Book Review: Markus Wolf, Man without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster (Times Books, 1997)

On March 30, 2019, Chinese national Yujing Zhang (above) was twice caught slipping into US President Donald Trump’s Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago.  When caught the second time, found on her were two passports, four cell phones, one laptop, an external hard drive, and a thumb drive. While detained and at trial, Zhang sought to confuse authorities as to her purpose. Creating doubt to elude suspicion as to their purpose was a tactic used by a legion of deep cover spies the chief of German Democratic Republic’s foreign intelligence service, Markus Wolf, unleashed into the West during the Cold War. His spies penetrated key political offices, government agencies, business concerns and more. In 1997, Wolf published Man without a Face, revealing intriguing facts on his 35 year intelligence effort against the West.

Markus Johannes Wolf, the author of Man without a Face, was senior government official of the erstwhile Deutsch Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) or GDR. The GDR was created as a self-described Socialist workers’ and peasants’ state and a satellite state of the Soviet Union on October 7, 1949 and eventually reunified with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) on October 3, 1990. Wolf worked for nearly four decades in the GDR’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (The Ministry for State Security) or MfS. MfS was also known as the Staatssicherheitsdienst (State Security Service) or SSD. However, it was universally referred to as the Stasi. The Stasi was not just another repressive security service of an Eastern Bloc government. The Stasi has been evaluated as the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agency ever to have existed. In a similar way, Wolf was not some ordinary senior bureaucrat in the Stasi. As chief of the GDR’s foreign intelligence service Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance), commonly referred to as the HVA, for many he embodied the frightening efficiency and domineering power of the Stasi and the overarching freedom crushing nature of GDR Communist system. Even more, Wolf held a unique reputation not only in the GDR, but everywhere else in the Eastern Bloc, during the shadowy intelligence struggle with the West. In Man without a Face, the reader learns exactly who he was and what his job was all about.

Markus Wolf (above). Those who knew Wolf universally described him as strikingly handsome and endowed with great charm. Possessing a tall, athletic build, he was quite the opposite in appearance and demeanor to the common Western image of a Communist security official as a sedentary, somewhat overweight, granite faced apparatchik with the will to enforce Socialist ideals with an iron fist. Although a devout Communist, he admitted a fondness for well-cut suits, elegant diplomatic gatherings, and music. One can discern from the text of Man without a Face that Wolf was a cultured man and possessed scholarly intellect.

The Author

Born on January 19, 1923, Wolf lived a very extraordinary life until age 83, passing on November 9, 2006. His memoir serves as a testament to that. Those who knew Wolf universally described him as strikingly handsome and endowed with great charm. Possessing a tall, athletic build, he was quite the opposite in appearance and demeanor to the common Western image of a Communist security official as a sedentary, somewhat overweight, granite faced apparatchik with the will to enforce Socialist ideals with an iron fist. Although a devout Communist, he admitted a fondness for well-cut suits, elegant diplomatic gatherings, and music. Indeed, one can discern from the text of Man without a Face that Wolf was a cultured man and possessed scholarly intellect. University educated as an aeronautical engineer, his main employment experiences were as a propagandist, journalist, diplomat, intelligence analyst, and spymaster. Reportedly, Wolf possessed an understanding and empathy for others. How that manifested itself with regard to the suffering of the people of the GDR remains an issue if some controversy.  An almost universal criticism of Wolf concerned his political quietism in the response to the hardline approaches of GDR regime and his willingness served as a vital part of a government machine that would crush the souls of its own citizens. Yet, with regard to his work, those sensibilities allowed him to display a personal warmth and concern for his chers collégues. Those assigned to Wolf’s HVA, with the exception of those few who defected during the early years, were unshakable in their loyalty to him and a certain esprit developed within their number. In his efforts  to manipulate and exploit adversaries via the HVA, his particular interpersonal gifts proved useful. It has been posited that many double agents recruited from West felt somewhat comfortable turning to Wolf’s side as he had acquired a reputation for being a very capable spymaster with whom, oddly enough, they could feel secure.

In terms of how he comported himself, Wolf recognized both in his work and in his personal life, the importance of patience, nuance, open mindedness, and the full exploitation of information available. Away from official meetings and formal functions in the GDR or in the Soviet Union, Wolf lived a life in relative obscurity, brilliantly concealing his presence and the footprint of his organization as both operated against the West. Interestingly enough, the memoir’s title, Man without a Face, was a direct reference to the fact that at one point, Western intelligence services only had a blurred photograph of Wolf while he attended the Nuremberg Trials from which elements within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) managed to identify him in 1959. Unable to collect an up-to-date photograph from which to identify Wolf, for a long-time he was referred to among Western intelligence services as the “man without a face.” As the story goes, only after a GDR defector, Werner Stiller, identified Wolf in a photograph in 1979 for the counterintelligence element of West Germany’s Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution) did that change. The photograph of Wolf was captured by Säpo, Sweden’s National Security Service, during a visit he made with his wife to Stockholm in 1978. Within the Stasi and GDR government as a whole, the HVA would garner considerable power and influence. From its beginnings on a shoestring budget that left Wolf urging his government superiors for more resources, the HVA eventually had a hard currency budget of 10 million Deutschmarks a year. By the mid-1980s, only the KGB exceeded the HVA in manpower among the Eastern Bloc foreign intelligence services. At the same time, Wolf’s HVA was a prime source of intelligence for the KGB. Wolf would explain that his organization’s greatest contribution was helping to maintain peace between East and West by reducing the element of surprise with the information his spies collected.

