them I was an interpreter. These people were very aggressive. I phoned our military representatives and told them what was going on. And they said, ‘We cannot do anything until we have orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent.’ A few hours later, our military did come and the crowd dispersed. But I remembered that: ‘Moscow is silent.’ I realized that the Soviet Union was ill. It was a fatal illness called paralysis. A paralysis of power.”

His country, which he had served as well as he could, patiently accepting whatever role it saw fit to assign him, had abandoned Putin. He had been scared and powerless to protect himself, and Moscow had been silent. He spent the several hours before the military arrived inside the besieged building, shoving papers into a wood-burning stove until the stove split from the excessive heat. He destroyed everything he and his colleagues had worked to collect: all the contacts, personnel files, surveillance reports, and, probably, endless press clippings.

Even before the protesters had chased the Stasi out of their buildings, East Germany began the grueling and painful process of purging the Stasi from its society. All of the Putins’ neighbors not only lost their jobs but were banned from working in law enforcement, the government, or teaching. “My neighbor with whom I had become friends, spent a week crying,” Ludmila Putina told her husband’s biographers. “She cried for the dream she had lost, for the collapse of everything she had ever believed. Everything had been crushed: their lives, their careers. . . . Katya [Ekaterina, the Putins’ younger daughter] had a teacher at her preschool, a wonderful teacher—and she was now banned from working with children. All because she had worked for the Ministry of State Security.” Twelve years later, the incoming first lady of post-Soviet Russia still found the logic of lustration incomprehensible and inhumane.

The Putins returned to Leningrad. They carried a twenty-year-old washing machine given to them by their former neighbors—who, even having lost their jobs, enjoyed a higher standard of living than the Putins could hope to attain back in the USSR—and a sum of money in U.S. dollars, sufficient to buy the best Soviet-made car available. This was all they had to show for four and a half years of living abroad—and for Vladimir Putin’s unconsummated spy career. The four of them would be returning to the smaller of the two rooms in the elder Putins’ apartment. Ludmila Putina would be reduced to spending most of her time scouring empty store shelves or standing in line to buy basic necessities: this was how most Soviet women spent their time, but after four and a half years of a relatively comfortable life in Germany, it was not only humiliating but frightening. “I was scared to go into stores,” she told interviewers later. “I would try to spend as little time as possible inside, just enough to get the bare necessities—and then I would run home. It was terrible.”

Could there have been a worse way to return to the Soviet Union? Sergei Roldugin, Putin’s cellist friend, remembered him saying, “They cannot do this. How could they? I see that I can make mistakes, but how can these people, whom we think of as the best professionals, make mistakes?” He said he would leave the KGB. “Once a spy, always a spy,” his friend responded; this was a common Soviet saying. Vladimir Putin felt betrayed by his country and his corporation—the only important affiliation he had ever known, outside his judo club—but the corporation was filled with people who increasingly felt betrayed, misled, and abandoned; it would be fair to say this was the KGB’s corporate spirit in 1990.

Reprinted from The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2012 by Masha Gessen.