Putin Tells Oliver Stone About His Days As A KGB Spy
Russia’s President Putin talked to Oliver Stone not only about politics and international affairs, but also about his family, childhood, and hobbies, as well as the time when he served as an under-cover KGB agent in Dresden in 1980s. These recollections are part of a book of full transcripts that includes material left out of the documentary series The Putin Interviews (which was panned last week by Rolling Stone in its “10 Most WTF Things We Learned From Oliver Stone’s Putin Interviews“).
Vladimir Putin said he joined the KGB, the Soviet Committee for State Security, in 1975, because he had “always wanted to.”
“I entered law school because I wanted to work for the KGB. And still when I was a pupil at school, I went to the KGB office in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) by myself. And I asked them what I had to do in order to work for the KGB. And the workers told me that I had to have a higher education and a better legal education.”
Putin said he did not have “any contact with the KGB” following the visit, so it was “quite unexpected that the KGB found me and offered a job” after he graduated from law school.
When asked by Stone, Putin acknowledged he watched many films about the agency and their intelligence work and was particularly inspired by a Soviet-era espionage thriller called Seventeen Moments of Spring, in which the main character played by famous actor Vyacheslav Tikhonov is a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany. The president admitted to romanticizing about getting a job at the KGB.
Putin served as an under-cover spy in Dresden from 1985 through 1990 and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel when the USSR collapsed. In the late 1990s, he briefly served as the head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor.
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While Putin’s walk down memory lane with Stone was rather limited, the BBC recently conducted an extensive look on Putin’s days in Dresden. Some excerpts below:
Putin had arrived in Dresden in the mid-1980s for his first foreign posting as a KGB agent. The German Democratic Republic or GDR – a communist state created out of the Soviet-occupied zone of post-Nazi Germany – was a highly significant outpost of Moscow’s power, up close to Western Europe, full of Soviet military and spies. Putin had wanted to join the KGB since he was a teenager, inspired by popular Soviet stories of secret service bravado in which, he recalled later, “One man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.”
Initially, though, much of his work in Dresden was humdrum. Among documents in the Stasi archives in Dresden is a letter from Putin asking for help from the Stasi boss with the installation of an informer’s phone.
And there are details too of Soviet-East German social gatherings Putin attended, to celebrate ties between the two countries. But if the spy work wasn’t that exciting, Putin and his young family could at least enjoy the East German good life. Putin’s then wife, Ludmila, later recalled that life in the GDR was very different from life in the USSR. “The streets were clean. They would wash their windows once a week,” she said in an interview published in 2000, as part of First Person, a book of interviews with Russia’s new and then little-known acting president.
The Putins lived in a special block of flats with KGB and Stasi families for neighbours, though Ludmila envied the fact that: “The GDR state security people got higher salaries than our guys, judging from how our German neighbours lived. Of course we tried to economise and save up enough to buy a car.”
A former KGB colleague, Vladimir Usoltsev, describes Putin spending hours leafing through Western mail-order catalogues, to keep up with fashions and trends. He also enjoyed the beer – securing a special weekly supply of the local brew, Radeberger – which left him looking rather less trim than he does in the bare-chested sporty images issued by Russian presidential PR today.
East Germany differed from the USSR in another way too – it had a number of separate political parties, even though it was still firmly under communist rule, or appeared to be.
“He enjoyed very much this little paradise for him,” says Boris Reitschuster. East Germany, he says, “is his model of politics especially. He rebuilt some kind of East Germany in Russia now.”
But in autumn 1989 this paradise became a kind of KGB hell. On the streets of Dresden, Putin observed people power emerging in extraordinary ways. In early October hundreds of East Germans who had claimed political asylum at the West German embassy in Prague were allowed to travel to the West in sealed trains. As they passed through Dresden, huge crowds tried to break through a security cordon to try to board the trains, and make their own escape.
Wolfgang Berghofer, Dresden’s communist mayor at the time, says there was chaos as security forces began taking on almost the entire local population. Many assumed violence was inevitable.
“A Soviet tank army was stationed in our city,” he says. “And its generals said to me clearly: ‘If we get the order from Moscow, the tanks will roll.'”
After the Berlin Wall opened, on 9 November, the crowds became bolder everywhere – approaching the citadels of Stasi and KGB power in Dresden.
Putin and his KGB colleagues frantically burned evidence of their intelligence work. “I personally burned a huge amount of material,” Putin recalled in First Person. “We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst.”
Two weeks later there was more trauma for Putin as West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl arrived in the city. He made a speech that left German reunification looking inevitable, and East Germany doomed. Kohl praised Gorbachev, the man in Moscow who’d refused to send in the tanks, and he used patriotic language – words like Vaterland, or fatherland – that had been largely taboo in Germany since the war. Now they prompted an ecstatic response.
It’s not known whether Putin was in that crowd – but as a KGB agent in Dresden he’d certainly have known all about it. The implosion of East Germany in the following months marked a huge rupture in his and his family’s life.
“We had the horrible feeling that the country that had almost become our home would no longer exist,” said his wife Ludmila. “My neighbour, who was my friend, cried for a week. It was the collapse of everything – their lives, their careers.”
One of Putin’s key Stasi contacts, Maj Gen Horst Boehm – the man who had helped him install that precious telephone line for an informer – was humiliated by the demonstrating crowds, and committed suicide early in 1990. This warning about what can happen when people power becomes dominant was one Putin could now ponder on the long journey home.
“Their German friends give them a 20-year-old washing machine and with this they drive back to Leningrad,” says Putin biographer and critic Masha Gessen. “There’s a strong sense that he was serving his country and had nothing to show for it.”
He arrived back to a country that had been transformed under Mikhail Gorbachev and was itself on the verge of collapse.
“He found himself in a country that had changed in ways that he didn’t understand and didn’t want to accept,” as Gessen puts it.
His home city, Leningrad, was now becoming St Petersburg again. What would Putin do there? There was talk, briefly, of taxi-driving. But soon Putin realised he had acquired a much more valuable asset than a second-hand washing machine.
In Dresden he’d been part of a network of individuals who might have lost their Soviet roles, but were well placed to prosper personally and politically in the new Russia. In the Stasi archives in Dresden a picture survives of Putin during his Dresden years. He’s in a group of senior Soviet and East German military and security figures – a relatively junior figure, off to one side, but already networking among the elite.
Prof Karen Dawisha of Miami University, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, says there are people he met in Dresden “who have then gone on… to be part of his inner core”.
They include Sergey Chemezov, who for years headed Russia’s arms export agency and now runs a state programme supporting technology, and Nikolai Tokarev head of the state pipeline company, Transneft.
And it’s not only former Russian colleagues who’ve stayed close to Putin.
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While Showtime has limited the distribution of “The Putin Interviews”, in the interview below Stone speaks to the FT’s Matthew Garrahan and explains why western world has Vladimir Putin all wrong.