Putin: The Spy Who Came in Out of the Cold by Gaither Stewart

Vladimir Putin - Olympic Host

Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

by Gaither Stewart
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Rome, Italy
April 6, 2016

In 1973, West German security services learned that Chancellor Willy Brandt’s personal assistant and friend, Günther Guillaume, was a spy for the East German Intelligence Agency, STASI. Despite the gravity of the discovery, the widespread media coverage of the event, the damage to the Chancellor’s image and the raging Cold War between East and West, Brandt remained as Chancellor afterwards—even taking a private vacation with Guillaume after the discovery. Only after Guillaume was arrested on April 24, 1974, did Brandt resign, on May 6, 1974, remaining however as Chairman of the Social Democratic Party until 1987.

Brandt, at the time dogged by scandal relating to repeated adultery, and struggling with alcohol, seemed to have had enough. As Brandt later said, “I was exhausted, for reasons which had nothing to do with the process going on at the time.” However, after German reunification, STASI-head, Markus Wolf, stated that the resignation of Brandt had never been intended, and that the affair had been one of the biggest mistakes of the East German secret service.

Nonetheless, Guillaume had been a real spy, supervised by Markus Wolf, the head of the Ministry for State Security (Staatssicherheitsdienst) or STASI, considered at the time the world’s best intelligence agency and closely linked to the Soviet Union’s KGB. This middle-Cold War period was still the time of human intelligence, of cloaks and daggers, of defections of Soviet agents and Soviet recruitment of influential Westerners.

Kim Philby, a high-ranking British official in MI6 and member of the Cambridge Five consisting of Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and probably John Cairncross, worked for many years as a double agent for the British MI6 and the KGB. His affiliation with the KGB was discovered and finally confirmed in Washington by a Soviet defector, KGB Major Anatoly Golitzin. Sometime later, Philby defected to Moscow where he died in 1991. Guillaume was eventually released and sent to East Germany in 1981 in exchange for Western intelligence agents caught by Eastern Bloc nations. Guillaume was celebrated as a hero in East Germany where he worked in the training of spies.

Such were the times of human spies, and such events reflected and corresponded to the KGB period of Russia’s current President, Vladimir Putin, who for many people is the most qualified and the most genuine statesman on the world scene today. And such spy times have returned to haunt the nations today. Popular American TV action serials like NCIS deal with spies from most anywhere, newly discovered unexploded nuclear bombs, MOSSAD, KGB; CIA and other intelligence organizations, infiltrators and traitors and assassinations.

The atmosphere calls to mind my own experience as a foreign journalist in Moscow in the 1980s. Moscow-based journalists during the Cold War had fetishes, if not phobias, about KGB surveillance, torn between ignoring their tails or doing something outrageous to irritate them, or behaving well so as not to be expelled for some infraction of the journalist behavior code. Among themselves they liked to exchange “KGB stories”, and warn an envoyé special like me to be careful of this or that. Some even had their own “agent” whom they claimed they got to know.

In fact, in those times the dream of KGB agents like Putin assigned to monitoring foreigners was finding a journalist or best of all an American or West European embassy or consular employee whom they considered recruitable. After which any ruse was permissible to recruit the Westerner as an informer or double agent. Recruitment became an art in those times—and again today. Recruitment was not for every secret agent. The successful recruitment of a foreigner made many KGB careers, as it did the recruitment by the CIA of a Soviet double agent in the USA or West Europe.

After STASI was granted independence from the KGB in 1957, the Soviet Committee For State Security continued until 1990 to maintain liaison officers in all eight main STASI directorates in East Germany, each with his own office inside STASI’s Berlin compound, and in each of the fifteen STASI district headquarters around East Germany. According to East German testimony, KGB officers in East Germany had the same rights and powers that they enjoyed in the Soviet Union. Collaboration between the two agencies was so close that STASI established operational bases in Moscow and Leningrad to monitor visiting East German tourists.

