THE YOUNG SPECIALIST
After a stint in counterintelligence with some stodgy hard-liners, Putin is sent to the Andropov Red Banner Institute in Moscow for additional training. The officers quickly take notice of the smart and unflappable trainee. He's offered a spot in the most coveted of divisions: foreign intelligence. Meanwhile, he meets a stunning airline stewardess, Lyudmila. He impresses her with hard-to come-by tickets for three nights at the theater, procured through his KGB connections. Their courtship lasts three years. They marry and are transferred on Putin's first assignment abroad: Dresden, East Germany.
At first they assigned me to the Secretariat of the Directorate, and then to the counterintelligence division, where I worked for about five months.
Was it like you imagined it would be? What you were expecting?
No, of course it wasn't what I had imagined. I had just come from university, after all. And suddenly I was surrounded by old men who had been in their jobs during those unforgettable times. Some of them were just about to go into retirement.
One time a group was drafting a scenario. I was invited to join the meeting. I don't remember the details, but one of the veteran agents said that the plan should be followed in such-and-such a way. And I piped up: "No, that's not right." "What do you mean?" he said, turning to me. "It's against the law,'' I said. He was taken aback. "What law?" I cited the law. "But we have instructions," he said. Once again I cited the law. The men in the room didn't seem to understand what I was talking about. Without a trace of irony, the old fellow said, "For us, instructions are the main law." And that was that. That's how they were raised and that's how they worked. But I simply couldn't do things that way. And it wasn't just me. Practically all my peers felt the same way.
For several months I went through the formalities and knocked off some cases. I was sent to agent training for six months. Our school in Leningrad wasn't too exceptional. My superiors believed I had mastered the basics but that I needed some field preparation. So I studied in Moscow, and then came back to Petersburg for about half a year in the counterintelligence division.
What year was this?
What year? It was at the end of the 1970s. Now people say that was when Leonid Brezhnev was beginning to tighten the screws. But it was not very noticeable.
Did you join the Communist Party while you were at the KGB?
To join the intelligence service, you had to be a party member. There were no exceptions. That rule made for some strange episodes. For instance, if a person had worked in a security unit for less than a year and was transferred to another unit. In the interim period, he grew out of Komsomol age. It was impossible to admit him to the party because nobody could give him a recommendation. To receive a recommendation, you had to have worked with a unit for at least a year. Nobody knew this person for a period longer than a year, so nobody could recommend him for party membership. He was ineligible for the Komsomol because of his age and he couldn't be admitted to the party. An intelligence man has to be a party member, so he was dismissed from the service. It's ridiculous, but it's true.
They say that security people didn't like party appointees.
That is true. Party appointees were disliked. People who joined the intelligence service after being full-time party officials invariably turned out to be good for nothings, loafers and careerists. There were all kinds, but they usually had overblown egos. They were brought from some mid-level party post immediately into a top post with the KGB. They envisioned themselves only as big directors, and they didn't want to be operatives. Naturally, they always caused resentment among the professionals.
What other things caused resentment among the professionals?
I know for a fact that they resented it when non-establishment artists were harassed. In Moscow they used bulldozers to sweep away paintings. I still don't understand who came up with the idea some member of an ideological department in the regional or central party committees. The KGB objected, saying that it was a stupid thing to do, but some guy in the ideological department of the Central Committee in Moscow put his foot down for reasons I can't understand. I guess he was just conservative. And because the KGB was a highly regarded division of the party, they had to do as the party told them.
Did you always think along these lines?
For better or for worse, I was never a dissident. My career was shaping up well. But you know, a lot of things that our law-enforcement agencies began indulging in since the 1990s were absolutely impossible back then. Things were stricter. I'll give you an example. Let's say a group of dissidents were gathering in Leningrad for some kind of protest. Let's say it is timed to coincide with the birthday of Peter the Great. Dissidents in Peter generally timed their demonstrations to coincide with those sorts of dates. They also liked the anniversaries of the Decembrists.
