Stasi Files Shed Light on Putin’s KGB Past
- By Adam Tanner
- Feb. 27 2001 00:00
DRESDEN, Germany — The East German secret police had a favor to ask of their KGB comrades: Could the Soviet Union recruit a man who lived next to a German Communist Party guesthouse in Dresden and ask him to spy on visitors there?
“Comrade V.V. Putin to accomplish this,” a Soviet official scribbled by hand on the secret 1987 letter from the Stasi, referring to KGB agent, now president, Vladimir Putin.
Later, another Russian note suggested the recruitment did not go ahead: “To be returned, unaccomplished.”
Whether Putin failed or whether his KGB bosses later simply refused the mission is unclear. Another handwritten Russian note says curtly the document is to be destroyed: Unichtozhit.
Yet the letter survived. It was one of hundreds of pages of previously unpublished documents obtained by Reuters on KGB-Stasi activities in the Dresden area from Germany’s vast archives of Stasi material. They cover 1984 to 1990, when Major Putin was a junior member of a small team of 10 to 15 KGB agents in Dresden, East Germany.
In keeping with the protocol of the times, the letters are mostly between the top Stasi and KGB officials, and Putin is rarely mentioned by name. But the documents give insight to the cloak-and-dagger world where he lived much of his adult life.
No Dial Tone
One rare instance when Putin himself wrote to the local Stasi head, General-Major Horst B?hm, concerned a KGB informant who worked in East Germany’s state wholesale trade enterprise.
The man’s “telephone connection was mistakenly cut off in March 1989,” Putin wrote, seeking to fix the problem.
“Considering that our informant was a former member of the police who support us, the People’s Police headquarters applied to the post office to get a phone line,” he wrote. “Nonetheless, there are still problems in solving this.”
Subsequent notes show the phone line was installed days later, lightning speed in a country where it could take years or even a lifetime to get a telephone.
The informant’s name and why he was of interest to Putin remain a mystery. The name is blacked out in the document, which was obtained under German freedom of information rules from the agency overseeing the Stasi archives.
The files also reveal tensions between Putin’s office and the Stasi, especially when the KGB tried to recruit Stasi agents without their bosses knowing.
In one 1989 instance, two plain-clothes Soviet agents sought to recruit a German Stasi informant working at the Hotel Bellevue, then the baroque Saxon city’s top hotel and a magnet for important foreign visitors. The KGB agents deceived the man into believing that the Stasi knew about their recruiting effort.
“I am asking that no further talks and measures with people who are actively working for us be undertaken,” B?hm wrote in a stiff complaint to Putin’s boss, KGB General Vladimir Shirokov. “It is not possible for GDR [East German] citizens, as planned reservists for the People’s Army, to receive official training from Soviet military intelligence for wireless communications.”
The files do not tie Putin to the incident, but they were issued in response to a request for documents on the Russian president and on KGB activities in Dresden during his time as an agent there. Intelligence experts said recruiting of agents was a central focus of Putin’s work in the small KGB branch office.
“In each district of East Germany there were small groups of KGB agents, usually led by a general,” said former Stasi foreign intelligence chief Markus Wolf, who did not know Putin.
“They comprised 10 to 20 staff who had contacts with the local State Security [Stasi] administration and also [Stasi] Department 15 on operations targeted at the West.
“They also had a few people who had the task of working against the West. Putin presumably worked only with informants inside the GDR, probably scientists, teachers and so on.”
Horst Jehmlich, the top assistant to B?hm in Dresden, said that Putin’s local efforts were part of the East-West struggle.
“His activities were directed against the West, gathering information about the economy, politics and the military,” Jehmlich said last year. “He came to us when he needed a connection to a business or to a factory or to police.”
Occasionally, Putin did rise above anonymity. In February 1988, the file shows, Stasi boss Erich Mielke signed a decree awarding him a bronze National People’s Army service medal.
Mielke said the medal was “in recognition and appreciation of your service in the struggle for peace, in defense of our socialist homeland and proletarian internationalism in years of fraternal cooperation between the GDR’s Chekists [secret police] and the Soviet security organs against the common enemy.”
Nice language perhaps. But most of the 37 other Soviet agents named that day received higher-ranking gold and silver honors.
‘Brothers in Arms’
A year before, according to the file, Putin was one of 13 KGB agents at the festive “Brothers in Arms” ball at Stasi headquarters, close to the Dresden apartment he shared with wife Lyudmila, to mark the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution.
B?hm took a somber tone in his address that evening, as a copy of his secret speech, preserved in Putin’s Stasi file, shows.
