Though the standard of living is high and the beer is good, the Putins find East Germany a backward place. The country seems stuck in a totalitarian state that Russia left three decades before. Putin is shocked by the atmosphere of fear and stagnation.
Then the Berlin Wall falls and chaos breaks out. Mobs ransack the Stasi headquarters. They surround the KGB offices. Panicked, Putin calls for military backup, but receives this ominous answer, "Moscow is silent." He suddenly feels as though everything is falling apart, as though the Soviet Union has simply disappeared.
You came to the KGB in 1975 and resigned in 1991. Sixteen years. How many of them did you spend abroad?
Not even a full five. I worked only in the GDR, in Dresden. We went there in 1985 and left after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1990.
Did you want to go abroad?
I did. But the KGB was working officially in the GDR and the other socialist countries. As one of your former colleagues said, the GDR is a province, from the perspective of
foreign intelligence-gathering. Probably. Actually, from that perspective, Leningrad is also a province. But I was always quite successful in these provinces. But this wasn't like The Sword and Shield, was it? What about the romance of intelligence? Don't forget that by that time, I had already worked in the agencies for 10 years. How romantic do you think that was? Intelligence was always the fanciest organization in the KGB. The agents lived abroad for years. You could spend three years in a capitalist country or four to five in the so-called socialist camp. Then you'd go for nine months of retraining in Moscow and go abroad once again. I have a friend who worked in Germany for 20 years and another who worked there for 25 years. When you come home for nine months between trips, you don't fully integrate back into life. When you come home from serving abroad, it's hard to get used to our reality. You're more aware of what's going on. We young people would talk to our older colleagues. I don't mean the really old ones who remember the Stalin era, but people with work experience. And they were a generation with entirely different views, values, and sentiments.
One of my friends worked in Afghanistan as the head of a security group. When he returned home, we grilled him a lot. Do you remember what it was like here then? Everything that was connected to Afghanistan was a constant "Hurrah!" We all felt very patriotic. So we talked to him, and I asked him how he felt about his work in Afghanistan. You see, his signature was required for missile launchings. Without his signature, the decision to bomb would not be made. His answer to my question came as a shock to me: "You know, I judge the results of my work by the number of documents that I did not sign." That really stunned me. After conversations like that, you start to think and rethink things. A person we respected was saying this. These people were authorities in the best sense of the word. And suddenly their opinion was at odds with the customary, established clichés. In intelligence at that time, we were allowed to think differently. And we could say things that few normal citizens could not permit themselves to say.
We arrived in Dresden in 1986. I had graduated from university by that time. Masha was a year old and, we were expecting a second child. Katya was born in Dresden. I only knew the German I had learned in school, no more.
I did not receive any special instructions before the trip. I just went through a medical exam and that was it. Our people worked completely legally in the GDR, after all. We lived in the building that housed the German state security, the Stasi. Our neighbors knew where we worked, and we knew where they worked. Although perestroika had already begun in the USSR, they still believed in the bright future of communism.
What did you do in Germany?
The work was political intelligence obtaining information about political figures and the plans of the potential opponent.
Is it correct to say you were involved in "intelligence from the territory"?
More or less, although that phrase generally means foreign intelligence-gathering from the territory of the USSR [about other countries], and we were working from the territory of East Germany. We were interested in any information about the "main opponent," as we called them, and the main opponent was considered NATO.
Did you travel to West Germany?
No, not once while I was working in the GDR.
So what exactly did you do there?
The usual intelligence activities: recruiting sources of information, obtaining information, analyzing it, and sending it to Moscow. I looked for information about political parties, the tendencies inside these parties, their leaders. I examined today's leaders and the possible leaders of tomorrow and the promotion of people to certain posts in the parties and the government. It was important to know who was doing what and how, what was going on in the Foreign Ministry of a particular country, how they were constructing their policy on certain issues and in various areas of the world, and how our partners would react in disarmament talks. Of course, in order to obtain such information, you need sources. So recruitment of sources, procurement of information, and assessment and analysis were big parts of the job. It was a very routine work.
We did not discuss work at home. I think the nature of my husband's work made a difference. There was always a principle at the KGB: Do not share things with your wife. They told us that there had been incidents when excessive frankness had led to unfortunate consequences. They always proceeded from the premise that the less the wife knew, the better she'd sleep. I socialized fairly often with the Germans, and if one of my acquaintances was undesirable, Volodya would let me know.
Life in the GDR was probably better than in Peter?
