How Putin’s KGB past shapes his autocratic rule
It was January of 1990, and a middle-aged, overweight Vladimir Putin was depressed.
Working as a paper-pushing KGB intelligence officer in Dresden, Germany, Putin spent most of his time attempting to recruit undercover foreign agents and writing reports. News from back home in the Soviet Union caused great concern.
Mikhail Gorbachev had ascended to the head of the Communist Party and was pushing liberalizing policies, and by 1989 the KGB leadership had begun to back some of his reforms. Hundreds of thousands protested in the streets of Communist East Germany for reunification—culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.
On January 15, 1990, protesters stormed the Stasi state security building where Putin worked in Dresden. Putin called for military assistance, but it only arrived hours later after approval from Moscow. Moscow had kept him waiting.
Putin would later tell his biographers that the Soviet Union suffered from a “paralysis of power” before its fall, according to Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen’s book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.
Putin felt betrayed. How could the KGB and Soviet leadership abandon him and his colleagues’ work in East Germany, and undermine the Kremlin’s traditional institutions? He considered quitting the KGB.
“Once a spy, always a spy,” his friend Sergei Roldugin, a cellist, reminded him, invoking a common Soviet phrase.
But it wasn’t just a latent pride in the Soviet Union’s lost empire that Putin would carry over into his subsequent political career. He would also bring the tactics that he had learned in the KGB: preying on the fearful, crushing dissent, and controlling information.
‘A real thug’
Gessen writes that Putin was a “true KGB geek” as a boy. He kept a portrait of Yan Berzin, a Bolshevik revolutionary and founder of Soviet military intelligence, on his desk.
Putin was also a hothead in his youth. He frequently picked fights with the older, stronger “thugs” in postwar Leningrad, which had been devastated not long before his birth by a Nazi siege that left more than a million dead from artillery fire and starvation. In school, he would lash out at his teachers after they reprimanded him for misbehaving.
Or at least that was how he wanted to be portrayed. It is difficult to separate the reality of Putin’s birth from the public image he has self-consciously tended. Regarding his youth, Putin assured his biographers just before his first inauguration as president, that he had been a “hooligan” and “a real thug.” Putin sought to control his own narrative even before he became president, popularizing an image of himself as a tough-minded survivalist who could appeal to ordinary Russians.
Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy who grew up in the Soviet Union, said in an interview that Putin fit the archetype of a KGB agent.
“When Putin first assumed Russia’s presidency in 2000, one look at his face told me he was KGB,” she said. “It’s that presence of a nameless, faceless person, whom you know not to trust—a look anyone who lived in the Soviet Union knows how to recognize immediately and instinctually.”
The politics of fear
Questions still remain unanswered about a series of September 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow, just after Putin became acting prime minister in August. Russian officials blamed the attacks that killed 300 people on Chechen terrorists, but other evidence indicated the involvement of the FSB secret police (the successor to the KGB).
One incident in particular aroused suspicion. Residents in the city of Ryazan noticed on Sept. 22 that three individuals had placed sacks in the basement of an apartment building. After they reported the incident, a local bomb squad determined that the sacks contained sugar and explosives, including hexogen, according to a 2012 book by Hoover Institution Senior Fellow John Dunlop.
Local authorities caught two of the suspects, who ended up being FSB employees. However, FSB chief and longtime Putin confidant Nikolai Patrushev declared days later that the suspicious activity had been a “training exercise” and that the sacks only held sugar—to the great surprise of the local Ryazan FSB branch and police.
The bombings had the effect of rallying the Russian public around Putin as he launched a second war against Chechnya in October. Russian investigative journalists and political opponents still accuse him and the FSB of orchestrating the attacks to instill fear, and bolster support for an aggressive leader.
Putin has continued to advocate a hard line against terrorism throughout his presidency.
Full article: ‘Once a Spy, Always a Spy’ (Washington Free Beacon)