Putin Stood Up to the Mob - How the Young Officer Defended the KGB Archives in East Germany
A wave of protests took over East Germany in the fall of 1989. In November, East German authorities opened the border checkpoints, and a month later, protesters began demanding that the Stasi be liquidated. On December 5th, 1989, right here, by the MSS building in Dresden, there were thousands of protesters.
Herbert Wagner, Oberburgermeister of Dresden, 1990-2001: "I went home and left a note for my wife, 'Dear Pia, I'm with the Stasi. Tonight might get heated, please pray for me. Your Herbert'. That letter could have become a goodbye letter".
Herbert Wagner was a leader of the protesters who stormed the Stasi. The Dresden MSS Director, Horst Behm, had ordered to open the gate, but he was forced to lay down the weapons and open the archives. That's when the protesters, inspired by their victory, remembered that there was a Soviet intelligence building one street over. Herbert Wagner: "One of the protesters came up to me and said, 'Now, let's go disarm KGB'. I was terrified. Why did they need to provoke the Russian military and the KGB?"
Siegfried Dannat Grabs has always lived across from the former KGB villa on Angelikastrasse. When a crowd approached his windows on December 5th, 1989, he went outside and witnessed all the events.
Siegrfried Dannat Grabs, an owner of a house on Angelikastrasse, Dresden: "We're here. KGB was on the left, at 4, Angelikastrasse. Yes, this is where Putin used to work. This wall was 3 meters high. And this place, where the security used to be, it was here, no, there. This roof used to be raised up, and this room wasn't there".
- Where were the protesters?
Siegrfried Dannat Grabs: "That group was here, in front of the house".
It was almost nighttime when mostly young protesters had gathered around the Soviet residence. They were radically-minded, with a goal to get their hands on the KGB archives.
Siegrfried Dannat Grabs: As soon as the crowd had approached, the guarding soldier ran out of this house and ran towards the building entrance. Then, the door opened, and an officer in uniform had come out.
He was relatively short. He started to walk quickly towards the crowd.
- You went to the crowd. Then what?
Vladimir Putin: "Honestly, I wouldn't want to elaborate here too much. A crowd is a crowd, but what was happening in East Germany was natural at that point. But, obviously, we couldn't just lay out our criminal intelligence analysis details in the street. We couldn't give them information on people we worked with, not in East Germany, by the way, we didn't even work on East Germany. We worked in East German territory in the countries of the main enemy, as they used to say. But, of course, we couldn't turn any of that information over to anyone, despite the legitimacy of those people's demands to audit us".
Moscow was neutral about the political processes in East Germany. They didn't criticize Eastern Germans' demands, they didn't get in their way. But, knowing how ugly things could get, they fired up the furnace in our residence. They used it to burn intelligence documents, containing names of people who might get hurt if things went public. As Vladimir Putin remembers, he himself had burned so many papers, that the furnace had cracked. The crowd of protesters was there for those exact papers.
Vladimir Putin: "We had to demonstrate our readiness to act within the terms of our then-active agreement. Even our security guards had to show their weapons, which was unfortunate, in my opinion".
- Were you armed at the moment?
Vladimir Putin: "Of course, I had my service pistol, I was an officer. But, it wasn't about my service pistol, it was about the security guards' rifles".
- So, you had to handle the negotiations.
Vladimir Putin: "Yes, I did. I went out to the people and asked them what they wanted. They said they wanted to inspect the building, I said it was a property of the Soviet Army, and it was not to be inspected under the intergovernmental agreement. They asked where I learned to speak German so well. I had to stick to my cover story, so I told them I was a translator. 'Why do you have a car with German license plates?' Because I'm entitled to have one within the terms of a respective agreement. So, we had a little chat. Then, the soldiers and I turned around and went back inside. It was late, but I had to alert the guards".
- So, was it a tough conversation?
Vladimir Putin: "Well, there was nothing obscene. I just tried to explain who we were and why they couldn't inspect the building".
- So, you turn around, exposing your back to these aggressive people?
Vladimir Putin: "Well, you know, yes, I had to do it. But, I thought this was a display of the certain amount of trust towards those people, and lack of desire to escalate conflict on our part".
Siegrfried Dannat Grabs: "He started speaking fluent German and said explicitly, 'I urge you to refrain from entering this territory. My comrades are armed and I've given orders to defend this building'. The crowd didn't expect this, and, of course, they were scared of this officer's vigor".
Vladimir Putin: "What matters is that it didn't grow into a conflict or any sort of confrontation, no victims.People acted quite rationally, and we didn't have an option to behave otherwise, because it was the division of the Soviet Union's foreign intelligence. We couldn't let anybody go inside".
It's shocking, but after easily storming the Stasi, the protesters lost their courage near the KGB. They just knew somehow that those guys weren't to be messed with. Even the bravest ones, some of whom weren't sober, started to walk away, watching their backs.
Siegrfried Dannat Grabs: "That Russian officer, who turned out to be Vladimir Putin, who was a KGB employee in Dresden at the time, had contributed to it".
Lazar Matveev, USSR KGB rep by the GDR MSC in 1980s: "He had the talent to talk to people, to get along with them. He knew how to benefit from it".
For the fact that the protests in Dresden didn't lead to a bloodbath, their leader Herbert Wagner soon became the Oberburgermeister of the city. He now stores Putin's pictures in a Stasi museum that he had founded.
Herbert Wagner: "The fact that everything happened peacefully, that there were no victims, for me, it was the biggest miracle of all".
However, the entirety of East Germany was still on the edge during the end of 1989. Entire districts and government entities were liquidated. It was less than a year before the annihilation of the German Democratic Republic itself.
"The border between East and West Berlin ruptured on November 9th, 1989. Right now, it's hard to imagine that the wall was right up against these columns. The Brandenburg Gate that had been a symbol of Germany's separation for 30 years, immediately became a symbol of unity. However, the wall was up for another year, they started demolishing it in the fall of 1990, when Vladimir Putin had already returned to the Soviet Union, so he didn't get to see it. However, there were serious demolitions in his own country, so he didn't care about some wall".