'Once a Spy, Always a Spy'

How Putin's KGB past shapes his autocratic rule

October 6, 2014

It was January of 1990, and a middle-aged, overweight Vladimir Putin was depressed.

Working as a paper-pushing KGB intelligence officer in Dresden, Germany, Putin spent most of his time attempting to recruit undercover foreign agents and writing reports. News from back home in the Soviet Union caused great concern.

Mikhail Gorbachev had ascended to the head of the Communist Party and was pushing liberalizing policies, and by 1989 the KGB leadership had begun to back some of his reforms. Hundreds of thousands protested in the streets of Communist East Germany for reunification—culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.

On January 15, 1990, protesters stormed the Stasi state security building where Putin worked in Dresden. Putin called for military assistance, but it only arrived hours later after approval from Moscow. Moscow had kept him waiting.

Putin would later tell his biographers that the Soviet Union suffered from a "paralysis of power" before its fall, according to Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen’s book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

Putin felt betrayed. How could the KGB and Soviet leadership abandon him and his colleagues’ work in East Germany, and undermine the Kremlin’s traditional institutions? He considered quitting the KGB.

"Once a spy, always a spy," his friend Sergei Roldugin, a cellist, reminded him, invoking a common Soviet phrase.

Fifteen years later, Putin said "the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century" in a speech to the Russian parliament during his second term as president.

But it wasn’t just a latent pride in the Soviet Union’s lost empire that Putin would carry over into his subsequent political career. He would also bring the tactics that he had learned in the KGB: preying on the fearful, crushing dissent, and controlling information.

‘A real thug’

Subterfuge wasn’t just something that Putin had to learn on the job at the KGB. It was also a family inheritance.

His father, Vladimir Putin senior, barely survived his stint in the NKVD—the name for the Soviet Union’s secret police during World War II. The elder Putin joined a unit that was air dropped behind enemy lines in Germany to blow up supply trains. Most of the covert troops died.

Gessen writes that Putin was a "true KGB geek" as a boy. He kept a portrait of Yan Berzin, a Bolshevik revolutionary and founder of Soviet military intelligence, on his desk.

Putin was also a hothead in his youth. He frequently picked fights with the older, stronger "thugs" in postwar Leningrad, which had been devastated not long before his birth by a Nazi siege that left more than a million dead from artillery fire and starvation. In school, he would lash out at his teachers after they reprimanded him for misbehaving.

Or at least that was how he wanted to be portrayed. It is difficult to separate the reality of Putin’s birth from the public image he has self-consciously tended. Regarding his youth, Putin assured his biographers just before his first inauguration as president, that he had been a "hooligan" and "a real thug." Putin sought to control his own narrative even before he became president, popularizing an image of himself as a tough-minded survivalist who could appeal to ordinary Russians.

‘A nameless, faceless person’

After Boris Yeltsin—the increasingly unpopular Russian leader of the 1990s—resigned on New Year’s Eve in 1999, the relatively obscure Vladimir Putin became acting president.

He made his ambition apparent to his biographers before the March 2000 election.

"I was most amazed by how a small force, a single person, really, can accomplish something an entire army cannot," Putin told them. "A single intelligence officer could rule over the fates of thousands of people. At least, that’s how I saw it."

Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy who grew up in the Soviet Union, said in an interview that Putin fit the archetype of a KGB agent.

"When Putin first assumed Russia's presidency in 2000, one look at his face told me he was KGB," she said. "It's that presence of a nameless, faceless person, whom you know not to trust—a look anyone who lived in the Soviet Union knows how to recognize immediately and instinctually."

The politics of fear

Questions still remain unanswered about a series of September 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow, just after Putin became acting prime minister in August. Russian officials blamed the attacks that killed 300 people on Chechen terrorists, but other evidence indicated the involvement of the FSB secret police (the successor to the KGB).

One incident in particular aroused suspicion. Residents in the city of Ryazan noticed on Sept. 22 that three individuals had placed sacks in the basement of an apartment building. After they reported the incident, a local bomb squad determined that the sacks contained sugar and explosives, including hexogen, according to a 2012 book by Hoover Institution Senior Fellow John Dunlop.