They would think up some act of protest and then invite diplomats and reporters in order to attract the attention of the international community. What could we do? We couldn't disperse them because we had no orders to do so. So we would organize our own laying of the wreaths at exactly the same place where the reporters were supposed to gather. We would call in the regional party committee and the trade unions, and the police would rope everything off. Then we'd show up with a brass band. We would lay down our wreaths. The journalists and the diplomats would stand and watch for awhile, yawn a couple of times, and go home. And when they left, the ropes would come down and anyone who wanted to protest could. But they wouldn't get any attention.
Did you take part in that activity?
My group was not particularly involved in these activities.
How do you know the details, then?
Nobody made a secret of it. We met in the cafeteria and chatted openly about it. Why am I saying this? Because what the agents did was wrong, of course. They were a manifestation of a totalitarian state. But the way they did things was covert. It was considered indecent to be too obvious. Things were not always so crude.
And the Sakharov affair wasn't crude?*
The Sakharov affair was crude. *
Dr. Andrei Sakharov, a prominent Russian physicist and human rights campaigner, was kept under constant KGB surveillance and harassment in the 1970s and 1980 for his dissident activities. He was arrested for his outspoken criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 and exiled without trial to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod). Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev released Dr. Sakharov from exile in 1986 and he was subsequently elected to the Soviet parliament, where he continued to criticize Soviet human rights violations and suppression of democracy until his death in 1989.
Sometimes Vovka and I would go to the Philharmonic after work. He would ask me about the proper way to listen to a symphony. I tried to explain it to him. If you ask him about Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, he can tell you a lot because he loved it terribly when he first heard it and I explained it to him. And then Katya and Masha took up music. I'm the one to blame for that.
I'm absolutely convinced that our lecturers with their highfalutin talk about music are wildly wrong. The propaganda for classical music is really missing the mark. I explained to Volodya what a normal person should see and hear. I would say, "Listen, the music has started. That's the peaceful life they're building communism. You hear that chord, ta-ti, pa-pa? And now the fascistic theme is coming in. Look, there it goes those brass instruments are playing. That theme will now grow. And there's the peaceful theme, from the beginning. The two will clash now, here and there, here and there." He just loved this terribly.*
*Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was written in 1937, at the height of Stalin's Great Terror, when millions were being summarily executed or deported to hard labor. The composer's "Lady Macbeth of the Mtinsk District" had been attacked in Pravda (a government newspaper) in 1936. The Fifth Symphony was interpreted as Shostakovich's response to the threats against him and the purges of his associates.
Volodya has a very strong character. Let's say I was a better soccer player. I would lose to him anyway, simply because he's as tenacious as a bulldog. He would just wear me down. I would take the ball away from him three times and he would tear it away from me three times. He has a terribly intense nature, which manifests itself in literally everything. Don't forget: He was the judo champion for Leningrad in 1976.
Once, right before Volodya went to Germany, we went to visit our friend Vasya Shestakov at a sports camp. Vasya was a coach for young kids. We got there at night, and he showed us some cots where we could get some sleep. In the morning, the kids from the camp woke up and said, "Hey, look at those two guys. We can take them, no sweat." The boys went to work out on the mats. They were practicing judo. And Vasya said to Volodya, "Do you want to fight?" Volodya answered, "What, are you kidding? I haven't stood on a mat for years." So I pitched in: "Come on! What's wrong with you? Those kids said they could take us with no sweat. . . ." And Vasya kept egging him on. "Alright, alright," Volodya finally said. "You talked me into it." He needed a kimono, and he went up to a kid and said, "Listen, will you lend me your robe to fight in?'' The kid said rudely, "Take somebody else's." So Volodya borrowed somebody else's kimono and came out onto the mat. The rude kid was his opponent. Vovka flipped that kid so fast that he earned a clear victory right away. Vasya took the microphone and announced, "And the winner is the master Vladimir Putin, 1976 Leningrad champion!" Volodya took the robe off, gave it back, and calmly walked away. I turned to the kid and said, "You're lucky I'm not the one who was fighting you!"
