“With the recent developments in Eastern Europe, do you think that Communism is on the decline, or is this just a temporary setback?”
This was the question Mike Myers posed to the band Aerosmith on a Wayne’s World sketch on Saturday Night Live in February 1990. That this question was an accessible punchline was a testament to the frequency with which it was being asked by journalists, pundits, and politicians at the time, as well as the weight of its answer.
In just six months, Communist regimes that had stood since the end of the Second World War collapsed in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Revolution seemed to be steamrolling much of Europe, a sentiment echoed that December by both US President George Bush and Soviet Supreme Leader Mikhail Gorbachev when they declared an “end” to the Cold War at the Malta Summit.
Nevertheless, Bush was ridiculed for such grandiose foreign policy statements. Saturday Night Live itself mocked the President for his perceived attempts to steal credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall from his predecessor/former boss/rival Ronald Reagan, and responded to the Wayne’s World sketch with a simultaneously reassuring and dispiriting platitude that the Soviet Union would stay strong as long as the Kremlin’s Stalinist apparatchiks were not reposed. A year earlier, the collapse of Communism had been unthinkable. Historical theory dictated that short of a world war, the fundamental strengths of a global superpower like the Soviet Union simply couldn’t disappear overnight. The Tiananmen Square protests, which had arguably sparked this newest wave of revolutionary fervor, had failed to dent Communist rule in China; and the downfall of men like Honecker and Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu may have given remaining Communist leaders a blueprint to fight back against their own demise.
Even Bush himself thought a total collapse of the Eastern Bloc unlikely; while entertaining some fears that runaway anti-Soviet uprisings could plunge the continent into years of political and ethnic strife, his primary motivation at Malta was the expectation that the Soviet Union would retaliate against its former satellites, just as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and turn the breath of Eastern Europe into a killing field.
George Bush’s fear was Vladimir Putin’s last hope.
Born in 1952, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin had been inspired to join the KGB as a teenager when he saw the four-part film series The Sword and the Shield, depicting the life of a heroic Soviet spy (Stanislav Lyubshin) who becomes a double-agent in Nazi Germany– even before the two countries are at war! As he would later recall in his memoir First Person, the power of espionage was apparent: “One man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.”
After years of research and dogged networking, Putin secured a position in the KGB’s counter-intelligence directorate straight out of university before transferring to the First Chief Directorate, where he supervised the bugging of foreign officials in his native Leningrad. Putin would later describe his work there as “the best years of my life,” and his fondness for the organization’s entrenched establishment– the so-called Organs– would repeatedly be tested as the end of the Soviet empire drew near.
The first test would come in 1985, when Putin received his first foreign post. For most agents, a long-term mission abroad would be prestigious, and as a fluent German speaker, Putin fully expected to be appointed as a translator at the flagship embassy in East Berlin. Instead he was ordered to Dresden to act as a coordinator with the East German secret police, the Stasi. Ludmilla Putina, Putin’s ex-wife, would later characterize the work of her then-husband as a jumble of random tasks: wading through documents of little importance, running “illegals” –deep cover agents posing as locals, which counted for little in Dresden– attending diplomatic ceremonies for appearances, and troubleshooting for incompetent Stasi officers who were unaccountably better paid by their puppet government in Berlin than Putin ever could be.
Communist East Germany had never known prosperity; Saxony was poorer still than Berlin, and its capital Dresden had never fully recovered from its leveling by British and American bombers in the Second World War. But for a man who’d grown up with communal apartments in Leningrad, the quality of life he saw around him, abetted by his own country’s military protection, was a constant source of resentment– and a window into the west.
When not greeting dignitaries or rifling through phone records, Putin relished the opportunity to explore Dresden as Dresdeners knew it, far beyond the remote Angelikastrasse block on which all KGB operatives lived and worked. His favorite haunt was the Bierbar Am Thor in Dresden’s New City, where he would spend hours poring over West German magazines and fashion catalogues, investigating– relishing– the hottest trends beyond the Iron Curtain.
