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 that would later inform his bellicose geopolitics.
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.