Who says that secret agents - Eastern European ones, no less - are men without emotion?
It is March 10, 1985. The main telephone line rings in the KGB mansion in Dresden. Someone at headquarters in Berlin-Karlshorst has called with sad news for the comrades in the provinces: At home in Moscow, Konstantin Chernenko, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and supreme leader of the Soviet empire, has died. According to the man from Berlin, the entire agency bureaucracy must be mobilized immediately so that the Kremlin can gauge the reaction to his death among East Germans.
But the colleagues in Dresden have something else to do first. Their boss is out of the office, attending the spring trade show in Leipzig, and so they bring out their hidden cache of Crimean champagne. "We were filled with joy as we emptied the bottle, and filled with gratitude for Konstantin Ustinovich: He had not tortured us for such a long time with his permanent dying as his predecessors Breshnev and Andropov did."
Were people really that cheeky in the Soviet secret service? "Yes," says Vladimir Ussolzev, who has a strong recollection of that day: "We were the young generation of the state security operation. It was completely obvious to us that Soviet power was headed inexorably for decline."
Ussolzev was 37 years old and a major in the KGB. He was born in Siberia, studied physics at the university, was recruited by the secret service, and lived in Krasnoyarsk and Minsk before being transferred to the field office in Dresden. It was not a particularly exciting job, he says, "but things began to turn around when Gorbachev arrived on the scene in March 1985."
His second memorable experience in the year of Chernenko's death happened in August. There was staff turnover and a new man came into his office: Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovich. The two men had the same first name, the same rank, but 15 years later the other man became Russia's president.
"Soslushivez" is what Ussolzev, now 56, calls his manuscript about his erstwhile fellow spy, and it is scheduled to be published as a book in Russia soon. Loosely translated, the word means "professional colleague" or "comrade," and it suggests closeness. In fact, Ussolzev was something like Putin's counterpart for an extended period of time. The man from Leningrad, nicknamed "little Volodya" in Dresden, sat across from Ussolzev in a two-man office at Angelikastraße 4. Ussolzev had the opportunity to observe Putin day after day, from one desk to another.
With his book, he intends to shed light on some of the fabricated and romanticized notions Putin biographers have expressed in recent years. One of these, according to Ussolzev, is the theory, put forth by German author Alexander Rahr, that Putin's dizzying career was not really that surprising, because it had been planned for a long time.
In fact, there are two questions that have yet to be completely resolved: Who is the real Vladimir Putin, this man whose persona is as charming as it is difficult to fathom, and what did the current president really do in Dresden? Insider Ussolzev provides answers to these questions by illuminating the small world of those six officers who manned the KGB office in the East German district of Dresden, just 100 meters away from the local headquarters of the Stasi, the former East German secret police. It was an isolated life, like the life of an astronaut on an extended mission. A microcosm in which graduates of the secret service school rubbed shoulders with embittered former Chekists. A world filled with pointless filing work, party lectures and human intrigues.
Dresden was no dream job. Those assigned to Dresden had been passed over for the well-paid positions at the KGB residences in Bonn and Hamburg. They had to make do with a salary of 1800 East German marks (plus a little extra paid into a Russian ruble account back home), the merchandise in the military store of the First Guard Tank Division (where bananas could be had, among other things), and the chance to flip through the pages of Otto, Neckermann and Quelle mail-order catalogues circulated clandestinely among the KGB offices. As Ussolzev recalls, Putin was able to get most of the catalogues through his contacts. Later on, the agents were paid the princely bonus of about a hundred dollars in cash, to be spent in the diplomats' store in Berlin-Marzahn.
For Moscow, even the most remote East German province represented an important front in terms of class struggle, and NATO was its primary target, even in Dresden. Moscow was especially interested in the Green Berets, the special forces of the US Army stationed in the Bavarian town of Bad Tölz, as well as the military training areas in Wildflecken and Münster. The representatives of the third division ("Illegal Reconnaissance") were the ones responsible for these target areas, and Vladimir Putin was their man in Dresden.
Ussolzev claims that the East German KGB was unable to station truly productive agents near these bases. The Stasi passed on to the KGB all applications filed by citizens of Dresden to obtain official approval for visits by relatives from the West. According to Ussolzev, Putin combed through tens of thousands of these documents in an effort to find contacts who lived near the US bases of interest. The KGB was more successful in recruiting East German citizens willing to emigrate. Although they opposed Honecker, Ussolzev writes that they were not necessarily against Gorbachev. After all, it was the era of Perestroika. According to Ussolzev, "the argument we used to tempt them was that if the Americans were to leave West Germany, the Russians would also withdraw from the eastern portion." The new West German citizens reported important US troop movements to their contacts in the east, claims Ussolzev.
How many agents did the East German division of the KGB have in West Germany at the time? "Hardly more than 20," says the former secret agent. "We paid them miserably, sometimes as little as 50 marks." Sometimes they were discarded Stasi informers, hand-me-down people who had no idea that suddenly they were working for the KGB. Ussolzev is certain that "many of them were also on the payroll of the BND (the German federal intelligence service) or the Verfassungsschutz (the German federal agency responsible for defending the constitution)," and goes on to say that "we were under tremendous pressure to succeed, and any new recruitment increased our chances of getting a promotion."
Putin's real job was discovering potential KGB agents among the foreign students at the Technical University. He looked for people whose families were part of the political elite at home, and who could become valuable informants after returning to their native countries. Two of the four KGB agents in Dresden were responsible for establishing contact and supervising the informants. On paper they were employees of the criminal investigation division of the East German police, but in reality they worked exclusively for the Soviets. They met with Putin in cars and in remote rural areas near Dresden.
