Putin in East Germany

Retired KGB Colonel Vladimir Usoltsev shares his psychological portrait of “Volodya” – his one-time subordinate and current Russian President Vladimir Putin, from their time serving together in a KGB intelligence group in Dresden, East Germany, during the 1980s. 

The supply of episodes I remember, ones which I could expound without the risk of fabrication, is gradually being exhausted. I could still recount much, resting on foggy glimpses, but I’d fear to be accused of lying. And the goal itself of my story is not only to tell of our life in Dresden and fill in the gap in the biography of an extraordinary Russian politician, but also to clear up any fantasies and lies.

It seems that the reader may remain unsatisfied with what he has read so far. Some chaotic facts, circumstances, but where is the person of the future president himself? What kind of man was he? Something from my explanation can be extracted, but I’m afraid that’s too little. Therefore, I’ll try to write a straightforward psychological portrait of my fellow officer, as I have done in relation to those people who have been fortunate – or, rather, weren’t so lucky – to fall into Soviet intelligence’s field of vision through my eyes.

To compose such a portrait, I do not need to recall concrete facts; it’s sufficient for me to remember my impressions from his personality, and they have been fortified sufficiently solidly in my memory.

Vladimir Putin as a young KGB officer.
Vladimir Putin as a young KGB officer.

Let’s begin with his type of temperament. There is well-known a classical classification of four types of temperament (choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholic), which often prove useful for the description of a personality’s psychological characteristics. Every type has its pluses and minuses. As an ideal for an intelligence officer, not one single selection from these types is suitable, but there are few representatives of each in their pure form. And so Volodya represented a rare mix of all these types. Dominant among them was the sanguine type. Also present in this temperament was a shade of the choleric. He was also a little bit of a phlegmatic, and from occasionally he’d dip into melancholy. One meets such a combination of temperaments, in my view, extremely rarely. Consequently, we can speak of Putin’s exceptional balance while maintaining the emotion and ardor of the sanguine, the persistence and tenacity of the choleric, and the unhurried thoroughness of the phlegmatic, with the melancholic’s caution brake. One will agree that a better combination of psychological qualities for life and political activity would be hard to wish for.

Such men as he are easy-going, but you can’t tempt them with a grand adventure. They are capable of enduring the blows of fate and not surrendering under the first difficulties. Meeting failure, they won’t start to search out a noose and soap to hang themselves with, but will philosophically take a lesson for the future from their defeat and begin a new round with a continuing thirst for life. His dominant sanguinity manifested in him primarily when he was in an elevated mood. Often one could observe how, rubbing his hands together with enjoyment, he would pronounce some joking phrase, for example: “Well then, let’s take the sharpest weapon and wrap up this dirty business.” Often he would pour down racy, funny jokes in the course of tedious paperwork. I won’t risk reproducing them on paper, but I’ll just note that they were completely original, fun, and not vulgar. I never heard any whining or groaning over the necessity of doing boring work.

A pair of personality characteristics in relation to others can be used here: introvert and extrovert. In their pure form, neither type is satisfactory for work in intelligence. Here Volodya also represented a successful mix: simultaneously he was both. He was communicative, felt easy around others, but along with that he was unforced, calm, and collected. He didn’t let others get too close to his heart, and he avoided excessively close socializing.

There is still another pair of personality characteristics that’s understandable to everyone: optimist or pessimist. Volodya was undoubtedly an optimist, but a “grounded” one. His optimism wasn’t the triumphant, uncritical optimism of a youth, to whom it seems that the world is at his feet, but rather a grown man’s confidence in his strength and his ability to correctly assess the situation. He didn’t set himself unattainable goals, but those goals he did set he’d achieve without fail.

His confidence was sensed by everyone. He also inspired a feeling of confidence in those around him – to everyone it became clear that behind his words and aspirations, a solid base was concealed and he would meet his aim. Along with that no one had a shadow of assumption that he was excessively cocky. The presence of such qualities is very important for “working with people,” which was our work first and foremost.