Wolf did not follow the times with regard to intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods. He consciously stayed a step ahead of them. His operations enjoyed a level of security that intelligence services today have good reason to envy. Toward the end of his reign at the foreign intelligence service, Wolf excited further interest in the West when he backed the glasnost and perestroika policies of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Wolf explains in Man without a Face that he was planning to retire at the rank of Generaloberst (Colonel General) in 1985. There were alternative explanations for his retirement accepted in the West. It was said that Wolf retired at in 1986 “owing to serious health problems.” There was also the belief that Wolf was forced into retirement, strangely enough, when GDR officials learned that he had decided to divorce his second wife, Christa Heinrich, and marry his mistress Andrea Stingl. After unification, Wolf was convicted of treason by the Federal Republic government and sentenced to six years imprisonment. After an appeal, the charge and sentence were dropped on the basis that he had only been acting as a loyal government servant for the GDR, his erstwhile country.

Through Man without a Face, the reader is provided with the opportunity to discover how a master craftsman performed his work in his own words. In its review of Man without a Face, greatcharlie explores what sort of individual becomes Wolf, what the earliest years of Wolf’s odyssey informs the reader of the man, and what one can learn about his thinking process from what he provides in the text. To the extent that Man without a Face might interest those flirting with Socialism in the West today, the review calls attention to Wolf’s history as a defender of Socialism and the Communist Movement and his ultimate disillusionment and disappointment with the GDR government.

Previous Reviews of Man without a Face

Surely for those thrilled by spy novels, there was enough provided by the great spymaster to allow them to live vicariously through his anecdotes. Among the 365 page book’s 17 chapters are alluring titles such as: “Spying for Love”; “The Chancellor’s Shadow”; “The Poison of Betrayal”; “Active Measures”; and, “Enemy Territory ”. In his October 30, 1997 review for the London Review of Books, David Blackburn remarked: “Espionage junkies will enjoy bits of tradecraft scattered through the book: dead-ender drops, fullbacks, couriers, phoney brothels, false bottomed deodorant bottles left in the lavatory cistern of the night train.” However, at the time of its publication in 1997, hopes generally ran high that Man without a Face might also reveal much about the inner workings of a man such Wolf. To their chagrin, Wolf, with the assistance of Anne McElvoy (then a newspaper editor and columnist from the United Kingdom), did not write Man without a Face in a way to make the inner Wolf easily accessible. As a result, many previous reviewers expressed disappointment, feeling unfulfilled, after reading Man without a Face. The intelligence scholar and author, David Wise, in his July 13, 1997 review in the New York Times, explained: “Throughout his account, Wolf has a great deal of difficulty coming to terms with his own actions, and with the Stasi’s Orwellian, police-state methods and its murky operations. He defends his own role by drawing a distinction between his foreign intelligence service and the Stasi branch that acted as East Germany’s own Gestapo. But the lines were often blurred.” In the November/December 1997 edition of Foreign Affairs, Eliot Cohen stated more forcefully: “Wolf’s selective memory, continual attempts at self-exculpation, and specious resort to the argument that the West behaved as badly as the communists are neither convincing nor appetizing.” Some actually expressed anger over the fact the Wolf did not present an absolute “tell all” about life in the Stasi. The remuneration for publishing the memoir would hardly be enough to stimulate Wolf to open the kimono and unload a trove of furtive information which he had held tightly for years. (In the Independent on September 15, 1996, Leslie Colitt revealed in a synopsis of his book on Wolf entitled Spymaster, that Wolf was preempted with a contract to produce three books for more than $400,000.) In a July 17, 1997 review of Man without a Face in the Economist, it was stated: “Readers with the stamina to compare the English and German versions of Mr Wolf’s tome are likely to be struck by two things. One is how much the accounts vary, not just in substance (a lot more in English, for instance, about how East Germany gave succour to fleeing West German terrorists) but also in tone. Which reveals the true Mr Wolf? A silly question really. The other thing of note is how few of Mr Wolf’s revelations are new. Is that because he has nothing much new to say; or is he keeping in reserve some potentially explosive material about treachery practised by some of the good and the great in the West? Just as insurance, of course, against any western pressure. You can’t be too careful.”

Those who may have had only a passing or no interest in what the High Priest of the GDR intelligence service had to say, but familiar enough with the GDR, might have reasonably presupposed before reading the book that they would come across nothing more than a complete whitewash of the activities of the country’s security apparatus, the intelligence service specifically, and the afflictions and wounds of a society that was crushed under the heel of the government’s figurative iron boot. Gilbert Taylor of The American Library Association’s Book List Magazine stated in a May 15, 1997 review: “Wolf still believes in communism, even oddly describing a “semimystical aspect” to his memories about Stalin, whom he once met and regarded as a demigod. If he still holds onto his political dreams, Wolf is too worldly not to criticize (mildly) its failures; although in the spy game, rather than question the communist enterprise, he applied his worldliness to the exploitation of human nature. In that, at least, he was very good.”

