DRESDEN—When Vladimir Putin first arrived in Dresden as a mid-level KGB officer in 1985, East Germany was already living on borrowed time. On the verge of bankruptcy, the country was surviving with the help of a billion-Deutsche Mark loan from West Germany, while voices of dissent were on the rise. All around the eastern bloc, the mood of protest was increasing amid the misery and shortages of the planned economy and the brutality of state law-enforcement agencies.
Most of what Putin did during the Dresden years remains shrouded in mystery, in part because the KGB was so effective at destroying and transferring documents before the collapse of East Germany. “With the Russians, we have problems,” said Sven Scharl, a researcher at the Dresden archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police, which worked with the KGB on intelligence operations. “They destroyed almost everything.” Only fragments remain in the files retrieved from the Stasi of Putin’s activities there. His file is thin, and well-thumbed. The only trace of any operative activity connected to Putin is a letter from him to Horst Bohm, the Dresden Stasi chief, asking for his assistance in restoring the phone connection for an informant in the German police who “supports us.” The letter is short on any detail, but the fact of Putin’s direct appeal to Bohm appears to indicate the prominence of his role.