He knew how to control himself, and when necessary he could express no emotion, or rather, give his emotions free reign. Self-composure is an essential element of an intelligence officer’s psyche, as well as that of any man of action. For a politician this quality is no less important. It seems to me that Volodya had self-control at quite a high level. I can’t remember whether he told me about getting tested on the lie detector. At the Red Banner Institute some training groups were put through the process for the purpose of familiarization.

Putin around the time of his KGB training in Leningrad.
Putin around the time of his KGB counterintelligence training in Leningrad.

The group in which I trained was lucky. I went through the machine and almost drove the instructor mad. As much as I remember, conclusions from the detector’s measurements were based on a sum of points tabulated from fixed deviations from the body’s parameters during the interrogation, with provocative questions posed. The less the point sum, the better the result. The best result was considered 25 points, average, in my opinion, was 35-40 points, and 50 or more points was already “failure and exposure.” I got 15 points. The instructor couldn’t believe it and repeated the test. For the repeat test I picked up 13 points. There wasn’t any such thing in the detector’s history. My self-composure proved extremely high. It didn’t help me, however, because soon the question on my suitability for intelligence work arose – over my not understanding that the wisest men in the country were gathered namely in the Politburo.

And so, by my evaluation, Volodya wouldn’t have picked up more than 25 points, but would have doubtless collected more than I did.

Having analyzed the purely physiologically conditioned particularities of his psyche, let us move on to his moral principles. First of all it’s necessary to note that he is sooner an individualist than a collectivist. There’s nothing shameful in that. In my view, it’s an absolutely natural quality: being a social creature, one is oriented most of all on oneself. One needn’t mention this characteristic at all, but it was an obligatory attribute in Soviet times. If someone was called a collectivist, it was thought of as the highest praise. But a collectivist strikingly expressed is, in my opinion, just a fool; I wouldn’t go on a mission with such a man. But with an individualist like Volodya, I’d always go. The fact of the matter is that healthy individualism doesn’t contradict other moral imperatives such as, “I can die, but I’ll save my comrade.” And that imperative was wholly characteristic of Volodya.

During the years of building communism, we forgot about such moral categories as honor and conscience. These words almost never turned up, neither in official profiles, nor even in more thorough operational documents describing a person from all angles. But they are, after all, central to evaluating someone. And so Volodya was a man of honor. Although in our work there weren’t any situations that I could use as a shining example for confirmation of my words, many nuances of Volodya’s behavior are definitely convincing. Volodya treated service and the oath he gave more seriously than all of us. In many discussions he often recalled that we were officers who took an oath of loyalty to the Motherland, and his words always sounded earnest, without a hint of ostentation. Even with all his conformism, there remained in him a touch of pride in belonging to a generational line of defenders of the Fatherland, something the Tsar’s officers also once had. And Volodya could defend his personal honor, but in front of me there were never any situations where that was necessary.

Volodya’s conscience was also not in a dormant state. In Dresden he rarely had to experience pangs of conscience, but it did happen. I clearly remember such moments, but, alas, I can’t remember what they came to. Overall, our work, tied to the fates of men, was such that reasons were often found for worrying and getting nervous for others.

Moral rules are tightly connected to those of one’s worldview, and I have already written of Volodya’s worldview. Volodya’s main moral imperative was to follow the law. And the law must correspond to the principles of what is right. And as soon as what was right was far from our vision in the country, Volodya gave full freedom to his individual rules: living for his family and extracting the optimum from the situation that had unfolded.

Volodya was a pleasant person socializing, and he enthusiastically gave gifts and rendered friendly assistance. That made him glad. I’ll again note that this in no way contradicts my assertion that he’s an individualist. An individualist doesn’t automatically translate to a miser. The Germans have a saying in circulation that signifies a life principle – leben und leben lassen (live and let live). This principle is undoubtedly characteristic of Volodya, as well. Hidden in that short formulation are more than a few important nuances: tolerance and magnanimity, for example.