Yes, we had come from a Russia where there were lines and shortages, and in the GDR there was always plenty of everything. I gained about 25 pounds and weighed about 165.
And how much do you weigh now?
Let me tell you honestly . . . The beer? Of course! We used to go to a little town called Radeberg, where there was one of the best breweries in East Germany. I would order a three-liter keg. You pour the beer into the keg, you add a spigot, and you can drink straight from the barrel. So I had 3.8 liters of beer every week. And my job was only two steps from my house, so I didn't work off the extra calories.
And no sports?
There were no facilities there. And we also worked a lot.
We lived in a service apartment in a German building. It was large, with 12 entryways. Our group took up five apartments. Volodya's driver and his wife lived in another building. And there were four other apartments with military intelligence nearby. All the rest were Germans who worked at the GDR state security.
Our group worked in a separate building a German mansion that was surrounded by a wall. It had either three or four floors, I don't remember. But it was only a five-minute walk from our apartment to that building. From the window of his office, Volodya could see little Katya in daycare. In the morning he would take Masha to the day-care center, which was right under the windows of our apartment, and then take Katya to the nursery.
They always came home for lunch. All of the guys would have lunch at home. Sometimes they would come to our house in the evenings, friends from work, sometimes Germans too. We were friends with several families. It was fun. We talked about nothing special, told jokes and anecdotes. Volodya knows how to tell a joke well.
On the weekends we would take trips outside the city. We had a service car, a Zhiguli. This was considered a pretty good car in the GDR, at least compared to the local Trabants. Getting a car in those days in the GDR was as difficult as it was in the Soviet Union. So, on the weekends, we would take trips with the whole family. There were many beautiful places outside Dresden. Saxony was only 20 to 30 minutes away. We would take a walk, have some hot dogs and beer, and then head home.
You had some evident successes when you worked in Dresden.
My work went well. It was normal to be promoted while working at a foreign posting. I was promoted twice.
What was your job title when you came to the GDR?
I was a senior case officer. My next job was assistant to the head of the department. That was considered quite a good advance. And then I was promoted to senior assistant. There was nothing higher. Above me was the top managerial level, and we only had one boss. So as an incentive, I was made a member of the Party committee of the KGB representation in the GDR.
There are reports that you took part in an operation called Lightbeam.
I don't know, exactly. I wasn't involved in it. I don't even know if it was executed or not. As far as I can remember, it involved working with the political leadership of the GDR. I didn't have anything to do with it.
But people say that you were the one who controlled the former secretary of the Dresden regional committee of the SED, Hans Modrow.*
I met Modrow a few times at official receptions. That was the extent of our acquaintance. He socialized with people of a different rank, the commander of the army, our senior communications officer. And, in general, we didn't work with Party functionaries. Including our own, by the way. It was prohibited.
And you weren't the one to obtain the documentation about the Eurofighter bomber?
I wasn't involved in technical intelligence. I didn't do that line of work. Why have they made up so much about me? It's complete nonsense!
Well, they wanted to portray you as a super-spy. And you're denying everything. But then why did you get promoted?
For concrete results in my work that's what it was called. Success was measured by the quantity of realized units of information. If you procured information from the sources you had at your disposal, put it together, and sent it to the relevant offices, you would obtain the appropriate evaluation.
You are answering like an intelligence officer. In other words, you're not really answering. Take Markus Wolf, the former head of East German intelligence. He insulted you. He says that the bronze medal that you received, with the inscription ''For services to the National People's Army of the GDR," is a medal that they gave to practically every secretary, provided she didn't have any gross violations in her record.
*In the fall of 1989, Hans Modrow was secretary of the Communist Party (SED) in Dresden and responsible for "emergency situations" while large, peaceful, anti-GDR demonstrations were taking place there nightly. He refrained from suppressing the anti-government demonstrations and was made prime minister at the height of the agitation against the Communist government (1989-1990). His government and party were soundly defeated in the momentum for German reunification.
Markus Wolf is entirely correct. And there is nothing offensive in what he said. Just the opposite. He just confirmed that I didn't have any gross violations in my record. The only thing is that my medal, I believe, doesn't say "for services" but says "for outstanding services to the National People's Army of the GDR."
You're not expecting any sensational publications about yourself, for example, in Germany?
No. To be honest, no.
