The Teenager Who Knocked on the KGB’s Door

It is the late 1960s. The young people of the world are engaged in the hippie movement; in Paris and Mexico barricades are being built to challenge the establishment; in Prague petitions are being signed in favor of its Spring, and later against the Russian invader. While the world is engaged in liberating processes, in Leningrad a teenager, who by his short stature seems younger than his seventeen years, knocks on the door of the KGB. The young man, who devours the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, manages to meet with an official and asks to be allowed to join the ranks of the secret police. The official recommends that he finishes his studies first. The teenager who from then on applied to join the KGB every year was called Vladimir Putin.

Two decades later, the Berlin Wall falls. The former teenager is thirty-seven years old, a senior officer of the KGB, which he finally joined in 1975, after studying law, and feels important in that environment of power, control and contempt for ordinary people. He works closely with the Stasi in Dresden, East Germany. And while Berliners celebrate the fall of communism and with beer bottles in hand help to destroy the wall that divides their city, while Budapest, Warsaw, Prague and Bucharest celebrate the fall of totalitarian governments and after four decades prepare their first democratic elections, while in the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev is carrying out perestroika and transparency and Russians are enjoying being able to tell the truth after seventy years of terror, while all these liberating processes are taking place in the world, the young lieutenant colonel of the KGB is burning documents. Unlike the others, Putin has nothing to celebrate because his world, that of the despotic force of the totalitarian state, has just disintegrated. He and his KGB colleagues in Eastern Europe destroy documents and telephone Moscow, but no one answers their calls, as Anne Applebaum mentions in a recent article. At that moment the young kagebeshnik, the ruthless KGB officer, panics at the sight of mass demonstrations demanding a trio of Western values: change, freedom and democracy. From then on, that trio becomes his enemy, and the West the target of his wrath.

The years go by. In the nineties Putin participates in the plundering of what is left of the Soviet state and together with other predators becomes an oligarch. In 1999, the former KGB officer became prime minister and shortly thereafter president of Russia, positions he has held on to, tooth and nail, for more than two decades.

Throughout those twenty years he has been courted by several American presidents: Bush speaks of Putin’s blue eyes that know no evil, Obama strives to reset their presidential relations, Trump pampers him. But instead of their faces Putin sees the threatening trio of Western values and turns his back on them. In Russia he imprisons and murders hundreds of people for speaking their minds: journalists and historians like Anna Politkovskaya, opposition activists and politicians like Khodorkovsky, Navalny and Nemtsov, plus the singers of the Pussy Riot ensemble, and turns Russia back into a country of fear and terror. Nemtsov invents a slogan that defines Putin’s Russia: a country of crooks and thieves (strana zhulikov i vorov). This catchphrase becomes a popular slogan and Nemtsov is assassinated. After him it is adopted by Navalny – who has been poisoned and imprisoned – and continues to be repeated in mass demonstrations that stand up to Putin.

Ukraine, the country that, in 2014, ousted the pro-Russian President Yanukovych, turned its back on Russia and is moving closer to the West, became the target of Putin’s wrath because it represents the trio of values that the Russian president abhors. Ever since, of its own free will, the country became independent from Russia, had its Orange Revolution and in the end elected Zelensky as president – that young comedian, the living image of the hated trio – Putin has found it hard to control himself. At his recent meeting with Emmanuel Macron, in front of the elongated table, at one point he sarcastically and furiously uttered the lyrics of a popular – and vulgar, as well as humiliating for women – Russian song: “Whether you like it or not, my beauty, you’ll have to put up with everything I do to you.” The Ukrainian president replied in a tweet: “Indeed, Ukraine is a beauty, but it’s not yours.”

The rest is known: a few days ago, Putin effectively put himself in the role of the rapist of the song: he seeks to punish not only Ukraine but, through it, also the much-loathed West. Little did he imagine, however, that instead of sowing discord among European countries, as is his common practice, he has helped the EU, the West as well as Ukraine, to unite as seldom before in its response to the monstrous aggression and in its reception of refugees from the assaulted country.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)