It especially stands to highlight his charm in the broadest sense of the word. He got on well with both his colleagues and especially the older generation. His cultivation, typical for Leningraders, his ability to comport himself respectfully without signs of servility, his tactfulness and foresight were organically characteristic and never evoked the suspicion he was specially trying to “suck up.” I am absolutely convinced that precisely his unique charm in the eyes of the elderly had a decisive influence on his rise from the moment he came into Boris Yeltsin’s field of vision. In the art of bureaucratic-administrative work, hardly had an advantage over others in Yeltsin’s inner circle. But in his charm he was indisputably superior to them all.

A lawyer to the marrow of his bones, Volodya in no degree resembled a dry, soulless solicitor who saw nothing but paragraphs of the law. But readers should not form the opinion that he was a flabby “nice guy.” Volodya could be both principled and tough. I didn’t have the opportunity to see Volodya in a leadership role, but from all of my representation of him, it would follow unambiguously that slovenliness, negligence, and ineffectiveness would cost his subordinates dearly. His universal poise contains a significant charge of severity and decisiveness. He can also just become uncompromising if circumstances require so. Here we have come upon an oft-used feature of character – his “firmness” or “softness.” In that sense Volodya possesses a firm character, but not a “petrified” one.

And one could depend on Volodya, and boldly so. Such a man wouldn’t disappoint. His dependability is visible from his countenance, and I also have concrete examples of that. If only one such: one time I had a not-so-minor emergency occur. The specter of harsh punishment hung over me. My partner in this unhappy affair – one of the lucky Berlin officers with the right of entry into West Berlin – sat right down at Volodya’s desk and wrote an explanatory note that he had no part in it and wasn’t guilty of anything. First of all our Berlin Operational-Technical Section officer who supplied us with defective equipment could be punished, but I took all the responsibility on myself. Volodya and Sergei, unlike my fair-weather partner, immediately declared their readiness to help me get out of the situation by all accessible means. Moreover, Volodya was clearly the initiator of this effort. Until late at night he sat with me in the office to be around if needed. I was able to resolve the situation, not only extinguishing the unpleasantness, but also turning the whole business to our benefit. If there couldn’t be happiness, unhappiness helped. In this episode Volodya’s remarkable qualities as a comrade shined through brightly. Our chief, Lazar Lazarevich, also behaved greatly in this story, again confirming his morality. He would have also been threatened with unpleasantness in the case of failure, but he gave me full carte-blanche and didn’t demonstrate any signs of hysteria, which could be expected from any other chief.

Volodya was modest in behavior and didn’t thrust himself forward, but it would be a mistake to think of him as someone demure who suffered from low self-esteem. He knew his worth and possessed a high sense of his own dignity. Volodya had a healthy ambition, but didn’t aspire to leadership at any price. True, he also didn’t want to be an outsider. That he participated in our firearms training, although he overall shot fine, certainly underlines that. Sergei and I shot noticeably better, and he didn’t want to be a weakling among us. It would be a mistake to find Volodya’s ambition a demonstration of vanity, which was completely alien to him. Being a high-class athlete, he never boasted of his athletic titles and his outstanding form and enviable musculature.

The level of pretensions in Volodya’s career was wholly realistic. He understood that he’d never become a general, and he didn’t manifest any zeal in boosting his career upward. He worked conscientiously, and not more than that. Volodya distinguished himself from us by his ability to work collectedly and deliberately, progressing toward the objective in undeviating fashion. Volodya’s characteristic carelessness in maintaining files and overall order on his desk and in his safe would seem a certain contrast to my claim. Sergei, who stood out among us in his neatness, often waxed ironic over the mess that was Volodya’s papers. Therein was a certain paradox: poise in thought and chaos in paperwork. Because of this paradox I even deceived a German reporter when answering his question on Volodya’s neatness with the claim that his files were totally in order. Only later did I remember that there was no order at all.