Once, at Eastertime, Volodya called me to go to see a religious procession. He was standing at the rope, maintaining order, and he asked me whether I wanted to go up to the altar and take a look. Of course I agreed. There was such boyishness in this gesture "nobody can go there, but we can." We watched the procession and then headed home. We were waiting at a bus stop, and some people came up to us. Not thugs, but students who had been drinking. "Can I bum a cigarette off you?" one of them asked. I kept silent, but Vovka answered, "No, you can't." "What are you answering that way for?" said the guy. "No reason," said Volodya. I couldn't believe what happened next. I think one of them shoved or punched Volodya. Suddenly somebody's socks flashed before my eyes and the kid flew off somewhere. Volodya turned to me calmly and said, "Let's get out of here." And we left. I loved how he tossed that guy! One move, and the guy's legs were up in the air.
During my six months in counterintelligence training, the officers from foreign intelligence began to notice me. They wanted to talk. First one conversation, then another, then a third and a fourth . . . Intelligence is always looking for people for themselves, including people from the security agencies. They took people who were young and had certain appropriate qualities.
Of course I wanted to go into foreign intelligence. Everyone did. We all knew what it meant to be able to travel abroad under the conditions of the Soviet Union. And espionage was considered the white-collar job in the agencies. There were many people who exploited their position in order to trade in foreign goods. It was an unfortunate fact.
Naturally, I agreed to go into intelligence, because it was interesting. I was sent for special training in Moscow, where I spent a year. Then I returned to Leningrad and worked for awhile in the "first department," as we used to call it. The first chief directorate is intelligence. It had subdivisions in all the large cities of the Soviet Union, including Leningrad. I worked there for about four and a half years, and then I went to Moscow for training at the Andropov Red Banner Institute, which is now the Academy of Foreign Intelligence.
Mikhail Frolov (retired colonel, instructor of the Andropov Red Banner Institute):
I worked at the Red Banner Institute for 13 years. Vladimir Putin came to me from the Leningrad Directorate of the KGB with the rank of major.
I decided to try him out in the role of division leader. At the Red Banner Institute, division leader was not just some sort of illustrious title. A lot depends on the division leader. You need organizational abilities, a certain degree of tact, and a businesslike manner. It seemed to me Putin had all that. He was a steady student, without slips. There were no incidents. There was no reason to doubt his honesty and integrity.
I remember he once came to my lecture wearing a three-piece suit, despite the fact that it was 30 degrees Celsius on the street. I was sitting in a short-sleeved shirt in the heat. Putin thought he had to appear in a business suit. I even pointed him out as an example to the others: "Look at Comrade Platov, now!" At the Institute, we didn't use students' real names. That's why Putin wasn't Putin, but Platov. As a rule we usually kept the first letter of some-one's name. When I went to intelligence school, I was called Filimonov.
At the Red Banner, we didn't just teach the rules of intelligence and Counter intelligence. We needed to study our trainees their professional worth and personal qualities. We had to determine, in the final analysis, whether a trainee was suitable for work in intelligence.
The training at our institute was a kind of testing ground. I taught the art of intelligence, for example. What does intelligence mean? It's the ability to come into contact with people, the ability to select the people you need, the ability to raise the questions that are of interest to our country and our leaders, the ability to be a psychologist, if you will. So we had to study each trainee carefully. We needed to be as sure of him as we were of our own right hand. At the end of the course, we wrote an evaluation of each graduate, which would determine his fate.
We asked all the teachers, from the counterintelligence department to the physical education department, to write their opinion of the trainees on paper. Their reports were sent to the head of the training department, who synthesized all this material and added his own observations, writing an exhaustive, detailed evaluation of each candidate.
It was hellish work. Each evaluation consisted of only four typewritten pages, but everything had to be covered personal as well as professional qualities. We closed for a week or two, and sat and wrote and wrote. At the end of each evaluation we wrote our conclusion about the suitability or unsuitability of each graduate for work in intelligence.
