Toinformistoinfluence.com on March 27, 2015, published an article by BBC News on Putin in Dresden, Germany, during the Cold War. Anyone who wants to understand Vladimir Putin today needs to know the story of what happened to him on a dramatic night in East Germany a quarter of a century ago. Excerpts below:
It is 5 December 1989 in Dresden, a few weeks after the Berlin Wall has fallen. East German communism is dying …, people power seems irresistible.
Crowds storm the Dresden headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police, who suddenly seem helpless.
Then a small group of demonstrators decides to head across the road, to a large house that is the local headquarters of the Soviet secret service, the KGB.
“The guard on the gate immediately rushed back into the house,” recalls one of the group, Siegfried Dannath. But shortly afterwards “an officer emerged – quite small, agitated”.
“He said to our group, ‘Don’t try to force your way into this property. My comrades are armed, and they’re authorised to use their weapons in an emergency.’”
That persuaded the group to withdraw.
But the KGB officer knew how dangerous the situation remained. He phoned the Soviet HQ in East Berlin and asked for protection.
The answer he received was a devastating, life-changing shock.
“We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the voice at the other end replied. “And Moscow is silent.” It has haunted Vladimir Putin ever since.
“I think it’s the key to understanding Putin,” says his German biographer, Boris Reitschuster. “We would have another Putin and another Russia without his time in East Germany.”
The experience taught him lessons he has never forgotten, gave him ideas for a model society, and shaped his ambitions for a powerful network and personal wealth.
Above all, it left him with a huge anxiety about the frailty of political elites, and how easily they can be overthrown by the people.
Putin had arrived in Dresden in the mid-1980s for his first foreign posting as a KGB agent.
The German Democratic Republic or GDR was a highly significant outpost of Moscow’s power, up close to Western Europe, full of Soviet military and spies.
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.”
But in autumn 1989 (GDR) became a kind of KGB hell. On the streets of Dresden, Putin observed people power emerging in extraordinary ways.
After the Berlin Wall opened, on 9 November, the crowds became bolder everywhere – approaching the citadels of Stasi and KGB power in Dresden.
Vladimir Putin had doubtless assumed too that…senior Soviet officers – men he’d socialised with regularly – would indeed send in the tanks.
But no, Moscow under Mikhail Gorbachev “was silent”. The Red Army tanks would not be used. “Nobody lifted a finger to protect us.”
He and his KGB colleagues frantically burned evidence of their intelligence work.
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.
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.
This warning about what can happen when people power becomes dominant was one Putin could now ponder on the long journey home.
He also arrived back to a country that had been transformed under Mikhail Gorbachev and was itself on the verge of collapse.
His home city, Leningrad, was now becoming St Petersburg again. What would Putin do there?
There was talk, briefly, of taxi-driving.
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.
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.
Take Matthias Warnig – a former Stasi officer, believed to have spent time in Dresden when Putin was there – who is now managing director of Nordstream, the pipeline taking gas directly from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea.
That pipeline symbolised what was seen, until recently, as Germany’s new special relationship with Russia – though the Ukraine crisis has at the very least put that relationship on hold.
Putin-watchers believe events such as the uprising on Kiev’s Maidan Square, have revived bad memories – above all, of that night in Dresden in December 1989.
Inside him too may be a memory of how change can be shaped not only by force, or by weakness – but also by emotion. In 1989 he saw in Dresden how patriotic feeling, combined with a yearning for democracy, proved so much more powerful than communist ideology.
So when wondering what Vladimir Putin will do next, it’s well worth remembering what he’s lived through already.