Putin at a party with fellow KGB officers in Dresden.
Putin at a party with fellow KGB officers in Dresden.

In a certain way, his inclination to slowly, unhurriedly get ready – he was a typical “slowpoke” – was joined to this inclination of Volodya’s. He ate slowly and often turned up in a position when everyone else was made to wait until he’d finally finish his steak. Why do I mention this? The fact of the matter is that, already executing the duties of the President of Russia, he somehow joked with a woman correspondent who asked him who was an example to him, his model for imitation. Volodya then slyly indicated Napoleon (don’t ask dumb questions). It proved entertaining that some journalists took this as the real thing, and so was born the myth of Volodya’s Napoleon complex. I hope that the reader who gets through my book will understand that Volodya doesn’t have a trace of this complex.

But let us return to his unhurried manner. This particularity of his, undoubtedly, is a manifestation of the phlegmatic side of his temperament that kept him from adventurism. Volodya’s intellectual capabilities were altogether good. He wasn’t a bad rhetorician, though at the level of dialogues. To speak from the podium with beautiful improvisation, like his boss Sobchak, probably wouldn’t work out for him. But in arguments, it was hard to get the best of him. He tenaciously defended his position, finding unexpected and therefore especially effective arguments. Objections didn’t knock him off course, and he’d find counter-arguments within a moment. In debates with equals, his combative, aggressive character was clearly demonstrated. He wisely didn’t get into disputes with those senior by rank and position. But in no case could he could be called a hard-headed and stubborn. He’d always agree with reasonable objections.

A unique feature of Volodya’s personality is his irony. The Napoleon story is a striking example of that. One could point out a multitude of such stories. An ironic frame of mind, by the way, is found only among intelligent people. He loves to joke about others and is not insulted when they joke about him – within the limits of decency, of course. To verbal barbs he can answer with ones of his own, and no less sharp.

It especially stands to note, in connection with recent circumstances, another personality aspect of my book’s protagonist: is he a religious believer? A religious KGB officer sounds like “liquid rock.” It definitely follows from my observations that Volodya in Dresden was the same type of atheist that I was. Yet…I already wrote above that that Volodya could have preserved within himself some germ of faith that could sprout fourth due to the shocks of the past decade and a half. But however well I knew him, I cannot categorically say whether he genuinely believes, or if faith for him is a tactical fallback.

In the psychological portrait I’ve written, only positive aspects have turned up, and no negative ones have been found. Let the reader believe me that I haven’t concealed anything, nor have I embellished. I am simply not in the position to qualify what could be allotted to definite personal vices. He and I are different people, and in much we don’t resemble each other, but I can’t consider his dissimilarity with me to be a minus.

Somewhere I’ve read the conclusion of one psychologist who found a serious flaw: the absence of a sense of danger (brave unto folly). I simply laughed at this latest claim taken from nowhere. Volodya is brave in moderation, just as he is cautious in moderation – like all normal people. Whoever saw him on the shooting range, to the contrary, would think that he was excessively cautious, since he very distinctly followed the rules of behavior on the firing line. He also watched his neighbors and got nervous when someone began to non-arbitrarily gesticulate with a loaded pistol in their hand. You’ll agree, my readers, that such behavior is wholly reasonable. But there are few who can be so collected in conditions of danger as he was.

I didn’t discover either secret or overt fascinations or hobbies with Volodya. Beer sessions, reading books, visits to concerts or the movies – these weren’t shaded with any captivation, but he did have one passion. That was sports, in which he reached a very high level. One can confidently assert that he was one of the most erudite and well-rounded men among masters of sport, but in Dresden he wasn’t engaged in it.

Work Translated: Усольцев, В.В. Сослуживец. М: Изд-во Эксмо, 2004

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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