Looking at Man without a Face today, knowing fully who Wolf was and void of Cold War bias, it appears that such critical assessments were off-base from the get-go. To be honest, anyone knowing much about Wolf might agree that writing Man without a Face in such an unimaginative, predictable way would be un peu trop classique pour son style et à ses goût. It may very well be that Wolf assessed that for those who may excavate through the book and thoroughly consider points of exposition concerning both himself and activities in which he was engaged, his work would be substantially edifying. To that extent, criticisms that insist Man without a Face is lacking, in the humble judgment of greatcharlie, are wrong. Through Man without a Face, the reader is provided with the opportunity to discover how a master craftsman performed his work in his own words. In its review of Man without a Face, greatcharlie explores what sort of individual becomes Wolf, what the earliest years of Wolf’s odyssey informs the reader of the man, and what one can learn about his thinking process from what he provides in the text. To the extent that Man without a Face might interest those flirting with Socialism in the West today, the review calls attention to Wolf’s history as a defender of Socialism and the Communist Movement and his disillusionment and disappointment with the GDR government.

The symbol of the German Democratic Republic’s Staatssicherheitsdienst (State Security Service), referred to universally as the Stasi (above). The Eastern Zone of Allied Occupied Germany after World War II eventually became the GDR in 1949. The Communist leaders of the new country would lie about or deny realities about what was occuring in their society. Control of the population was aided by the government’s insistence that the people keep a watchful over threats to the new system. It was understood that the reactionary, the counterrevolutionary posed an internal threat and had to be destroyed. In the performance of that mission, the Stasi earned a reputation for being the odious, oppressive instrument of the authoritarian regime.

For Those Unfamiliar with the Defunct GDR

Given the reality of the monstrous treatment that the people of the GDR received from their government, it would be reasonable to expect most of its former citizens to have an emotional response to Wolf’s book. Man without a Face could only have been prejudged as a distorted chronicle of the GDR’s governance as observed from the warped lens of a man who was among the masters of the nightmare in which the people lived. To many of them, it was also very likely thought to be one more occasion in which the moribund GDR regime sought to reach out from the grave to fire a parting shot in defense of Communist hypocrisy. For those too young to be sufficiently aware of the history of the long since gone GDR, one must go back to the end of World War II, during which the Soviet Union held in its tight grip the Eastern Zone of the four zones of Allied Occupied Germany and East Berlin. Three countries, the US, United Kingdom, and France, had control over what was the more well-heeled Western Zone and West Berlin. In the Eastern Zone and East Berlin, the Soviets took responsibility for the reconstruction of cities, towns, and villages destroyed by Allied bombers or its own advancing forces, building countless new residences for German refugees and displaced persons. There were massive infrastructure projects and governing bodies at the national, provincial, and local level. Yet, the Soviets also worked behind the scenes to establish a puppet government in Eastern Zone of Allied Occupied Germany set in East Berlin that would serve as an extension of Moscow’s rule. That government would have the initial outward appearance of being democratic but in reality was not. Local Communists were gathered into a coalition party then handed power after rigged elections. All political parties, other than the Communist Party, were dissolved. The Eastern Zone of Allied Occupied Germany eventually became the GDR in 1949. The leaders of the new country would lie about or deny realities about what was occuring in their society. Control of the population in the burgeoning Communist government was aided by its insistence that the people keep a watchful over threats to the new system. It was understood that the reactionary, the counterrevolutionary, most often “hiding in the shadows,” posed the greatest threat and was viewed as anathema.

Ostensibly, the response had to be strong enough to match “the severity of the disease”. It was in the performance of that mission that the Stasi earned a reputation for being the horrifically oppressive instrument of the authoritarian regime. The Stasi interfered in the interactions and relationships between citizens, ordered citizens to spy on their fellow citizens, demanded that they betray one another, regularly performed intrusive and demeaning searches of citizens’ person, homes, and workplaces. There were arrests of many innocent citizens, accompanied by abusive and endless interrogations. Untold numbers of GDR citizens were sentenced by kangaroo courts to lengthy imprisonments in dark and dank gaols. There was also the Stasi technique of psychological harassment of perceived enemies known as Zersetzung, a term borrowed from chemistry which literally means “decomposition”, but involved the disruption of the victim’s private or family life. Zersetzung was designed to side-track and “switch off” perceived enemies so that they would lose the will to continue any “inappropriate” activities. For those unfamiliar with the technique, it would likely be hard to imagine just how abominable cruel it was. Any foreigners which had contact with GDR citizens, or any visiting foreigners visiting the GDR were tracked by the Stasi. Essentially all of it was documented as a result of the GDR government’s neurotic practice of endless record keeping on everyone and everything. Records showed that the Stasi had over 90,000 employees and used well over 170,000 Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter or informants. The people of the GDR lived in an environment of fear created by their government. Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French-Occitan philosopher stated: “A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.”

The society that would develop in the GDR, with its repressive, authoritarian underpinnings, could best be called a human tragedy. The terms austereness, sternness, dourness, grimness, sombreness, unfriendliness, and coldness all fittingly describe its tenor. The strictures of its laws amplified the government’s intention to limit freedom, experiment with social engineering, promote collective conscientiousness, reject individualism, and demand a conformist posture of all citizens at all times. Yet, from the moment the GDR government subjected the German people to terror and horrific brutality through the State security apparatus, it condemned his country to a form of arrestment and its people to soul crushing heartache and despair, and that situation stood until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Germany finally came into port after a rough sea.

