Opera Ball Scandal Dresden Medal of Honor for Ex-KGB Agent Putin

It's a big night for Russian Prime Minister Putin. The former KGB officer will return to his old Dresden haunt for the Semper Opera Ball. There, the man who just turned off natural gas supplies to half of Europe will receive a medal of honor -- handed to him by a man with a communist past of his own.

By in Dresden

The medal is of unsurpassed beauty. Handmade by a Dresden jeweller, the decoration is formed of solid 18 carat gold and white gold.

It is a stunning replica of the "Heilige Georg zu Pferde," a work featured in the city's famous Grünes Gewolbe, or Green Vault, the exquisite Baroque collection of August the Strong, who died in 1733. And it is a special symbol: St. George symbolizes the victory of good over evil. The ornament has also been engraved with a seminal line: "Adverso Flumine," or "against the current."

The motto seems more applicable to those handing out the medal than to its recipient. The award, after all, is to be pinned to the breast of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Dresden's Semper Opera House on Friday night, a man who has just cut off natural gas supplies to half of Europe. It is hard to imagine such an event taking place anywhere other than in Saxony. By bestowing the honor, the state is apparently creating just what it needs to make people take its annual Opera Ball seriously: a scandal-rich event.

"It is cynical and scandalous," says Werner Schulz, a former Green Party member of German parliament who currently heads a government-funded organization devoted to the examination and reappraisal of the Communist dictatorship in East Germany.

The head of the Green Party in Saxony's state parliament, Antje Hermenau, acerbically quips: Why not just give next year's award to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to draw more attention to the event? And the head of the conservative Christian Democrats in the state, Heinz Eggert, says, rather diplomatically, that the state has demonstrated, at the very least, a "lack of political instinct" by awarding the honor to Putin.

Just why Putin was chosen for the award is not entirely clear. The honor is normally given to "extraordinary people" who have dedicated themselves "courageously and single-mindedly to the present and future of the state of Saxony and to Germany." Putin, though, is being officially honored for the "exchange of culture between Saxony and Russia." The ball's organizers assure that there are regular exchanges between the state's museums and chapels and Russia. They also note that Putin has done his part to make sure that art looted from Germany by Russian troops during and after World War II is returned.

The people responsible for handling the negotiations over the return of the art have a different story though: At best, Putin didn't escalate what was already a tense situation. But they say he didn't do much to improve the situation, either.

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

So why the honor? Sources close to the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany's equivalent to the White House, say Putin, who is in Germany meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, also wanted to conduct a private visit to Dresden. The Russian prime minister knows the city quite well. From 1985 to 1990, he was stationed in the city as a KGB officer and resided in a villa located just across the street from the Stasi's district offices. The Stasi was the feared East German secret police.

Under the codename "Adamov," his job was to recruit new spies for the Soviet intelligence apparatus. Schulz, a former civil rights activist in the East Germany, claims to remember that Putin was the one who threatened violence against protesters should they come too close to KGB buildings during the 1989 demonstrations prior to the fall of the Wall. But for the organizers of the Semper Opera's ball, there's apparently no such thing as bad publicity. They want to make the Dresden spectacle, a tradition first revived four years ago, world famous. "Our status has reached an international level," says the opera ball gala's organizer, Hans-Joachim Frey.

In recent years, the gala has succeeded only in drawing major figures from German politics and society. Last March, the state of Saxony invited Putin to attend the event on behalf of the ball's organizers. He agreed in October. But a state government spokesperson assures that the idea for the invitation and the medal came from ball organizers.

The memorable occasion is expected to happen at 9:24 p.m. on Friday night at the opera, which was reopened by East German Communist Party leader Erich Honecker in 1985. The Saxony governor, Stanislaw Tillich -- who back in 1989 was himself a functionary in the local government and has been put under massive pressure recently for apparently trying to cover up his ties to the communist system -- will hand the former Dresden KGB officer a thank you medal 20 years after the fall of the Wall.

Heinz Eggert has called on the state governor, at the very least, to remind Putin that "he only has his current position because of the democratic movement of 1989-1990. If this political revolution hadn't happened, he still might be a nameless officer of the KGB who wouldn't even have enough money to visit an opera ball."

The local Dresden chapter of the anti-globalization group Attac said it planned to stage a protest against the ball on Friday, saying it would hold a "Three Penny Ball" just across the Elbe River from the opera house.


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