“To implement a long-term policy of intensive rearmament and confrontation, the imperialist [Western] secret services have stepped up their activities to obtain any information that is or might be significant for further action against the GDR and the other socialist states,” he said.
“Just on the eve of this jubilee, a spy for the U.S. secret service, resident in Dresden, was uncovered and arrested,” B?hm told Putin and the other spies present. “The information obtained by this spy clearly served the planning and preparation of a military first strike.”
Whereas Putin was soon to make a rapid ascent in Russian political life after leaving Dresden, B?hm, the ruggedly handsome embodiment of Stasi power, would have a different fate. In 1990, apparently distraught at the collapse of East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he took his own life.
Yet all that was far in the future and unimaginable on that festive evening on the banks of the Elbe.
Putin, whose fluent command of German impressed many of his Stasi counterparts and has opened doors for him more recently with German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der, was awarded a gold medal of honor from the German-Soviet Friendship Society, and then the secret agents drank a toast of Soviet brandy.
Dancing continued past midnight.
“Alcohol was standard at such events as we tried to make conversation easier to learn things from the Soviets,” Thomas Mueller, a Stasi agent in Dresden who knew Putin, recollected in an interview this month. “At the same time, they were trying to find out things from us.”
Hostility to Troops
But Mueller said that despite the attempts at good cheer, there were often difficulties in relations officially — and even in internal Stasi documents — called “fraternal.”
“There were tensions, as there are in any family,” he said at his home in Dresden, where he is now unemployed.
The Stasi files chronicle a series of East German complaints about the behavior of Soviet soldiers in the Dresden area, part of the huge occupying army there since the end of World War II.
Experts say Putin’s lack of traces in the Stasi files show that he was a successful spy.
The files record that one soldier sold a grenade for 30 Deutsche marks, others sold pornography or blue jeans, often to get money for vodka. Soldiers stole vegetables from private gardens. One broke a store window to take chocolate Easter bunnies.
Quite what was the connection to Putin himself is not clear, though former officials say the regional KGB office would have dealt with frictions between Soviet troops and local police.
“There is a strained relationship between some of the public and members of the Soviet military,” B?hm wrote to the KGB in a blunt 1986 letter after a series of thefts and rowdy incidents. “In connection with the use of alcohol, there is the danger of uncontrolled behavior and outbreaks of violence.”
Sometimes the Soviet soldiers took more drastic action. In 1986, three Soviet soldiers escaped to West Germany, setting off a full-scale search and investigation, the Stasi file shows.
On another occasion, the arrival of a Soviet troop transport train in 1989 set off a near-riot when youths leaving a disco jeered at the soldiers, some of whom then raised their rifles.
The end result was a Stasi request, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall was to change life forever, to ban big troop transports when German crowds were likely to be around.
All these episodes are in the Putin-related file prepared by the German government, but he is named in only a few documents.
Sometimes the files between the East bloc’s two great spy agencies, in retrospect at least, are somewhat comical. One long series of letters on file seeks contact details for a man in West Germany and ends when a Stasi officer writes to say he has finally tracked him down — in the West Berlin phone book.
In a 1988 case, the KGB asks the Stasi to accommodate three visiting KGB officials free of charge because the seemingly all-powerful Soviet agency was low on funds. Another time, the KGB asked the Stasi to provide 1,200 free tickets for soldiers to watch Dynamo Dresden play visiting Spartak Moscow at soccer.
But many documents are deadly serious, even during a time of improved East-West relations in the Mikhail Gorbachev glasnost era.
Ahead of the arrival of U.S. officials implementing the latest arms control agreements, the Stasi and KGB sprang into action to assure that the visitors’ rooms and telephones would be bugged and a series of informants were put on alert.
Bungled Final Mission
The released Stasi files do not detail Putin’s last major mission in Dresden after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, that of recruiting a ring of agents to continue to spy for Moscow after the coming reunification of East Germany with the West.
Johannes Legner, former spokesman for the agency overseeing the Stasi files, said the spy ring collapsed after one of the recruits from the Stasi went over to West German counterintelligence, the BND. Soon after, in 1990, Putin quietly returned home. Within a decade he was in the Kremlin.
Since becoming president more than a year ago, Putin has shown his continued faith in the KGB, where he worked for 16 years. He has named a former KGB man who served in East Germany as his foreign intelligence director, and the steely head of his national Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, is a key adviser.
Experts say Putin’s lack of clear footprints in Dresden and in the Stasi files itself is a sign he was successful spy.
“In espionage, you want to know everything about the outside world without drawing attention to yourself,” ex-Stasi officer Mueller said. “One should not reveal much of one’s personality, lest it reveal weaknesses that should be kept in the dark.”