Leben heißt nicht zu warten, bis der Sturm vorbeizieht, sondern lernen, im Regen zu tanzen. (Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, but about learning to dance in the rain.) For the sake of providing a balanced perspective of GDR life, one could still say that most East Germans did not live in misery every minute of every day. Basic needs and services were provided to the people by the government to the extent possible. That allowed for some degree of satisfaction. Citizens of the GDR, as Germans, had a long storied history. They also had a rich culture to which they could adhere. By enjoying German traditions that had not been co-opted by the Communists, they could find some authentic satisfaction, joy, and happiness. Pleasant aspects of life in the GDR may have been things such as good times had among family, friends and colleagues (albeit, they may have been surveilling each other for the Stasi.) Luckily, that whole era is dead. (One can visit the Stasi Museum Berlin located in House 1 on the former grounds of the headquarters of the GDR Ministry for State Security and ”Runde Ecke” Memorial Museum and the Stasi Bunker Museum located at Dittrichring 24 in Leipzig, Germany to discover the actual horrors that the Stasi unleashed upon GDR citizens and how it all worked.)

Looking back, relatively widely-held notions from the past of a new world order based on Communism seem barky, but that certainly was once promoted as a philosophy that offered a better life for all. As decades have passed since the end of the Cold War, marked with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new line of thinking would emerge on the erstwhile geopolitical struggle between East and West and all of the people and events associated with it. Unimaginable a few decades ago, today certain impulses in support of Socialism, apparently untutored by anyone truly knowledgeable on the matter, has manifested itself very publicly on the US political scene. For some, it may be invigorating to read through and adhere to sterilized tenets of Socialism discussed in the abstract in texts of scholars and academics. However, such studies are certainly isolated from the realities endured by earlier generations in the Eastern Europe. Those excited by Socialism today are actually attracted to the best possibilities of a pastiche of the political and economic theory. Their thoughts manifest the vanity of the mind. They need to know the real history of people who suffered under that system.

Konrad Wolf (left), Markus Wolf (center) Friedrich Wolf (right). From Wolf’s account of his childhood in Man without a Face, there is no way to know whether it was a happy one. What is presented on that aspect of his life in the book is a complex story with a lot of backstory. Wolf’s father, Fredrich Wolf, was a prominent physician, well-known playwrite, pro-abortion advocate, and devout, active Communist. His mother, Else Wolf, was a teacher and also a staunch Communist. Wolf’s only sibling was a brother, Konrad Wolf, who was two years younger.

Excavating Wolf’s Inner Workings

Wolf was born on January 19, 1923 in Hechingen, Germany. From the account of his childhood in Man without a Face, there is no way to determine whether it was a happy one. What is presented on that aspect of his life from Chapter 3 is a complex story with a lot of backstory. Wolf’s father, Fredrich Wolf, was a prominent physician, well-known playwrite, and pro-abortion advocate. He rejected Orthodox Judaism to become a devout and active member of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Communist Party of Germany). Among the plays his father wrote was “Professor Mamaluke,” which dealt with the oppression of Jews in Germany.  His mother, Else Wolf, was a teacher and also a staunch Communist. Wolf described her as follows: “My mother was quiet and gentle but a person of great courage, whether undergoing the Nazis’ rough house searches or those of the secret police in Stalin’s Russia.” He also stressed: “It was our mother who raised us during our father’s long romantic or political absences.” Wolf’s only sibling was a brother, Konrad Wolf, who was two years younger. Konrad would later become a film director. Wolf affectionately mentions him by his nickname “Koni” at various points in the book. The Wolf family lived comfortably in a large Bauhaus-designed home in Stuttgart. As both of his parents were Communist, Wolf says in Chapter 2 that from them he “came to perceive Stalin as as a wise and distant figure, like the benevolent magician in the fairy tales.” From his father specifically, he received considerable tutorial on Communist Movement as well as naturism. Wolf and his brother would become members of the Communist youth organization, Young Pioneers. However, as Adolf Hitler and the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party better known as Nazis (Ehrlich! Hitler was a self-styled Socialist!)) took control of Germany, Wolf’s family would eventually rush to resettle in the Soviet Union in 1933.

Readers learn from Chapter 3 that during their exile in Moscow, Wolf’s family lived in a cramped apartment. Wolf adapted well to his new environment, acquired the local slang. He acquired the nickname, “Mischa”. As for his education, Wolf first attended the German Karl Liebknecht School and later a Russian school. Having been primed by his father’s teachings and his experience in the Young Pioneers, Wolf was immediately subsumed by Communism in school. There, Wolf’s understanding of all arguments in favor of the movement and the system were topped off. The beliefs he acquired then likely stood unaltered from that time onward. Any misgivings that he may have had were shucked off. He professed to all his fierce loyalty to Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. Interestingly enough, the Wolf’s family was present in the Soviet Union at the time of Stalin’s Purges, but it did not affect them directly, although Wolf indicates in the book that he was aware of what was happening. In 1936, at the age of 13, Wolf obtained Soviet identity documents. The Communist Party became aware of his attitudes and attributes and while a student selected him to be a member of the nomenklatura, the high ranking management of the apparat, the Communist Party or government bureaucracy. In his youth, Wolf could hardly discern that the virtues, that his political mentors asserted the system had, were never practiced fruitfully anywhere in which the Communist Movement took root. Having that new attachment to Communism and the Communist Party was crucial at that point because in 1938, his father, central to his life to that point, had a reduced presence. Very telling of his father’s mentality toward family, in 1938 Wolf’s father made his way to Spain to work as a doctor in the International Brigades. However, he was arrested in France and interned in the concentration camp at Le Vernet. In 1941, he gained Soviet citizenship and returned to Moscow where he became a member of Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland (National Committee for a Free Germany), an anti-Nazi, paramilitary organization formed in 1943. He had affairs with other women, producing what Wolf called a “small brood of children.”

