While serving in the KGB in East Berlin, Putin was shocked and humiliated to experience the collapse of Soviet power firsthand.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union stood for nearly half a century as one of the two lodes of global power. When it dissolved in 1991, Russia found itself losing relevance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was a young KGB officer during this era, and the events of that time influenced many of the moves he made in the early years of his administration, with the goal of regaining the importance in the world the Soviet Union used to hold—and restoring Russian pride.
Putin’s Personal Trauma After the Berlin Wall Fell
The transition after the Soviet collapse proved brutal for most of Russia’s population. And while Putin rose swiftly in the political ranks in its aftermath, he did have his own personal trauma associated with the fall.
As a 37-year-old KGB lieutenant colonel stationed in the East German city of Dresden, Putin watched nervously as angry crowds stormed the city’s huge Stasi compound in December 1989, just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of Soviet control in Europe. Overrunning the offices of the East German secret police, the crowds moved on to its inner sanctum: the KGB headquarters. Putin called for armed backup to protect the employees and the sensitive files hidden inside, but was told no help would come. “Moscow is silent,” said the voice on the line. He had no choice but to go outside and lie to the crowds that he had heavily armed men waiting inside who would shoot anyone who tried to enter. The bluff worked, the mob dissipated and the KGB’s files on informers and agents remained safe.
Putin felt he was watching one of the largest and most powerful empires the world had ever seen unravel in the most pathetic and humiliating way. “I had the feeling that the country was no more,” he recalled later in a series of interviews published in 2000. “It had disappeared.”
He seemed to mourn not the human cost or material tribulations, but the national humiliation of a powerful state simply imploding. He later claimed to have had a sense for some time that the collapse of Soviet power in Europe was inevitable. “But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That’s what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away.”
To Restore Russian’s ‘First-Tier’ Status, Putin Invoked Its History
During the 1990s, Putin rose from a mid-ranking cog on the periphery of the KGB to become the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, and then in 1996 was called to Moscow to work for President Yeltsin’s Kremlin. He saw close up how weak the new Russia had become. In 1998, when Bill Clinton called Yeltsin to tell him the United States was considering air strikes in Serbia, Yeltsin was furious. He screamed at Clinton that this was unacceptable and then hung up. The bombing raids went ahead anyway.
Putin was determined that this could not continue, and it was immediately clear that his style was going to be very different to that of Yeltsin. When Bill Clinton’s point man on Russia, Strobe Talbott, first met Putin during the late 1990s, the American official found his style completely different from the histrionics or lecturing that he was used to from Yeltsin and other Russian officials. Talbott was struck by Putin’s “ability to convey self-control and confidence in a low-key, soft-spoken manner.” And the future president also used a number of tricks from his KGB background to show he was in control, making sure to name-drop poets Talbott had studied at university to show he had read Talbott’s file. “I could imagine him debriefing a captured spy who’d already been softened up by the rougher types,” Talbott recalled in his memoirs.
A few days before he became president, in late 1999, Putin wrote an article in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, outlining his task as he saw it. “For the first time in the past 200 to 300 years, Russia faces the real danger that it could be relegated to the second, or even the third tier of global powers,” Putin warned. He called on Russians to unite to make sure that the country remained what he called a “first-tier” nation.
To achieve this, Putin turned to history. Russia’s recent past had been contradictory, painful and bloody, but Putin was determined that Russians should take pride in their history. Victory in World War II, still known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, became a kind of national founding myth for the new Russia.
“Through you, we got used to being winners,” Putin told veterans on his first Victory Day, two days after his inauguration in 2000. With each year, the victory narrative became more pronounced. Questioning the darker sides of the Soviet war narrative, such as the deportation of 2 million Soviet citizens during the war, or the ruthless tactics of the Stalin regime on the eve of the conflict, became ever more taboo. Putin was determined that Russians should not be made to feel guilty for their past.
Putin Burnished His Tough-Guy Image
Putin’s personal image evolved to reinforce the narrative of a newly resurgent country. He won Russians over with his calm, no-nonsense approach and tough talking. Over time, Kremlin spin doctors played up his macho credentials, resulting in a series of photo opportunities that seemed to get more and more absurd: Putin at the controls of a race car and a fighter jet, Putin riding a horse bare-chested, Putin flying a microlight with a flock of rare cranes. There was even a rumor that Putin wanted to be blasted into space to orbit the earth. But the idea was apparently nixed by Kremlin security, who deemed it too dangerous.
As Putin’s constructed image approached that of a superhero, his style of rule changed too. The circle of real decision makers around Putin shrank, skewing toward people with a security services background. Putin has prided loyalty above all else, and many of the people around him are those he has known since his KGB days—or at least since the 1990s in St Petersburg.
These people almost never talk to journalists, making reliable information about the inner workings of the Kremlin hard to come by. Putin is a cloistered leader, who hardly ever uses the internet and mainly receives information in briefing notes handed to him in red folders by Kremlin aides. While he cultivates an image as a man of the people, he has come into contact with “real Russians” increasingly rarely, and usually in carefully scripted encounters.
Even his then-wife Ludmila, in a rare 2005 interview to Russian newspapers, painted a picture of a taciturn and authoritarian master of the house. She said he could only be asked questions (never about work) when he came home late at night and drank a glass of kefir before bed. And Ludmila said she gave up cooking because her husband never praised her food. “He has put me to the test throughout our life together. I constantly feel that he is watching me and checking that I make the right decisions,” she said. The couple announced a divorce in 2013.
Over the years, Putin has made himself synonymous with the new state, extending his presidency more than two decades. During this time, Putin’s use of the Second World War has been augmented with other, secondary historical figures and victories, as Putin has tried to weave a narrative of Russian glory, starting with the 10th-century Prince Vladimir, founder of Kievan Rus—and ending with the Vladimir currently residing inside the Kremlin.
Shaun Walker is the Central and Eastern European correspondent for The Guardian and author of the book, The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, published by Oxford University Press. Follow him on Twitter at @shaunwalker7.