One time we had a trainee who performed our assignments like clockwork. His fine analytical mind helped him to find the best solutions quickly. In fact, he was so quick that you sometimes had the impression that he knew the answer even before you asked him a question. But the ability to solve problems in and of itself is not the highest priority. At the end of his study I wrote an evaluation that prevented him from working in intelligence. Unfortunately, his personal qualities his careerism and his lack of sincerity toward his comrades disqualified him immediately.
For this particular trainee, the evaluation was like a lightning bolt out of the blue. The evaluation was positive on the whole, but it definitively blocked his way to a job in intelligence. He was not going to get a residency as an agent. I had worked in residencies myself, so I knew what could happen if a boy like this one wound up there. He would start quarrels and create a tense and nasty atmosphere, which would prevent people from working productively. So I had to write a negative evaluation.
As for Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], I can't say he was a careerist. But I do remember that I wrote about several negative characteristics in his evaluation. It seemed to me that he was somewhat withdrawn and uncommunicative. By the way, that could be considered both a negative and a positive trait. But I recall that I also cited a certain academic tendency among his negative aspects. I don't mean that he was dry. No, he was sharp-witted and always ready with a quip.
A very high-ranking graduate commission would then determine how each trainee would be used. After reading his evaluation, the commission would summon each graduate, examine him, and determine which division of the KGB he would be assigned to. As a result of this training, Vladimir Vladimirovich was assigned to KGB representation in the German Democratic Republic [GDR, or East Germany].
When I studied at the Red Banner, it was clear from the very beginning that I was being prepared for Germany because they pushed me to take German. It was just a question of where the GDR or the FRG [Federal Republic of Germany], East or West.
In order to go to the FRG, you had to work in the appropriate department of the central office of the KGB. You had to stick it out for a year or two, or three. It depended on the person. That was one option. Could I have done that? Sure, in theory.
The second option was to go immediately to the GDR. And I decided it was better to travel right away.
Were you married at the time?
Yes. Once, when I was working in the first department in Peter, a friend of mine called me and invited me to the theater to see a performance by Arkady Raikin, the comic. He had tickets, and he said
there would be girls there. We went, and there really were girls. The next day we went back to the theater. I got tickets this time. And then we went a third time. I began to date one of the girls. We got to be friends. She was Lyuda, my future wife.
And how long did you date?
For a long time. About three years, probably. I was 29, and I was used to planning every move. But my friends started saying, "Listen, that's enough, you should get married." They were probably envious. Of course they were. But I knew that if I didn't get married in the next two or three years, I never would. I had gotten used to the bachelor's life, but Lyudmila changed all that.
Lyudmila Putina (Putin's wife):
Lyudmila Putina (Putin's wife):
I'm from Kaliningrad. I worked as a stewardess on domestic flights. There were no international flights to Kaliningrad. After all, it was a closed city. Our flight crew was small and young.
My girlfriend and I flew to Leningrad for three days. She was also a stewardess on our crew, and she invited me to the Lensoviet Theater, to a performance by Arkady Raikin. She had been invited by a boy, but she was afraid to go by herself, so she invited me along. When the boy heard that she was inviting me, he brought Volodya.
The three of us myself, my girlfriend, and her friend met on Nevsky Prospect, near the Duma building, where there is a theater ticket office. Volodya was standing on the steps of the ticket office. He was very modestly dressed. I would even say he was poorly dressed. He looked very unprepossessing. I wouldn't have paid any attention to him on the street.
We watched the first hour of the show. During the intermission we went to the buffet. We had a good time, and I tried to make everyone laugh. But I was no Raikin, nobody was reacting to me much. Still, I wasn't discouraged.
After the show we agreed to meet again and go to the theater. My girl-friend and I had come for only three days, and we wanted to see a lot of a cultural things, of course. We understood that Volodya was the kind of person who could get tickets to any theater.
We met up again the next day, although the friend who had introduced us didn't come.
I bought my first car, a Zhiguli, the original model. I had just finished the conservatory and landed a job in Mravinsky's Collective. We toured Japan and all the rest. I had more money than Vovka. I would bring him souvenirs from my trips T-shirts and the like.