Wolf insists that despite his absences, his father remained the strongest political influence on his life. Whenever he was away, he would send letters “full of advice of how to be correct and honorable socialists and human beings.” Perhaps his departure was also made less disruptive by the fact that by that as Wolf grew older, he came to terms with his own life. In fact, Wolf apparently did not go through a vulnerable age, perhaps because did not really have the opportunity to do so. Indeed, Wolf never gave the indication at any point in the book that he was an uncomfortable person. Still, there is the possibility that lack of  permanence in his family relationships due to his father’s competing dedication to the Communist Party had a significant impact in another way. What he may have acquired from observing and internalizing his father behavior may very well have been how individuals can weave themselves into the lives of others and untangle themselves to find a way out and how natural it all can be. (Wolf’s father, by the end of World War II was thoroughly off on his own. He was in the Eastern Zone of the Allied Occupation, where Wolf would also arrive, active in literary and cultural-political issues. From 1949 to 1951 he was the first ambassador of East Germany to Poland. He died in his personal office in Lehnitz in 1953.)

Wolf would enter the Moscow Institute of Airplane Engineering (Moscow Aviation Institute) in 1940. The school was evacuated to Alma Ata, Kazakhstan after Nazi Germany’s  attack on the Soviet Union. Wolf and his mother and brother arrived there on the Writers’ Union train. While there, he was told to join the Comintern, where he and others were prepared for undercover work behind enemy lines. He would ultimately be assigned as a newsreader for German People’s Radio after dissolution of Comintern from 1943 until 1945. Contact with the Communist Party in Germany and a life lived early enough within the authoritarian Soviet Union very likely enabled Wolf to better understand and accept personal and group interactions under the control of others and learn or attain by unconscious assimilation the level of caution required to survive and thrive rather than bother considering notions of freedom of choice and the exercise of free will.

Wolf the journalist (above). In his first position in the Eastern Zone of the Allied Occupation, Wolf directed Berlin Radio in the Soviet Zone of occupation and worked as a journalist. He was among the journalists from the East who observed the entire Nuremberg Trials against the principal Nazi leaders. From 1949 and 1951, Wolf worked at the GDR Embassy in the Soviet Union, but even more importantly in 1951, he also joined the Stasi. He was assigned to its nascent foreign intelligence service. Although Wolf  presents that moment  as a simple anecdote among others, it is actually an inflection point in his life.

Inflection Point: Wolf’s Start in the World of Intelligence

In Chapter 3, readers discover that Wolf, in 1945, just married to Emmi Stenzer the year before and only 22 years old, was sent to postwar Berlin with the Ulbricht Group, led by one of the founding members of the Weimar era Communist Party of Germany, Walter Ulbricht. During the Nazi regime in Germany, Ulbricht lived in exile in France and in the Soviet Union  Although Wolf was actually coming home, the most formative part of his youth was rooted in the Soviet Union. Under such circumstances, even though German, he felt that he was being transplanted into a foreign land. As he states in Chapter 3, Germany was his “Heimat” (heartland) but he felt “a pang of homesickness” for Moscow.

Die Qual der Wahl haben. (To be spoiled for choice.) In his first position in the Eastern Zone of the Allied Occupation, Wolf directed Berlin Radio in the Soviet Zone of occupation and worked as a journalist. He was among the journalists from the East who observed the entire Nuremberg Trials against the principal Nazi leaders. From 1949 and 1951, Wolf worked at the GDR Embassy in the Soviet Union, but even more importantly in 1951, he also joined the Stasi. He was assigned to its nascent foreign intelligence service, operating as the Institut für Wirtschaftswissenschaftliche Forschung (Institute for Economic Research) under Anton Ackermann. Although Wolf presented that job change as a simple anecdote among others, it was the inflection point of his life. He joined a small cell alongside young Stasi officials as himself. Although Ackermann was the chief of the Institute for Economic Research, it was guided under the stewardship of Ulbricht. Ulbricht was already in control of the GDR, and remained so from 1950 to 1971, as the First Secretary of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany). Wolf made it clear that he was not exactly a fan of Ulbricht. In describing the GDR’s chief decision maker, Wolf stated that he was hard-line, ruthless, authoritarian, pig-headed and heavy-handed. Displaying a bit of patrician aesthetic, Wolf added that Ulbricht, who was from Leipzig, spoke with a “provincial Saxon accent.” Ulbricht’s continuous purges of senior leaders was a sign of his insecurity and unsteady leadership. (In addition to being First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, Ulbricht took on the role as GDR head of state from 1960 until his death in 1973. From 1971 to 1973, he only held the title of Honorary Chairman of the Socialist Unity Party, being succeeded in the actual position in 1971 by Erich Honecker, who ruled in the GDR until German Unification in 1989.)

