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To understand Putin, look to the fall of East Germany and the USSR

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Vladimir Putin was a married KGB officer, living in comfort in East Germany, when the world as he knew it collapsed around him.

As the regime of his host nation fell in December 1989, Putin watched as emboldened crowds began to storm the headquarters of the secret police, along with a nearby KGB office where he and his comrades conducted their espionage.

He sought protection from a Red Army tank unit, but the commander wouldn’t help without approval from Moscow.

“And Moscow is silent,” the commander said.

It’s a phrase that has haunted Putin ever since.

“I think it’s the key to understanding Putin,” German biographer Boris Reitschuster told the BBC. “We would have another Putin and another Russia without his time in East Germany.”


Young Vladimir Putin with his wife Lyudmila and their daughter.
Young Vladimir Putin with his wife Lyudmila and their daughter.ZUMAPRESS.com

As Russian troops storm through Ukraine, observers around the world are trying to understand what motivates Putin. For those who’ve studied him, the answer begins with that dramatic night in Dresden and the experience of watching “people power” in action.

The collapse of the communist order taught the now 69-year-old lessons he still leans on today as he leads the Motherland down the path of war. Namely, how easily political elites can be overthrown, and the importance of building his own irrefutable power to gird against the masses.


Vladimir Putin poses with his wife Lyudmila and daughter Katya in 1985.
Vladimir Putin poses with his wife Lyudmila and daughter Katya in 1985.ZUMAPRESS.com

Putin and his then-wife Ludmila arrived in Dresden in the mid-1980s, after the future leader had achieved his childhood dream of joining the KGB. East Germany had a higher standard of living than the USSR did, and the Putins were able to socialize with families linked to the KGB and Stasi, the German secret police.

The political differences were notable to Putin — East Germany was a communist state, but, unlike Russia, it had multiple political parties.

By the fall of 1989, people were demanding a more responsive government. On Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall came down, and the crowds were even more brazen — enough to confront the previously feared Stasi and KGB, and prompt Putin’s call for protection.

But the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev gave no orders to strike back at the people. So instead, Putin and his KGB colleagues frantically destroyed evidence of their spying.

“I personally burned a huge amount of material,” Putin recalled in an interview in 2000, shortly after he rose to power. “We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst.”


Putin in Dresden in 2006.
Putin in Dresden in 2006.AP

Two weeks later, the West German Chancellor arrived in Dresden, making a speech envisioning German reunification. A short time later, one of Putin’s key contacts in the Stasi committed suicide, after being humiliated by demonstrators.

It wasn’t long before the Putins were on their way back to Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — and to life in another nation on the verge of collapse.

“He found himself in a country that had changed in ways that he didn’t understand and didn’t want to accept,” Masha Gessen, another Putin biographer, and critic, told the BBC.

There was a moment when Putin considered becoming a taxi driver.

Instead, he leaned on his old contacts and cronies and learned to thrive in the new Russia, rising through the ranks of the reconstituted government to become acting president when Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned in 1999.


Former KGB headquarters in Dresden, where Putin worked from 1985-1990.
Former KGB headquarters in Dresden, where Putin worked from 1985-1990.AFP via Getty Images

Putin consolidated his power over the ensuring years, and some of the same people he met in Dresden became part of the core of his government.

Over the years, Putin-watchers suggest, widespread protest movements would revive his bad memories of what happened in East Germany.

“Now when you have crowds in Kiev in 2004, in Moscow in 2011 or in Kiev in 2013 and 2014, I think he remembers this time in Dresden,” Reitschuster said. “And all these old fears come up inside him.”