The Russian president was a KGB agent in the city in the former East Germany when the Iron Curtain started to give way. The ghosts of the past are everywhere.
DRESDEN — At 4 Angelika Street, in Dresden, stands a massive house in a residential area of half-timbered dwellings. A plaque outside the small building reads "Rudolf Steiner Center for Anthroposophy." It is hard to imagine that this quiet place was, until 1989, the feared local headquarters of the all-powerful Soviet secret services, the KGB, which cooperated with and kept a close watch on their little brother, the East German political police. And yet, it was in this building that a young lieutenant colonel —Vladimir Putin — lived in an atmosphere of disarray through the trauma of the fall of the Berlin Wall, while a divided Germany was erupting with joy.
In the book, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait —published before his election to the Russian presidency in 2000 and based on extensive interviews with journalists — the former spy shed a little light on those crazy days that completely changed history. On Dec. 5, 1989, the crowd of demonstrators stormed the regional headquarters of the Stasi in Dresden, on a street near Angelika Street, forcing through the fences of a building that, for decades, had been a place of torture and terror. Putin, who was 39 at the time, said he "understood" the popular outpouring of anger, noting that East Germany was a "harshly totalitarian country, similar to the Soviet Union, only 30 years earlier." In the USSR, meanwhile, perestroika was in full swing.
But when hundreds of people then marched towards the local KGB building on Angelika Street, it as Putin who came out into the garden with a gun and approached the crowd, telling them that there would be retaliation if they forced their way in. "And who are you? You speak German too well," the demonstrators told him. "A translator," he replied, without losing his temper, before they dispersed.
Moscow is silent.
"Those crowds were a serious threat ...These people were in an aggressive mood. I called our group of forces and explained the situation. And I was told: ‘We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent,"" Putin says in the book.
"Moscow is silent" — this sentence will remain engraved in his memory as an example of what a government should not do. "I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed. That it had disappeared. It was clear that the Union was ailing. And it had a terminal disease without a cure: a paralysis of power," he says before referring to the following days spent "burning papers night and day ... We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst."
A few days later, Helmut Kohl would come to Dresden and give a historic speech, announcing that the regime of East Germany was condemned to disappear. Vladimir Putin packed his bags in February 1990, taking with him the washing machine he had acquired, the memories of a sunken world and a few lessons about high-level politics.
A closed world
Since then, the episode has been embellished by a number of Russian journalists eager to keep the Putinian "legend" alive — the hundreds of demonstrators have turned into "thousands' and the Kremlin leader has become a "hero" of the moment, ready to defend the building at all costs. Today, the interest is such that Angelika Street has become one of the stops on the "journey in Putin's footsteps" tour offered by Dresden's tourist office.
"There's quite a lot of demand, especially from Russian tourists who come here in great numbers," says taxi driver Ronny Mühlbach, whose wife, a Russian native, organizes excursions.
Following the Russian president's footsteps leads us to Raderberger Street, in the Prussian district. It was there, starting in the 1970s, that Putin — along with other KGB and Stasi collaborators — lived at number 101, in a yellow building on the edge of a forest. When you press the intercom of the apartment where he lived, on the second floor, an angry voice — annoyed probably by all the journalists and other nosy people — sends you packing unceremoniously. But the German reporters who investigated the former spy's past, such as Krystof Zeils from the magazine Cicero, say that this modest three-room apartment was a real "paradise" for the Putin couple.
The Russians lived among themselves.
"The district was dominated by the Russian presence," says Ronny Mülhbach, our guide. "A large cemetery for the Soviet military, where the soldiers who died after 1945 were buried, is located nearby. "It was a closed world," says Ronny. "The Russians lived among themselves."
Putin, nevertheless, had his habits at the Amthor bar, where he liked to drink beers. He still goes back there every time he returns to the city. There's even a special corner with pictures of him. "I remember when the Russians left," says Ronny, who was 12 at the time. "They drove through the neighborhood with their tanks. It made a hell of a noise, an earthquake! I went out with my grandfather to watch them leave. I remember they took everything they could carry with them, even toilets and sinks."