Wolf’s first assignment in the foreign intelligence service was to serve as the deputy to the chief of analysis, Robert Korb. Korb had already worked with Wolf at Radio Moscow. Wolf’s work alongside of Korb did much to elevate his professional capabilities in foreign intelligence work. Wolf described how important Korb was to his development in Chapter 3. He stated: “Korb had profound political knowledge and an enormous command of facts and breadth of learning. I learned a great deal from him about things that had nothing to do with our work, such as Islam, the complicated background of Israel, and the religious conflicts of the Indian subcontinent. He was a brilliant analyst who taught me to regard field reports with skepticism, and we soon came to conclusion that a careful reading of the press could often produce results far superior to secret reports of agents, and that our own analysts should draw independent conclusions from diverse sources in order to evaluate raw intelligence material. This insight has remained with me ever since.” (Using the news media as an overt source of intelligence is not as feasible today as it was in Wolf’s time. The mainstream news media rarely acts as an unbiased, balanced reporter of events. The misguided extrapolation of information from news media sources is a subject that greatcharlie has dedicated considerable discussion.) Engaging in diligent, granular analysis as he learned at Korb’s side was undoubtedly beneficial to Wolf in his interactions with Ulbricht. Ulbricht was a longtime Communist Party operative, savvy about political intrigue. Once in the thick of things as head of the GDR, he apparently kept his head on a swivel so to speak, keeping everyone on edge, wary of his designs. Wolf’s well-managed interactions with Ulbricht may have resulted in part with Wolf becoming integral in the founding the HVA in 1953.

Starting out, Wolf’s HVA was certainly a weak child among the more mature and experienced Western and Eastern intelligence services. Reportedly as many as 80 intelligence services operated on the beat in postwar Berlin. Under its chief at the time, Ackermann, the HVA encountered a number of setbacks at the hands of the Western foreign intelligence services which were up and running well after World War II. There were great concerns regarding loyalties of GDR agents, the viability of networks, the ties to the intelligence service of the Communist Party of Germany. It was discovered through the Stasi’s arrest of an agent codenamed Merkur on the charge of being a double agent, that far more was known about the GDR spy networks outside of headquarters than any at HVA would have hoped. To better understand the situation, Wolf, then deputy chief of analysis, drew a diagram of the connections and choose connections among the existing intelligence networks, which began to look like a huge web. He attributed his capability to map out such fine details of the spy network to his training as an aeronautical engineer. He described his effort as follows: “On the diagram I connected all of the couriers, safe houses,  and the like. I colored suspected double agents red, sources blue, and residents green. The lines and boxes also identified personal and professional relationships. Special symbols marked suspicious circumstances or suspected contacts to opposing services. To the uninitiated, the diagram would have meant nothing, but to my eyes, it began to take on a clear outline indicating possibilities for expanding and deepening our work. It was also a clear picture of how deeply this service had been penetrated from the outside.” The conclusion for action that Wolf reached was rather prodigious. Recognizing that Western secret services could easily liquidate the whole network if they wanted to do so, Wolf decided to liquidate the network himself, and abandon all HVA contacts with Communists in West Germany. Ulbricht approved the decision. In 1952, the HVA recalled all of its agents, and even the most loyal Communists were placed in isolation under a sort of “villa arrest” and subjected to tough questioning.

Wolf provided an extraordinary description of how the HVA questioned its own agents, perfectly reflecting the nature of the GDR’s brutal, authoritarian regime. Wolf explained: “It was based on psychological pressure against men and women accustomed to drawing their sense of identity and self-esteem from membership in a group of like minded people. When that trust is suddenly withdrawn, the psychological pressure on them becomes acute. There was no need to threaten them or issue formal warrants of arrest. Addressing them as suspects and monitoring their replies was enough to convince us that they were innocent and that we had found no more double agents. Of course, there was no question of deployment in the West. They were warned not to talk about what happened. All of them kept their word about thus, as good comrades do.” It all seems quite intriguing and horrifying at once.

When Ackermann was removed as chief of the foreign intelligence service by Ulbricht. ostensibly because he was caught having an adulterous affair. Wolf, only 30 years old at the time, and only had 16 months of experience in the foreign intelligence service, was given the position. According to Wolf in Chapter 4, he was summoned to Ulbricht’s office and told: “We are of the opinion that you should take over the service,’ said Ulbricht. That was a royal’we–or, more precisely, ‘we’ meant the Party leadership. He did not ask me whether I thought I was up to the job, nor did he invite further discussion.” The HVA remained directly under the watchful eyes of Ulbricht until he was appointed as head of the Stasi, a member of the politburo, Wilhelm Zaisser, who he could rely upon. Wolf recalled that Zaisser was less concerned with the intelligence product HVA produced and focused more on his editing of a new German edition of Lenin’s collected works. Wolf, left to his own devices by Zaisser, worked hard daily to better understand the craft of intelligence. Despite his concerns about Ulbricht, Wolf acknowledged in Chapter 4 that he was provided ample opportunity by him to acquit himself well as the leader of the new intelligence service. That was a rather unique, positive response from Ulbricht. Nevertheless, in Chapter 3, Wolf recounts that he was often disappointed in the early years by the actions of Ulbricht. With regard to the uniforms worn by GDR officials that in Western mind came to symbolize the government’s Godless, authoritarian nature, Wolf noted: “One the odder ideas the Ulbricht espoused during the period was a return to military symbolism–a distinct about face given that we had criticized the West Germans for continuing the military nationalist traditions of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Traditional military music was also revived . . . Like many Communists who had been brought up to view this blend of militarism and music as having prepared the ground for Nazism, I found this disturbing.” The early years of the GDR mark the time when the country began shaping up to be something far less than what motivated, young Communists had hoped. The direction that Ulbricht decided to take the GDR, according to Wolf, was driven by his uncompromising ideology and his desire to appeal to hardline Stalinists in Moscow. Upon Stalin’s death in 1953, Wolf felt that Ulbricht had leaned too far right, gambling that the Stalinist would emerge on top in a power struggle at the Kremlin and went out of his way to impress them with a policy of “accelerating socialism.”  As Wolf explains in Chapter 4: “Large firms and agricultural companies suffered under the sudden drive to perfect the Socialist economy. The activities of the Church were further curtailed.” Ulbricht bet on the wrong horse. Nikita Khrushchev came to power, famously recognizing the wrongs Stalin had inflicted upon the Soviet people. Ulbricht continued doing things his way nevertheless. A change at the top at Stasi would eventually result in Ulbricht settling on Erich Mielke. Wolf referred to him as Ulbricht’s “watchdog,” and would remain in charge at Stasi until 1989. Perhaps the most telling description of Mielke by Wolf was his statement in Chapter 4: “Mielke was a warped personality even by the peculiar standards of morality that apply in the espionage world.” He set the tone for the Stasi as Wolf further explained: “He [Mielke] was afflicted with an obsession for collecting data, not only on suspected dissidents, whom he ordered to be placed under round-the-clock surveillance, but on his own colleagues.” Such was the environment in which Wolf worked.