Many important East-West Cold War events and the political changes underway in nervous Eastern Europe occurred during the period of 1985-90 while the young intelligence officer, Vladimir Putin, served in Dresden, East Germany. As he had in Leningrad he was concerned with the recruitment of spies for the KGB in the West. During this period abroad he rose to the KGB rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

As far as Putin’s image as a KGB ogre is concerned, his sixteen-year career in the KGB in the fields of counter-intelligence in Leningrad responsible for monitoring foreigners and foreign intelligence in East Germany was excellent though not unusually momentous. Rank played an important role in his career as it did for all. Soviet intelligence officers had ranks similar to the army. To be sent abroad they had to have been promoted at least twice, to Captain. Average KGB officers tended to reach the grade of Major but often they received a final promotion to Lt. Colonel at the end of their careers. Vladimir Putin received his Lt. Colonel promotion while still active in East Germany—a sign of recognition of his above average qualities. He then finished his KGB career at exactly that rank.


It occurred to me in this moment that as young men in the service of our respective governments, Putin and I had several minor things in common. The KGB officer Putin arrived in the big city of Dresden in the mid-1980s for his first posting abroad, some years after I had arrived in West Germany, first in military intelligence then as an employee of the US government. East Germany or the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was created out of the Soviet-occupied zone of post-WWII Germany, as was the German Federal Republic in the West. People on both sides of the Iron Curtain were accustomed to the tense situations in East and West Germany, both of which were packed with spies and military forces, some raring for action. Spies galore. Spies everywhere, and each side trying to recruit more. Both of us as young men had dreamed of performing some act that would change the direction of things, although I soon began dreaming of being in Russia itself. But the reality was that the special life led by most individuals like Putin and myself was humdrum, mostly talking about spies and infiltrators and traitors, a time when the smallest and the most insignificant success could ignite exhilaration and celebration which would not have generated hopes or dreams of a brilliant political career in the man Putin, then in his thirties. He had to perform boring bureaucratic work, earning less than his STASI comrades and with little real human contacts outside the bureaucratic ghetto in which he lived and worked. Then, Putin was obligated to attend endless tedious Soviet-East German social gatherings to celebrate the ties of friendship between the two countries. (Which did not totally lack a genuine feeling of mutuality as there were dedicated communists in the GDR who could rise above narrow nationalistic principles.) East Germany differed from the USSR in that it had multiple political parties, even though it was firmly under Communist rule. Putin’s German biographer, Boris Reitschuster, writes that this multi-party system became Putin’s political model, although he has always kept in mind the peoples’ power he saw on the streets of Dresden in 1989.

I can imagine Putin in the residential compound reserved for KGB and STASI employees, with limited contact with ordinary German citizens, with a bigger apartment than at home but less real life human contacts. For Putin however this was much better than the Komunalka, the multi-family apartment he had lived in with his parents in his native Leningrad, underlining that living standards were higher in East Germany than in the Soviet Union of that era. Putin brought with him to Dresden his wife Lyudmila, whom he married in 1983, and their small daughter and another on the way. So he had a full family life and could enjoy the city itself by then restored after being leveled in WWII. And he too, as did I not far away in Frankfurt, had to save money in order to buy my first car. And he too loved German beer and developed a paunch that is not apparent today in the bare-chested images of the Russian President.

Such was the life of the “ex-KGB agent” that the Western mainline media uses to describe President Vladimir Putin. (Putin, by the way, pronounced Poo-tin, two syllables, with a clear accent also on the second syllable, and NOT the ugly poot-in in America, with the first syllable accented and the second reduced to en or in.) The German way of life seems to have truly infected the Putin family.

Catching or recruiting spies is unpleasant work, especially for the officer in charge who only sits in some office and gives orders. In most cases you are dealing with traitors of one kind or another. Putin, as did I, will have met persons willing to betray for personal gain. In such cases, the relationship is false: the controller has little respect for the traitor who however is useful, while the traitor wants respect but knows he will never regain it. Kim Philly and his privileged ilk may have broken that mould. His services were recognized and rewarded when he defected to the Soviet Union, but the man and his fellow Oxbridge communists were not so much motivated by crass considerations of money as matters of principle. The British communist cells in the UK’s elite universities of the 1930s, product of a time in which fascism was very much alive, ascendant and in the open, frequently joined the socialist vision out of idealism. Many, like Philby, Burgess, and the rest, being first-hand witnesses of the scars and ugliness of privilege, and living in a society in which the pecking order and the class chasm was firmly and snobbishly enforced, felt the need for a different type of society, not one literally rotting from within.