It's kind of funny to read all that nonsense in the papers. I'm baffled to read that the Western countries are looking for agents whom I recruited. It's all baloney. Our friends, as we called the GDR security agents, have copies of everything we produced. It is all preserved in their archives. Therefore it is impossible to say that I was involved in some sort of secret operations that were out of sight of the local GDR government agencies or the security agencies. A large part of our work was done through citizens of the GDR. They are all on the roster. Everything is transparent and understandable. And German counterintelligence knows about all of this.
I did not work against the interests of Germany. That's absolutely obvious. Moreover, if it had been otherwise, I wouldn't have been allowed to visit any Western country. I wasn't a high-ranking official then. But I have traveled a lot of places since then, including Germany. Some of the GDR state security officers even wrote letters to me when I worked in St. Petersburg as vice mayor. And at a reception, I once said to the German consul, "Please note that I receive letters, and that these are my personal connections. I understand that you have a campaign now against former state security agents. They are being captured and persecuted for political reasons. But these are my friends, and I will not renounce them." He replied, "We understand everything, Mr.Putin. Everything is clear." They knew perfectly well who I was and where I had come from. I didn't hide it.
Of course, life in the GDR was very different from life in Russia. The streets were clean. They would wash the windows once a week. There was an abundance of goods not like what they had in West Germany, of course, but still better than in Russia. There was one detail that surprised me. It was trivial should I even mention it? It was the way German women would hang out their clothes. In the morning, before work, about 7:00 A.M., they would go out in the backyard. And each housewife would stretch a rope between these metal poles, and then she would hang her laundry out on the lines in very, very neat rows, with clothes pins. They were all alike.
The Germans were very orderly in their daily life, and their standard of living was better than ours. I think the GDR state security people got higher salaries than our guys, judging from how our German neighbors lived. Of course, we tried to economize and to save up enough money to buy a car. Then, when we returned home, we bought a Volga. Some of Volodya's salary was paid in German marks and some in dollars. But we did not spend much money, except on food. We didn't have to spend any money on anything. We lived in a government apartment with government-issued dishes.
Really, we sat on our suitcases and dreamed of returning home. At the beginning, we were really homesick. But we were pretty comfortable in the GDR. Four years passed, and in four years a foreign country and a foreign city can become almost like your own. When the Berlin Wall fell and it was clear this was the end, we had the horrible feeling that the country that had almost become our home would no longer exist.
If German counterintelligence, as you say, knows everything about your activity in the GDR, then that means that it knows about everything and everyone you worked with in your intelligence group. Your entire agents' network is ruined.
We destroyed everything, all our communications, our lists of contacts and our agents' networks. I personally burned a huge amount of material. We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst. We burned papers night and day. All the most valuable items were hauled away to Moscow. But it no longer meant anything in terms of operations. All of the contacts were cut off. Work with the information sources was stopped for security reasons. The materials were destroyed or sent to the archives. Amen!
When was that?
In 1989, when they began to break into the Directorate of the Ministry of Security in the GDR. We were afraid they would come for us, too.
But you can understand the people who broke into the Ministry of Security, can't you?
You can. Only the way in which they expressed their protest was upsetting. I stood in the crowd and watched it happen. People were breaking into the Ministry of Security (MGB). A woman shouted: "Look for the passageway under the Elba! There are prisoners there being tortured in water up to their knees!" What prisoners? Why under the Elba? True, there was a jail cell used for interrogations, but obviously, it wasn't under the Elba. This was a backlash, of course. I understood those people, they were tired of being watched by the MGB, especially because the surveillance was so totally invasive. They saw the MGB as a monster.
But the MGB was also part of society. It was infected with the same sicknesses. There were all kinds of people who worked there, but the people I knew were decent people. I was friends with many of them, and I think that the way they are now being castigated isn't right. It's the same thing the MGB system did to the civil society of East Germany, to its people.
Yes, there probably were some MGB agents who engaged in the persecution of people. I didn't see it. I don't want to say that it didn't happen. But I personally did not see it.
In a sense, the GDR was a real eye-opener for me. I thought I was going to an Eastern European country, to the center of Europe. It was already the end of the 1980s. And suddenly, when I talked with people from the MGB, I realized that both they themselves and the GDR were going through something the Soviet Union had gone through many years before. It was a harshly totalitarian country, similar to the Soviet Union, only 30 years earlier. And the tragedy is that many people sincerely believed in all those Communist ideals. I wondered at the time: if some changes in the USSR begin, how would it affect the lives of these people? The alarmists got it right. It was hard to imagine that such abrupt changes could take hold in the GDR. No one could have ever imagined it!
