The Real Power of Putin

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by James Ferguson

Biographies of political leaders typically offer a seminal moment, preferably early in their subjects’ lives, that crystallizes a character trait or provides a pivotal lesson for the life that follows. In the case of Yuri Andropov, longtime head of the KGB (1967–1982), briefly leader of the Soviet Union (1982–1984), and, most fatefully, patron of the young Mikhail Gorbachev, that moment came in the fall of 1956. From his window in the Soviet embassy in Budapest, Andropov watched in horror as, in the space of a single week in October, a student demonstration swelled into a popular uprising that toppled the Communist government and threatened to remove the Hungarian People’s Republic from the Warsaw Pact and thus from the outer tier of the Soviet Empire.

Through that same window, he could see the bodies of officers of the Hungarian secret police swaying from streetlights. Despite the successful crushing of the uprising by Soviet troops, in the course of which thousands of Hungarian civilians and hundreds of Soviet soldiers were killed, the events in Budapest marked the birth of Andropov’s—and the KGB’s—“Hungarian complex,” the mortal fear of small, unofficial groups sparking movements to overthrow Communist rule with direct (in the Hungarian case) or indirect encouragement by the West.

A generation later, in another Soviet outpost on the western edge of Moscow’s empire, a similar drama unfolded. This time the city was Dresden, the year was 1989, and the outpost was the KGB’s mansion on Angelikastrasse, directly across from the local headquarters of the Stasi, the KGB’s East German counterpart. A crowd of several thousand protesters had successfully breached the Stasi’s gates, gleefully ransacking the building while grim-faced intelligence officers stood by and watched. Also watching, from a window across the street, was thirty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin, who was temporarily in charge of the mansion, its voluminous intelligence records, and its staff of four. Shortly after dusk, a small crowd peeled away from the Stasi building with the intent of pulling off a similar victory against the KGB.

According to the New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers’s gripping account of this oft-told story in The New Tsar, Putin placed an urgent call to the local Soviet military command, requesting reinforcements to protect the mansion, only to be told that nothing could be done without orders from Moscow and that “Moscow is silent.” With his career and a treasure trove of highly classified documents on the line, Putin decided to take matters into his own hands. Approaching the mansion’s outer gates alone and unarmed, he announced in German to the crowd assembled there, “This house is strictly guarded. My soldiers have weapons. And I gave them orders: if anyone enters the compound, they are to open fire.” It worked, at least in one sense: the crowd returned to the Stasi building, leaving the mansion and its contents untouched. But if Putin won the battle, the…

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