Putin walking in Dresden — Photo: President of Russia
To understand what the KGB represented in former East Germany, you have to go to the old Stasi headquarters, not far from Angelika Street. The building, now a museum, used to house the Stasi's sinister special prison, but also the dreadful jails of the NKVD, where under Stalin, political prisoners were tortured in the basement. The KGB during Putin's time in Dresden, between 1985 and 1990, looked more like a sleepy, bureaucratic hydra, according to Vladimir Usoltsev, a former Russian spy who shared his office with the future Russian president. Perhaps that's why the people of Dresden seem surprisingly forgiving when it comes to Putin.
Our guide Ronny adds that the Kremlin leader's very obvious return to favor also comes from the "wave of "Ostalgia" that is sweeping across eastern Germany" as resentment towards the federal government in Berlin grows, the nationalist movement Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) rises, and doubts about the political choices of the federal government increase. "In western Germany, there is a lot of propaganda to say that Putin is bad," says Ronny.
Propaganda! It's a strong word and its use is revealing of a change in mentality nearly three decades after the fall of the Wall. "Here in former East Germany, Putin is thought of as a strong man who defends his country well," the driver explains. "On the other hand, there's a feeling that Merkel isn't working in the interests of her own people, that she's not independent even though Germany is the largest country in Europe."
Ronny, who was born and raised in Dresden, talks about the nostalgia for the past among the older generations. "A lot of people like my father have lost all their bearings. They glorify the past because they no longer have any reason to live in the new society that has emerged," he says. "What they have built doesn't count anymore. Who's still talking about former East Germany? Nobody! Nobody! My father feels strongly about that. He lost his job after perestroika and never found another one. In addition, today's world is a tough one, you have to step on others to succeed," he says.
U.S. researcher Jeff Gedmin is surprised and a little troubled that so many people in eastern Germany are turning their gaze back to Moscow, especially given "the tragic past of East Germany's subjugation by the Soviet big brother."
"This idea that Putin is not that bad of a guy, and that we have to turn back to Russia without asking too many questions is a bit like Stockholm syndrome," he says. "This feeling of fascination for the Kremlin's strongman is also present in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, with Poland being the exception, apparently."
A political pivot
As in Prague or Budapest, people in eastern Germany seem quite inclined to "change their policy" regarding Moscow. Karsten Hilze, a lawmaker for the AfD in the Bautzen region, considers the referendum held in 2014 in the Crimea to be "reliable" and thinks the sanctions levied against Russia following its annexation of the area should thus be lifted.
"Putin violated international law, but is he the only one? What did the United States do in Iraq?" he says when reminded that Russia maintains a state of dormant war in Eastern Ukraine. "Is there a danger that Russia will invade Germany? No!" Hilze adds. "I am East German. I have seen Soviet troops close up, but they are gone, and Russia has offered peace. We believe that Koenigsberg (the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad) can become a bridge and that more efforts are needed to integrate Russia."
This opinion is by no means restricted to the AfD. Inside Angela Merkel's own party, the CDU, more and more questions are being raised regarding the chancellor's stance, which is considered to be too harsh on the Kremlin. "It's so naive to think that we can bring Russia to its knees," says Roland Ermer, the CDU candidate defeated by the AfD's Karsten Hilze. "What happened in Crimea is bad, but you can't treat Putin like a puppet. Yes, he wants to divide us, but there was a window of opportunity to tie Russia to Europe that we did not seize," he insists. Ermer cautions against trying to "export" democracy, saying Germany would be better off trying to "inter-penetrate Russia, to bring it closer to us by showing the example of a better life."
In Chemnitz, Andreas Boschman, an academic, and his wife, Greta, emphasize that Russia's influence stems above all from the will of Central Europe to distance itself from Brussels and to challenge its assumptions about open borders and immigration. They say that it's crucial to let these voices be heard.
Greta also underlines the importance, in the debate on Russia, of Russian-speaking minorities who, since 1989, have settled in the eastern parts of the country in the millions and are organized into associations with ties to the Russian world. "At the local level, their influence is noticeable for those who know how to look," she notes.
In short, Putin's Russia is not just a ghost of the past. Rather, it's a substantial political and economic reality that seems to compellingly push Germany to become closer to the Tsar in the East.