One of them, Rainer M., with whom Putin had an "almost family-like relationship," was arrested and charged with espionage after the fall of the German Democratic Republic, or GDR. M.'s primary responsibility had been to recruit Latin American students, who apparently then provided the Dresden KGB office with "extremely useful" information from people Fidel Castro's environment.
Was Putin also involved in the secret "Lutsch" (the Beam) operation, in which the KGB observed its own friends, i.e., the East German leadership? Yes, says Ussolzev. However, he also says that "Lutsch" was not an "elite group of spies," as Putin biographer Rahr has claimed, nor was its objective the replacement of Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the state party of the GDR). Everyone, claims Ussolzev, had to work for "Lutsch," because Moscow routinely requested information on the domestic political situation in the GDR, so that it could remove dissatisfied party functionaries, critical employees of the Stasi district administration, and church members.
The operation gained in importance when Honecker began to distance himself from Moscow. The Kremlin was clearly irritated when, in February 1985, Honecker invited former American and British pilots, men who had bombed Dresden 40 years earlier, to the official opening of the Semper Opera House, which had been destroyed in World War II.
From Moscow's perspective, Honecker's move had the appearance of unwanted reconciliation and enhanced the status of the former Anglo-American war allies. In response, the KGB posted its men, equipped with microphones, on Dresden's Theaterplatz and immediately transmitted Honecker's speech to the Kremlin. "It was really a ridiculous game," says Ussolzev today.
The germ of mistrust also began to spread within the Stasi administration in Dresden, headed by General Horst Böhm, an especially zealous friend of Honecker. The "great hypocrite" (in Ussolzev's words) prohibited the KGB's people from entering the Stasi complex on Bautzner Straße, a place to which they had had unrestricted access in the past. "Even in our minds, the MfS (East German Ministry for State Security) seemed like a product of an Orwellian fantasy world, a leftover from the Stalin era," says Putin's former colleague, adding that the Stasi employed more people in the Dresden district alone than did the KGB in all of White Russia.
Much of the work done at the Angelikastraße office was routine and often represented additional work for Putin's Department 3: obtaining cover addresses for agents in other countries, forging passports with the assistance of contacts at the Dresden registration offices, but also extensive "scientific theft." West German dissertations mailed to GDR scientists were confiscated by the customs office and, instead of being forwarded to the correct addressees, were passed on to the Stasi and the KGB. Ussolzev says that "anything relating to computer or laser technology was copied for Moscow, and then forwarded by the KGB to Soviet scientists for further analysis. In many cases, the Soviet scientists simply incorporated the data into their own dissertations."
What were some of Ussolzev's personal impressions of his colleague Putin? "He was a pragmatist," says the former KGB officer, "someone who thinks one thing and says something else." Someone who was a "complete conformist" and did not believe in any changes in his native country, who played the role of the committed Communist to keep up appearances, and who called his colleague an "idiot" because of his "provincial openness." According to Ussolzev, Putin told him to restrain his criticism of conditions in the Soviet Union and think about his family.
But then there were the office conversations between two men and the regular Friday sauna evenings in the basement of the KGB mansion. "In small groups," says Ussolzev, "Putin surprised us with his political views."
On the one hand, Ussolzev claims, Putin refused to believe that under Stalin the KGB indiscriminately shot people for the sole purpose of fulfilling a plan dictated by Moscow. On the other hand, he says that Putin, a lawyer, was visibly upset about the abuse of justice in the Soviet Union and sympathized with the Kremlin's most important critics, such as dissident Andrej Sacharov, whom he respected for his consistency.
Even more surprising was the diminutive KGB major's tolerance for Jews in an organization that was deeply anti-Semitic, that saw a Jewish role in everything it considered anti-Soviet, and had Soviet Jews watched in the belief that they represented security risks. According to Ussolzev, Putin never agreed with this stance, and told Ussolzev that he believed Jews were "completely normal people." In fact, Putin grew up among Jews in the Leningrad athletic clubs, where many of the trainers and top athletes were Jewish.
Ussolzev also debunks a few myths: that Putin spoke perfect German, for example, and was even in command of several dialects ("he spoke fluently, but not easily"), and that it had already been evident then that he was destined for great things ("his intellectual abilities were good, but not outstanding; he was no great speaker").
But he was persistent, a "nachalnik" type (which means chief or boss in Russian), and even tried to pursue activities after it had become apparent that they had become pointless. One of his early successes, according to Ussolzev, was the rescue of the dossier that contained all KGB contacts. A copy of the dossier was on file at the Stasi administration in Dresden. Putin was able to remove the dossier at the last minute, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
According to Ussolzev, Putin concealed his energy behind a studied air of politeness and courtesy. When interacting with his superiors, he gave the impression of being extremely obedient, even dependent. This, says Ussolzev, made him the constant favorite of his superiors, in Dresden, at headquarters in Karlshorst, and probably later on with his political mentor Boris Yeltsin.
But did he have the makings of a statesman? This would never have occurred to any of his Dresden colleagues, says Ussolzev. Toward the end, Putin also seemed to have distanced himself from the KGB. By 1990, during the swan song of the Soviet Union, he had already resigned himself to working as a taxi driver in Leningrad.
But then he suddenly reappeared as the right-hand man of Leningrad's mayor. Today, Ussolzev is convinced that Putin served under the mayor as an officer on special assignment. And now, as president? Now, like none of his predecessors, he has placed a large share of the Kremlin's power onto the shoulders of the secret services, at least according to Ussolzev. "To me," says Ussolzev, "that is the biggest mystery. That is his tragedy."
Translated by Christopher Sultan