Wolf, the young HVA chief, in uniform (right). Wolf recounts that he was often disappointed in the early years by the actions of the GDR leadership. With regard to the uniforms worn by GDR officials, which in Western mind came to symbolize the government’s Godless, authoritarian nature, Wolf noted: “One the odder ideas the Ulbricht espoused during the period was a return to military symbolism–a distinct about face given that we had criticized the West Germans for continuing the military nationalist traditions of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Traditional military music was also revived . . . Like many Communists who had been brought up to view this blend of militarism and music as having prepared the ground for Nazism, I found this disturbing.”

Inter bellum et pacem dubitabant. (They were hesitating (wavering) between war and peace.) The Cold War was a time of considerable intelligence activity. Intelligence studies and intelligence tradecraft are disciplines unknown in the minds of most observers. What is generally understood about it all is unfortunately gleaned from banal amusements propagated about spying, particularly the commercial product, James Bond. Through Bond, observers are inculcated with the idea that in spying, the mundane day-to-day can become exciting at any moment by expulsion or surprise attack! An everyday item can magically become a telephone, microphone, or weapon. In Chapter 4, Wolf stated that a song, that he helped compose, aided in reminding him that he was fighting an intelligence war on “The Invisible Front.” Still, some aspects of it were not so invisible. For the most part, foreign diplomatic services become a shell for the real Cold War being fought. Yet, while there was an understanding that all sides were engaged in such activity and it appeared to be an orderly world, it was actually anarchic. Both East and West were sending intelligence officers and running agents behind enemy lines was perilous undertaking in which one had to be thoroughly prepared. All agents were armed with a catalogue of proscribed practices. Collecting and disseminating was done under a pall of suspicion from all sides.

Those today who gleefully explore and promote the idea of creating Socialist systems, may be unable to view events of the Cold War as the Communist revolutionaries and anti-Communist forces who battled against one another across their respective borders and worldwide. Communism was indeed an aggressive revolutionary political system dedicated to the destruction of the West. Without having lived through the stand-offs between forces, the proxy wars, and incidents that had the two sides teetering between peace and war, one may be easily taken in by curious assessments of the Cold War that characterize it as an episode that was something less than one of the defining moments of the 20th century. It is instead characterized as something more akin to a mere “dust up” between the East and West. Those assessments of the decades long struggle are wrong. It was a collision between to world during great damage was done, and in the end, the West won. As the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte explained: “Between a battle lost and a battle won, the distance is immense and there stand empires.” There was no mildness, leniency, or geniality. In the West, Communism was seen as a danger to mitigate and eventually defeat. As Wolf’s opponent declared itself anti-Communist and he became subsumed by the effort to defeat it.

Personnel; Plans and Training

Wolf tried to take the bull by the horns at the HVA and learned with some difficulty how he could best to set about accomplishing things. Being admitted to the top of the intelligence service so quickly by Ulbricht put Wolf, in terms of the theater, downstage center. However, it meant that Wolf never would have the opportunity to see the work of the intelligence service through the lens of a junior worm, upstage, off to the side. At the bottom, realities are more apparent, poor decisions from the top are often felt more personally, and nuance is learned. One becomes aware pitfalls to be avoided. The going was somewhat rough. It was not long before Wolf dealt with what he called his first “bombshell”. Gotthold Klaus, who served in the HVA’s economic intelligence unit, became the first defector. Wolf explained that it took a heavy toll on him personally and made him realize that his young service was far from secure. Klaus had disappeared during the holiday weekend and his absence was not detected for several days. In that short period of time, West German intelligence extracted everything he knew about the GDR agents. Six were arrested before there was even the possibility of calling them back. The incident became known as the Vulkan affair. Interestingly, Wolf noted: “Franz Blücher, the vice chancellor of West Germany, announced at a press conference that thirty five agents had been arrested as a result of Vulkan information. This was an exaggeration; no officer never would have been allowed to know the identity of so many agents operating in a hostile country. It turned out the West German counterintelligence,  overexcited by their first big coup, caught in its net a number of innocent businessmen who did deals in the East but were certainly not spies.”

