The Spy Who Came In From The Crowd

An up-close profile of the former KGB agent who rules the Kremlin and is intent on making the world respect Russia again

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He lived in Dresden, and at least once a camera caught him shopping in West Berlin. But he seems to have spent most of his time as deputy director of the backwater House of German-Soviet Friendship in Leipzig collecting, analyzing and passing on bits of information. He was thought to be close to his counterparts in the East German intelligence service, Stasi, who were notorious for their crude repression, though he claims he "never saw it." He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, respectable but hardly stellar.

What may have affected his future most was the spectacle of the Soviet Empire's downfall. In excerpts from his book, he recalls the bunker atmosphere in his offices in East Berlin as the Soviet system came tumbling down. Putin called home to find out what to do. But "Moscow was silent," occupied with its own meltdown. "I felt," he recalls, "that the country no longer existed."

Lieut. Colonel Putin came home to a Russia that was radically altered. While he had been tasting the ways of the West, his country had roiled through the reversals of perestroika. Moscow Center's talent spotters took no interest in him, and he was given a low-rent KGB "cover" job assisting the rector at his old Leningrad university, a position normally reserved for a retiring agent. He was unsure how he fit into the new order, says a close aide. Worse, says Polokhov, who met him again in 1990, Putin was "hurt that the state did not want him anymore." Polokhov says Putin told him then that he was "fired without a pension" from the agency he had so lovingly served for 15 years. When Polokhov expressed his own indignation, he recalls, Putin said, "That's all right, Leonid, because sometime later I will show them who Putin is."

Yuri Kobaladze, a onetime KGB general turned businessman, says Putin's life changed when he bumped into former Leningrad law lecturer Anatoli Sobchak in a corridor early in 1990. Sobchak asked what he was doing. "I'm doing nothing," Putin replied. "My career's not a success because they told me to come back here. I have nothing to do here." "Join me," said Sobchak. Sobchak was dazzling the city with his promises of democracy and reform. Putin was ready to make a "real break," says a close Putin aide. "People had the feeling Sobchak was someone they could peg their destiny to." Some say Putin was planted on Sobchak by the KGB; this aide says Putin informed his KGB bosses of the job offer, and they gave their approval because the service was disintegrating too.

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