Nevertheless, envy triumphed over admiration as Soviet influence waned. In September 1989, Hungary opened its border with Austria, offering visa-free passage to East German citizens. Its attempts to keep people in rendered impotent, East Germany itself began allowing dissidents to flee west. The trains intended to ferry people westward were sealed, supposedly for the protection of those inside, but such illusions were broken on October 5, when ten thousand Dresdeners charged against the security barrier around the Hauptbahnhof in a vain attempt to jump onto the moving cars. Headquartered not far from the KGB rezidentura, the long-idle 11th Guards Tank Division went on full alert, waiting for Moscow to order them into battle.
But the order never came. Hungary and Poland may have broken Communist orthodoxy, but they were still Warsaw Pact allies; war in East Germany could drive them into the arms of the West, and a European war could be little afforded by a nation made weary from the fresh defeat in Afghanistan. Surely the Red Army wouldn’t let Eastern Europe get away, but it would take more than desperate civilians rushing a train.
Yet the situation over in Berlin continued to intensify. Protesters there numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and their protests had drifted from the general desire to emigrate– from “Wir Wollen Raus” (we want out) to “Wir Bleiben Hier” (we’re staying here). Less than two weeks after the events at Dresden, Erich Honecker was removed as Supreme Leader by the East German Politburo. His replacement, Egon Krenz, promised reform, but received little public confidence due to his prior support of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping following the Tiananmen Square protests, further antagonizing demonstrators until November 9, when tens of thousands stormed the Berlin Wall, undeterred by the guards they far outnumbered, and began tearing it down by hand.
To Germans on both sides of the border, the future was clear. Although reunification was unplanned and even opposed by some western allies1, West Germany’s policy of automatic citizenship for Easterners made it almost certain, and the swiftness with which regime change was being implemented elsewhere was a boon to to the general public, for whom all symbols of Soviet domination now seemed easy targets. On December 5, demonstrators in Dresden stormed Stasi headquarters before making their way to the rezidentura.
There in the front garden, they were met by Putin himself, brandishing a gun and warning the crowd that they would be shot if they tried to enter the building.
“And who are you?” asked one of the locals. “You speak German too well.”
“A translator,” Putin confidently replied.
With that, the crowd dispersed, but everyone present assumed they would return for them and their classified documents, and with Stasi headquarters already looted, there was no expectation that local authorities would protect them. Immediately, Putin phoned the 11th Guards and demanded they take control of the area. This would be their last chance.
The commanding officer was unmoved. “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” he said, “and Moscow is silent.”
Ultimately, the demonstrators did not return, but the words “Moscow is silent” would forever ring in Putin’s memory. In March 1990, he left both Dresden and the KGB, by which time Moscow’s silence had cost it all its European allies. Even the Soviet Republic of Lithuania had declared independence. Soon after, what remained of the nominal Warsaw Pact formally dissolved when Poland and Czechoslovakia joined the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.
On August 19, 1991, Putin’s call at Dresden was finally answered when the leaders of his beloved Organs formed the State Committee on the State of Emergency and arrested Supreme Leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But it was too little, too late. By then, revolution had spread to topple friendly regimes around the world, and even some anti-Communist governments like Zambia and South Africa. Putin was international advisor to the Mayor of Leningrad, and given the choice between his past and his future, he chose the future. Neither the SCSE nor Gorbachev prevailed; power instead was vested in former Presidium Chairman Boris Yeltsin, who signed the agreement to dissolve the Soviet Union on December 25.
Distancing himself from Communism, Putin quickly rose through the ranks of the new Kremlin until being chosen by Yeltsin to succeed him as Russian President in 1999. The end of the old USSR had done nothing to halt Russian embarrassment on the world stage, but Putin vowed that such days would end. Moscow would no longer be silent.
Sources and Further Reading:
Aside from media already linked in the article, most of my information came from BBC News, Business Insider, WorldCrunch, and a New York Times interview with Putin himself from 2000. The information on President Bush at the Malta Summit came from a telegram from the Soviet embassy in Budapest, made available in English by the Wilson Center.
Though President Bush’s declaration may have been premature, the United States did win the First Cold War. However, its actions in the wake of that victory ensured there would be a Second, as we shall discover in Part Two: The Ghosts of Versailles.