Once, we agreed to meet on Nevsky. He said, "Two girls will come up to you and say they're with me. I'll be there within 15 minutes, and then we'll go to the theater." The girls arrived on time, just as agreed. One of them was Lyuda. She was very nice. We got into the Zhiguli and began to wait for him. At first, I felt terribly uncomfortable sitting with them. Some friends of mine passed by and recognized me, and it was all rather unfortunate. We sat there for about an hour. I spent the whole time exhausting these girls with conversation, or so it seemed to me.
Finally, Volodya appeared. He was always late, by the way. We went to the theater. I don't remember what we saw, of course. No idea. I only remember those friends who passed by and recognized me.
On the second day we went to the Leningrad Music Hall, and on the third day to the Lensoviet Theater. Three days, three theaters. On the third day, it was time to say goodbye. We were in the metro. Volodya's friend stood off to one side. He knew that Volodya was the kind of person who didn't readily give out information about himself, much less his home telephone number. But he noticed that Volodya was handing me his telephone number. After I left, he said to Volodya, "What, have you gone mad?"
Volodya never did things like that.
Did your husband tell you that?
And did he tell you where he worked?
He did: in the criminal investigation department of the police. And then later, I learned that he was in the KGB, in foreign intelligence. For me, at that time, it didn't matter, whether it was the KGB or the police. Now I know the difference.
I told her that I worked in the police. That was the identity that security agents, especially those in intelligence, would use as a cover. If you blabbed about where you worked, you wouldn't be sent abroad. Almost everybody had an ID from the criminal investigation office. I did, too. And that's what I told her. Who knew how our relationship was going to turn out?
Lyudmila Putina: During that first trip, I fell in love with Leningrad at first sight. It was because I had such a good time. A city seems nice and pleasant to you when you meet nice people there.
But did you fall in love with this unprepossessing, modestly dressed guy?
I fell in love later, and fell hard. But not right away. At first, I just called him up.
And you, as a nice girl, didn't give him your telephone number?
I didn't have a telephone in Kaliningrad. At first I called him, then I began to fly to Leningrad for dates.
How do most people travel for dates?
On a tram, or a bus, or a taxi. But I flew to my dates. The Kaliningrad crew did not have any flights to Leningrad. So I was given three or four days off, and I flew on an ordinary passenger flight. There was something about Volodya that attracted me. Within three or four months, I had decided that he was the man for me.
Why? You yourself said he was plain and dull.
Perhaps it was his inner strength, the same quality that draws everybody to him now.
Did you want to get married? Just for the sake of getting married?
No, never. But to marry Volodya, yes.
But you only got married three and a half years later. What did you do all that time?
I spent three and a half years courting him!
How did he finally make up his mind?
One night we were sitting at his house, and he said, "You know what kind of person I am by now. In general I'm not very easygoing." He was being self-critical. He explained that he was the silent type; that he was rather abrupt in some things and could even insult people, and so on. He was saying that he was a risky life partner. And he added: "In three and a half years, you have probably made up your mind." It sounded to me like we were breaking up. "Yes, I've made up my mind," I said. He let out a doubtful "Yes?" Then I was sure that that was it, we were breaking up. But then he said, ''Well, then, if that's the way it is, I love you and propose that we get married." So it all came as a complete surprise to me.
I agreed. Three months later we were married. We had our wedding on a floating restaurant, a little boat tied up to the riverbank. We took this event very seriously. You can tell from our wedding portrait that we were both super-serious. For me, marriage was not a step taken lightly. And for him, too. There are people who take a responsible attitude toward marriage.
And did he, as a person who was responsible and reliable, plan where you were going to live?
There was nothing to plan. We lived with his parents, in a 27-meter-square apartment, a boat house, as we used to call them then. You know the kind, with the high window sills? It was very hard to exchange it for another. Only one of the rooms had a balcony, and the windows in the kitchen and the other room were way up near the ceiling. When you sat at the table, you couldn't see the street outside, only the wall in front of your eyes. It was a big minus when you were trying to trade.
