The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The death of a former KGB operative is a reminder of Vladimir Putin’s past life as a spy

Vladimir Putin speaks during his end-of-year news conference last month in Moscow. (Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev )

As a street-fighting kid growing up in crowded apartment complex in the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin dreamed of something bigger.

By the time he was a teenager, that something, he'd concluded, was becoming a spy.

"Even before I finished high school, I wanted to work in intelligence," Putin said, according to a biography posted on the Kremlin website. "Granted, soon after, I decided I wanted to be a sailor, but then I wanted to do intelligence again."

The biography notes that an ambitious young Putin even attended a public reception at the office of the KGB Directorate to ask how he could become an intelligence officer. He was informed that he would have to start by serving in the army or completing college, ideally with a law degree.

“And from that moment," Putin was quoted as saying, "I began preparing myself to enter the law department at Leningrad State University.”

Putin would eventually join the KGB in 1975, at age 23, and spend the next 16 years working for the intelligence agency. He once said that he he was driven to join by "high motives" and hopes to use his skills "to the best for society."

But Putin told his biographers that the allure of espionage transcended high-minded ideals.

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

Putin implicated in fatal poisoning of former KGB officer at London hotel

Putin and the KGB's foreign intelligence wing are in the news again following reports that he likely approved the murder of another former KGB operative, Alexander Litvinenko, according to a British inquiry released Thursday. Litvinenko, a Russian KGB officer-turned-British intelligence agent, was killed nearly a decade ago after unwittingly ingesting radioactive polonium that had been slipped into a cup of green tea he was drinking.

The KGB-style assassination — which has been described by a British parliamentary committee as "a miniature nuclear attack on the streets of London" — will "sharpen the focus on other suspicious deaths among Putin’s foes," according The Post's Griff Witte and Michael Birnbaum.

On his death bed, Litvinenko himself accused Putin of organizing his murder, as well as other crimes as wide-ranging as terrorism and pedophilia.

"You may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price," Litvinenko said at the time. "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."

Years after his sudden and stunning rise to power, a question remains: How did Putin's time working for the KGB shape his worldview and how does it continues to influence his leadership?

Sixteen years ago, after Putin became Russia's acting president, The Post's David Hoffman reported that Putin "had never been a public figure" before he was handpicked by then-President Boris Yeltsin to become prime minister. Hoffman noted at the time that "a review of his career shows that Putin previously has thrived in closed worlds," beginning with his time as an intelligence agent. But, he wrote, Putin was "a mid-level agent" who rose "only to the rank of lieutenant colonel."

The Wall Street Journal noted then that "during his KGB days he appeared unremarkable, even in a service where officers are trained not to attract attention. As a functionary during most of the 1990s, he was hardly considered a rising star."

To his fiercest critics, the strongman's authoritarian impulses are contemporary reflections of the ruthless Cold War security apparatus that molded him into a master spy. Putin — as the Russian journalist Masha Gessen told the Telegraph in 2012 — is "a supersize model of the KGB."

“Communist ideology has gone, but the methods and psychology of its secret police have remained,” Alexei Kondaurov, a KGB general-turned-politician, told the Economist in 2007.

But others tell a different story, painting Putin as a failed intelligence operative who was "squeezed out" of the KGB after he was relegated to provincial cities and given forgettable work that amounted to "a message that he should seek another career," one unnamed former KGB officer told The Post's Jim Hoagland.

Putin, as the latter account goes, was not advancing the KGB cause so much as escaping it when he quietly entered politics in 1991.

“He was seen in the system as a risk-taker who had little understanding of the consequences of failure,” another veteran of Soviet intelligence told Hoagland. “The KGB of that era was not keen on risk.”

"I don’t think he is a very smart man, nor a very educated man," the journalist Gessen added. "He’s an average Soviet functionary with stronger than average emotions, and higher than average vindictiveness."

Hoagland concluded that Putin's beguiling behavior on the world stage was actually more reflective of his history as an incompetent bureaucrat than a cunning villain with a master plan.

"That analysis of Putin, rather than one of him as a master spy, fits more closely with what he has done as Kremlin boss," he wrote. "Putin today displays an open contempt for Russian public opinions and an uncaring disregard for the economy-damaging sanctions and international disapproval that his Ukraine adventure has provoked, traits that befit a drunken gambler."

Between 1985 and 1990, Putin worked in East Germany, at the local intelligence office in Dresden, according to his Kremlin biography. By the time he left the service, he had been promoted to the rank of "lieutenant colonel and to the position of senior assistant to the head of the department," the website notes. In 1989, according to the Kremlin, Putin received a bronze medal issued in the German Democratic Republic, "For Faithful Service to the National People's Army."

According to Hoffman's profile of Putin in 2000:

There is little information about Putin's specific tasks in Dresden, but specialists and documents point to several assignments, including recruiting and preparing agents. The work likely involved Robotron, a Dresden-based electronics conglomerate, which was the Eastern Bloc's largest mainframe computer maker and a microchip research center.
At the time, a major KGB effort was underway to steal Western technology. The Soviet Bloc was so far behind, according to a German specialist, that agents at Stasi headquarters often preferred to work on a Western-made Commodore personal computer rather than on their office mainframe.

“My work was going well," Putin is quoted as saying on the Kremlin website. "It was a normal thing to be promoted just once while working abroad. I was promoted twice.”

But Gessen told the Telegraph that the final stages of Putin's KGB career were actually a period of disillusionment and tumult as the fiercely patriotic operative watched from the geopolitical front row as the Soviet Union disintegrated and thousands of humiliated KGB officers were cast aside by the state.

"I think a lot of his resentment goes back directly to that period," Gessen said. "Having been in the KGB at a bad time, having been outside the country when everything was changing. … He’s a very vengeful man — that’s one of his particular traits of character. And that vengefulness has carried through. He’s pursuing a vendetta against everybody who was ever opposed to the Soviet Union."

Why would Putin have had a former KGB operative murdered?

According to Litvinenko's widow, Marina, that vendetta extended to her husband.

Outside Britain's High Court on Thursday, she said she was "very pleased that the words my husband spoke on his deathbed when he accused Mr. Putin have been proved by an English court."

She called for the expulsion of Russian intelligence operatives based at the embassy in London, economic sanctions and a travel ban against Putin, according to the Telegraph.

If the Russian leader did have a hand in orchestrating Litvinenko's death, it may be because he viewed the ex-KGB operative as a traitor, according to observers.

Gessen told the Telegraph that there is a theory popular among Russian journalists that Putin distinguishes between enemies and traitors.

Enemies, Gessen said, have a right to exist in Putin's mind. Traitors — people who have forsaken the Russian motherland — do not.

"He’s a tiny, mean guy who will bite you if you get too close; and that’s the kind of country he’s tried to build," Gessen said. "And that’s been the extent of Russian foreign policy for the last 12 years.

"What is Russia’s foreign policy agenda? You can’t figure it out from who Russia becomes friends with or sells arms to or negotiates with, because it’s really simple. Russia wants to be feared. That’s it."

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