Such shifts of orientation could imply tremendous personal emotional costs. In most cases you might desire to change your ideological position and even change sides, but it can’t be done without betrayal of your past, former friends or even your former self. Of course, betrayal of a former past that entails an ugly ideology is moral progress. This aspect, however, is too complex to discuss here but the concept enters into the spy life as well as into the relations of the President of a nation with other nations where honesty and trust are significant.

The implosion of the GDR must have been a shock to the Putin family. They had grown to love the city and feared that it would soon cease to exist for them. Putin returned to Dresden in 2006 to visit old haunts. And after he moved from Leningrad then becoming St. Petersburg to Moscow and into a political life, his two daughters, Maria and Katia, were enrolled in the Deutsche Schule. As were mine, I might add…

Today, Putin’s former rank in the KGB, his love for judo and his gunslinger walk are merely grist for the Western anti-Putin propaganda mill. First of all, KGB agents, though feared by the population like most secret services, thought of themselves as the best of the people, something like CIA agents in its early years of the 1950s. Moreover, the CIA maintains such tight relations with its allies worldwide that it tends to take charge when possible, while a swarm of former CIA officers inhabits the corridors of power in the USA and throughout the Empire.

I recall a journalistic interview of years ago with a CIA agent in a European country who told me point blank that “We run this country.” He meant the CIA. And we recall that Bush the Elder, or H.W. Bush, was the CIA Director before becoming President of the USA.

When Putin, rather than support the KGB-sponsored putsch against President Gorbachev in 1991, resigned and became a politician, he said he wanted to be on the right side and was quoted as describing Communism as a blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilization. (In that, he may have spoken too early, as his course has subtly begun approximating a more socialist than capitalist path, which is after all in consonance with the broader collectivist ethos of the Russian population.)

I have not read Putin’s autobiography, but some of the comments about the book reflect the Western propaganda meme that questions Putin’s very rapid ascendancy to the Presidency. I simply do not see the point as critical. He was there, one among others, on the scene, fighting his way to the top, he was in the right place at the right time. The true traitor was that cruel caricature of a President, the drunk Boris Yeltsin, willing puppet of the west, who let the Soviet Union, and then Russia, be overrun by gangsters, oligarchs and chiefly US capitalists. It was clear that sooner rather than later, a special person was required, not a mere political hack, if Russia was to survive, let alone thrive again as an independent nation. And Putin, of course, had the backing—as would any new president, of the KGB. As Putin himself was quoted: there is no such thing as ex-KGB. And besides, where did Obama come from? He was no real politician, was he? They couldn’t even decide if he was born in the USA. Or even where he was born. And he too had the right backing. The big difference, of course, is the agenda these two men have chosen to serve.

One episode that occurred during the collapse of the GDR in 1989 is told online in a biography of Vladimir Putin. When crowds of enraged Germans stormed the Dresden headquarters of STASI despite police guards who proved helpless, some demonstrators decided to attack the local headquarters of the KGB just across the street. They were met by a man, obviously Putin, who warned them that his comrades inside were armed and ready to use their weapons in an emergency. The group withdrew but the situation remained dangerous. He made phone calls to local military units for protection who told him they couldn’t move without approval from Moscow.

“And Moscow is silent,” Putin was told, words which seemed to change his life. According to Boris Reitschuster, Putin witnessed in Dresden 1989 the problems facing those in power which created in him anxiety about the frailty of political elites and how easily they can be overthrown by the people.

Crossposted at The Greanville Post

Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad and Senior Editor and Rome-based European correspondent of The Greanville Post. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.

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