Local authorities caught two of the suspects, who ended up being FSB employees. However, FSB chief and longtime Putin confidant Nikolai Patrushev declared days later that the suspicious activity had been a "training exercise" and that the sacks only held sugar—to the great surprise of the local Ryazan FSB branch and police.

The bombings had the effect of rallying the Russian public around Putin as he launched a second war against Chechnya in October. Russian investigative journalists and political opponents still accuse him and the FSB of orchestrating the attacks to instill fear, and bolster support for an aggressive leader.

Putin has continued to advocate a hard line against terrorism throughout his presidency.

When Chechen militants seized more than a thousand hostages in September 2004 at a school in Russia’s North Caucasus region and wired the building with explosives, Russian special forces launched rocket-propelled grenades at the school before storming it. The ensuing melee left 334 people dead, including 186 children.

Putin’s Kremlin has ruthlessly pursued perceived enemies of the state, with little care for international norms. Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB and FSB officer-turned-Putin-critic, was allegedly poisoned and killed by two former Russian agents in November 2006 in London. Litvinenko had written a book accusing the FSB of masterminding the apartment bombings in 1999, and he was also seeking more information about the murder of Anna Politkovskaya—a Russian-American journalist and fellow critic of Putin’s regime—just a month before his own death.

Litvinenko said Putin had proven to be "as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed" in a statement two days before his death.

"You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life," he said.

Information warfare

The New York Times reported last month that Bank Rossiya, a private institution owned by Putin’s inner circle of cronies that was recently sanctioned by the United States, has become a key facilitator of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Yuri Kovalchuk, the bank’s chairman, has steadily built of an "empire" of loyal media in the television, radio, and print industries.

A Bank Rossiya subsidiary in 2007 purchased the broadcaster Ren TV, a station once critical of Putin’s government that now hews to its line.

Ren TV reported last month that "mass graves" had been discovered near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, a separatist enclave controlled by pro-Russian rebels. While the channel accused Ukrainian forces of committing "war crimes" against the rebels, the report actually used images from the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17—which was allegedly shot down in July by separatists armed with surface-to-air-missiles from Russia.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has afforded Putin ample opportunity to practice KGB-style tactics of propaganda and deception. His previous remarks on the now collapsing ceasefire between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels included the term "Novorossiya" or "New Russia," an 18th-century czarist-era phrase for territory in southeast Ukraine that meant little to modern-day Ukrainians or Russians—until it began showing up in maps, school textbooks, and news agencies at the direction of the Kremlin.

TV producer Peter Pomerantsev wrote last month in the Atlantic that Putin has mastered the "weaponization of absurdity and unreality."

"Ultimately, many people in Russia and around the world understand that Russian political parties are hollow and Russian news outlets are churning out fantasies," he wrote. "But insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible."

Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said in an interview that the Kremlin’s control of the airwaves has separated it from Ukraine. While the latter country has experienced two "Orange Revolutions" in the past decade with protesters agitating for Western democratic values, it is difficult for similar mass movements to form in Russia.

"Even if [Russians] dared to go out together, they’ll be either decimated or they’ll eventually go home, but the country will never know," Aron said. "In this condition of monopolistic propaganda, I think for the moment [Putin is] pretty safe."

Kremlin-backed TV channels have also expanded to the Baltic countries such as Estonia and Latvia, raising fears that Putin could be seeking to foment more unrest in countries with sizable Russian-speaking populations. But while Putin retains high levels of domestic support for his revanchism in Eastern Europe, any Ukraine-like maneuvers in the Baltics could backfire.

Donald Jensen, resident fellow at John Hopkins University’s Center for Transatlantic Relations, said in an interview that direct intervention by Moscow in the Baltics—inspired by the KGB-worldview of its leader—could alienate the Russian-speaking minorities there and thwart the Kremlin’s diplomatic efforts.

"When you see the world in terms of conspiracies against you and enemies out there and you act that way, Russia ends up exacerbating some of their foreign policy problems," he said. "It’s a much more mixed bag over the long term."