Volodya's parents lived in the 15-meter-square room with the balcony. Our room, the one with no balcony, was 12 square meters. The apartment itself was in a district of newly constructed apartment blocks called Avtovo. Volodya's father had received the apartment as a disabled war veteran.
Did you get along well with his parents? Yes. His parents treated me like the woman who had been chosen by their son. And he was their sun, moon, and stars. They did everything they could for him. No one could do more for him than they did. They invested their whole lives in him. Vladimir Spiridonovich and Maria Ivanovna were very good parents.
And how did he treat them?
Enviably. He treated them so kindly. He never offended them. Of course, on occasion they would be dissatisfied with something and he wouldn't agree with them, but in that sort of situation he would hold his tongue rather than cause them pain.
How did you two get along in the early years?
The first year we were married, we lived in total harmony. There was a continuous sense of joy, as though we were on holiday. Then I got pregnant with our oldest daughter, Masha. She was born when I was in my fourth year of school, and Volodya left for a year to study in Moscow.
You didn't see each other all that time?
I visited him once a month in Moscow. And he came to visit two or three times. It was impossible for him to come more often.
One day he came from Moscow for a few days and somehow he managed to break his arm. Some punk was bugging him in the metro, and he socked the guy. The result was a broken arm. Volodya was very upset. "They're not going to understand this in Moscow. I'm afraid there are going to be consequences," he said. And there really was some unpleasantness, but he didn't tell me any of the details. Everything turned out okay in the end.
His training led to a trip to Germany. He was supposed to go to Berlin, but then a friend of Volodya's recommended him to the station chief in Dresden. The friend was also a Leningrader and worked in Dresden. His tour of duty was coming to an end, so he recommended Volodya for the job. The job in Berlin was considered more prestigious and the work was apparently more interesting, since it involved travel toWest Berlin. In fact, I never learned the facts, and Volodya would never tell me. We never had a conversation on this topic.
They suited one another in all respects. Of course, she began to display some temper later on. She isn't afraid of speaking the truth. And she isn't afraid to talk about herself. Once I bought a rocking chair and couldn't fit it into the trunk of my car, no matter how I tried. She started giving me advice: "You have to turn it this way, and not that . .
." But there was no way it was going to fit into the car, and it was heavy, to boot. I said, "Lyuda, be quiet." She almost went into hysterics. "Why are you men all so stupid?" she yelled.
Lyuda is an excellent hostess. Whenever I came to visit, she always whipped something up fast. She's a real woman, who could stay up all night having a good time, and still clean up the apartment and cook the next morning. . . .
Lyuda is five years younger than me. Before becoming a stewardess, she studied at a technical college. She dropped out during her third year. She was trying to decide where to go, when she and I met. She wanted advice on where to go to school. I said she should go to the university. She decided to apply to the philology faculty, first to the preparatory department. Then she went to the Spanish department and began to take languages. She learned two languages, Spanish and French. They also taught Portuguese there, but she didn't study that much. And when we went to Germany, she learned to speak German fluently.
Before they left for Germany, Masha was born. My former father-in-law had a dacha near Vyborg, a wonderful place, and after we picked Lyuda up from the maternity hospital we all went out there and spent some time together,Volodya, Lyuda, my wife, and I. Of course, we celebrated the birth of Masha. We had dances in the evenings.
"Hold the thief, hold the thief, it's time to catch him!" Vovka could move well, although he didn't seem particularly good at ballroom dancing.
Before we left for Germany, they had to put Lyudmila through a security clearance. They began this process while I was studying in Moscow. At that point I still didn't know where I would be posted; but wherever it was, it would place stringent demands on my family members. For example, one's wife had to be in good health and be able to work in a hot and humid climate. Imagine you've gone through five years of training, and then, when you're finally ready to go abroad, into the field, to work, your wife can't go due to poor health. That would be terrible!
They checked Lyudmila out thoroughly. They didn't tell her about it, of course. They called her into the university personnel department when it was all over, and reported that she had passed the special clearance procedure. So we went to Germany.