And we didn't know how it would end. Of course, we had begun to suspect that the regime would not last long. Perestroika had already begun in our country, many closed subjects were now being discussed openly. But in the GDR, that sort of talk was totally taboo, they were trying to totally preserve their society. Families had been torn apart. Some relatives lived on one side of the Wall, some on the other. Everyone was followed. Of course, that wasn't normal. It wasn't natural.
But they didn't touch you when they broke into the MGB?
Well, crowds gathered around our building, too. Alright, the Germans tore apart their own MGB. That was their own internal affair. But we weren't their internal affair. Those crowds were a serious threat. We had documents in our building. And nobody lifted a finger to protect us. We were prepared to defend ourselves against the crowd, and we would have been within our rights to do so, under an agreement between our ministries and governments. We were forced to demonstrate our readiness to defend our building. And that determination certainly made an impression on them, at least for a while.
Did you have bodyguards?
You didn't try to go out and talk with people?
After a while, when the crowd grew angry, I went out and asked people what they wanted. I explained to them that this was a Soviet military organization. And someone shouted from the crowd: "Then why do you have cars with German license plates in the parking lot? What are you doing here, anyway?" It was as if they were saying, "We know what you're up to." I explained that we had an agreement, which allowed us to use German license plates. "And who are you?" they shouted. "You speak German too well." I replied that I was a translator.
These people were in an aggressive mood. I called our group of forces and explained the situation. And I was told: "We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent." After a few hours, our military people did finally get there. And the crowd dispersed. But that business of "Moscow is silent" I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed. That it had disappeared. It was clear that the Union was ailing. And it had a terminal disease without a cure, a paralysis of power.
I saw what happened to my neighbors when all those revolutionary events started in the GDR. My neighbor, who was my friend, cried for a week. She cried for her lost ideals, for the collapse of everything that she had believed in her whole life. For them, it was the collapse of everything, their lives, their careers. They were all left without jobs. There was a ban on their profession. Katya had a teacher in the day-care center who was an educator by profession. After the fall of the Wall, she no longer had the right to work in daycare and educate children. They had all been officers of the MGB.
She went through a psychological crisis, but then somehow she pulled herself together and went to work in a home for senior citizens.
Another German friend from the GDR found a job with a Western firm. She had worked there for a long time and was quite successful, when suddenly her boss, in the midst of a heated discussion, said that all people from the GDR were dense, uneducated, and incompetent; that they were second-class citizens. She listened to all this and said, "But I'm from the GDR. Do you think I'm incompetent as well?" Her boss fell silent. He had no retort because there was nothing wrong with her work.
Did you suffer when the Berlin Wall fell?
Actually, I thought the whole thing was inevitable. To be honest, I only really regretted that the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe, although intellectually I understood that a position built on walls and dividers cannot last. But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That's what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away. Later, back in Peter, I had a very interesting meeting with Kissinger, and he confirmed what I already thought.
There was a commission called the Kissinger-Sobchak Commission, founded to develop St. Petersburg and to attract foreign investment. Kissinger came to our city several times. Once I met him at the airport. We got into a car and went to the residence. On the way, he asked me where I was from and what I was doing. He was an inquisitive old fellow. He looks like he is nodding off to sleep, but in fact, he sees and hears everything. We spoke through an interpreter. He asked me, "Have you worked here long?" I replied that it had been about a year. "Where did you work before that?" asked Kissinger.
"At the Leningrad City Council," I replied. "And before the Leningrad City Council?" "At the university." "And before the university?" "I was in the army before that." "In what troops?" "Well," I thought to myself. "Now I'm going to upset you, Mr. Kissinger." "I worked in intelligence," I said. "Did you work abroad?" he asked calmly. "Yes," I said. "In Germany." "East or West?"
"All decent people got their start in intelligence. I did, too," said Kissinger.
Then he said something that was completely unexpected and very interesting. "You know, I am very much criticized for the position I took regarding the USSR back then. I believed that the Soviet Union should not abandon Eastern Europe so quickly. We were changing the balance in the world very rapidly, and I thought it could lead to undesirable consequences. And now I'm being blamed for that position. People say, 'See, the Soviets left, and everything's normal. You thought it was impossible.' But I really did think it was impossible." Then he thought a while and added, "Frankly, to this day I don't understand why Gorbachev did that.
I had never imagined I might hear something like that from the lips of Henry Kissinger. I told him what I thought, and I will repeat it to you right now: Kissinger was right. We would have avoided a lot of problems if the Soviets had not made such a hasty exit from Eastern Europe.