Anyone who wants to understand Vladimir Putin today needs to know the story of what happened to him on a dramatic night in East Germany a quarter of a century ago.
It is December 5, 1989, in Dresden, a few weeks after the Berlin Wall has fallen. East German communism is dying on its feet; people power seems irresistible. Crowds storm the Dresden headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police, who suddenly seem helpless.
Then a small group of demonstrators decides to head across the road, to a large house that is the local headquarters of the Soviet secret service, the KGB. “The guard on the gate immediately rushed back into the house,” recalls one of the group, Siegfried Dannath. But shortly afterwards “an officer emerged – quite small, agitated. He said to our group, ‘Don’t try to force your way into this property. My comrades are armed, and they’re authorised to use their weapons in an emergency.’”
That persuaded the group to withdraw.
But the KGB officer knew how dangerous the situation remained. He described later how he rang the headquarters of a Red Army tank unit to ask for protection. The answer he received was a devastating, life-changing shock. “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the voice at the other end replied. “And Moscow is silent.”
That phrase, “Moscow is silent,” has haunted this man ever since. Defiant yet helpless as the 1989 revolution swept over him, he has now himself become “Moscow” – the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
“I think it’s the key to understanding Putin,” says his German biographer, Boris Reitschuster. “We would have another Putin and another Russia without his time in East Germany.” The experience taught him lessons he has never forgotten, gave him ideas for a model society, and shaped his ambitions for a powerful network and personal wealth. Above all, it left him with a huge anxiety about the frailty of political elites, and how easily they can be overthrown by the people….
East Germany differed from the USSR in another way too – it had a number of separate political parties, even though it was still firmly under communist rule, or appeared to be. “He enjoyed very much this little paradise for him,” says Boris Reitschuster. East Germany, he says, “is his model of politics especially. He rebuilt some kind of East Germany in Russia now.”