To his good fortune after that first set back–as well as few other initial failures, Wolf did not put his head completely underwater. He admits to being gently reproved by the head of Stasi, Zaisser, who said: “Mischa, you have to learn more and more about many things.” In the end, despite what occurred, Wolf was kept on board at Stasi. Fortunately for Wolf, at the very top, there was an apparent delicacy toward him. The individual watching over him was none other than Ulbricht. He was responsible for Wolf’s appointment as chief of the HVA, and he had considerable confidence in his capabilities. Presumably, he acknowledged that was operating with a blind spot concerning operational security that did not allow him to see straight about what was really happening. He failed to fully grasp the full measure of the operational prowess of his opponent. Still, Wolf kept his composure. He stated in Chapter 4: “The following months were spent reorganizing our whole operation along more efficient lines. Wolf might have pondered how can he be sure what is genuine anymore after that initial disaster. Surely, he did not want to fall victim to the same lapses again. Wolf’s diagnosis was to better control his organization’s activities, to deploy his agents throughout the West, ensuring that they were allocated wherever they might have a chance to identify and maximally exploit opportunities to collect critical information and links with key players in military, diplomatic, political, economic, social and business decision making. It was akin to sowing seeds across an open field and monitoring their growth. The concept behind it was known as the “principle of patience” in long-term operations. Along the way, Wolf would massage, through controllers,  the infiltration efforts of his agents. Wolf was given a chance to make tomorrow better than today. Wolf developed a sophisticated, intensified plan to place and service illegal agents in deep cover in the West. Surely, he was already engaged in that process at some level.  However, under the new strategy, his long-term “sleeper” agents introduced into the stream of East German refugees entering the West, but they would remain patient for years, sometimes decades, while they would carefully work their way into key positions.  One the innermost secrets of the “class enemy” were in their reach, they would begin to supply as much as they could back home.

Walter Ulbricht (left) and Markus Wolf (right). As First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, Ulbricht controlled the GDR from 1950 to 1971. Wolf made it clear that he was not exactly a fan of Ulbricht. In describing the GDR’s chief decision maker, Wolf stated that he was hard-line, ruthless, authoritarian, pig-headed and heavy-handed. Displaying a bit of patrician aesthetic, Wolf added that Ulbricht, who was from Leipzig, spoke with a “provincial Saxon accent.” Once in the thick of things as head of the GDR, he apparently kept his head on a swivel, keeping everyone wary of his designs. Ulbricht’s continuous purges of senior leaders, Wolf assessed, was a sign of his insecurity and unsteady leadership.

An effective practice for selecting Individuals for recruitment was established at HVA after a lack of diligence and breakdowns were discovered in the process following the Vulkan affair. Wolf had to be a very effective talent-spotter. He explained: “The search for suitable candidates was difficult and costly. Checking their political reliability, their personal ties, and their character took time. We sought young, politically motivated citizens, convinced socialists who believed in serving our country and cause. We were not concerned if candidates to be agents had relatives in the West, in contrast to our policy for potential officers at headquarters, who were barred from employment if they had any. In fact, Western relatives could be quite useful in helping an aspiring agent bypass refugee camps and enter the Federal Republic. Undoubtedly, after studying individuals, Wolf ostensibly knew more about them than they knew about themselves. After looking at the individual over and Wolf and his people liked the “cut of his jib”, the recruitment process would begin in earnest. Recruitment in some services can often be a very imperfect process. In recruiting for his bigger and better intelligence service, Wolf was exceptionally careful at every point. Even for a task as surveillance, care was placed in the selection. The HVA would need to rely heavily on the competence of observers, reports they produced, and even their immediate impressions, all of which would impact data extrapolated and inferences made. It would certainly be daylight madness to hire operatives off the street for an intended clandestine operation that is supposed to be finely calibrated. Nevertheless, that very practice of taking anyone off the street to engage in surveillance for remuneration is apparently accepted among some intelligence services in the US today, as well as crude, money hungry contractors, with whom Wolf never would have considered working with in a million years, to which such work is often outsourced by those services. Ostensibly, the grand thought behind the practice is that the more eyes, even nonprofessional, untrained eyes, are placed on the target the better. Yet, the result of that is simply the accumulation of several observations, varied in accuracy and quality. False observation can often be provided by nonprofessionals in an ordinary case seeking to puff themselves up, as if to say: “Hey, look at me! I am a real spy!” This lesser form of “spying” may bestow a certain dignity to the mixed bag engaged in it, but once made aware of those individuals and the sloppy work they are doing at that level, often it can make the work of many in the same intelligence service who are doing far greater things feel less dignified.

If readers would please allow greatcharlie to digress a bit further, given the potential for dishonor that it creates–not all names on a list of impromptu hires may be genuine–it leaves open the question as to who might benefit by collecting the recompense of such nonexistent operatives. Somber and astute counterintelligence officers or investigators might hypothesize that such hiring could be beckoning initial indicia of someone trying “to give themselves a pension.” Wolf clearly understood that efficacious work at the most basic level would determine the success of his operations. Surely, adversarial intelligence services, by insinuating their operatives with little or no vetting into any surveillance element of the US intelligence service or contractors performing such work, would acquire the capability of knowing when the US was monitoring their own people. They might even attempt to move their operatives closer to whomever was managing the whole cabaret. One might suppose that this may have happened more than once.

Wolf’s preparation of his agents was never slipshod. HVA training was originally in the classic tradecraft of intelligence. It was after all the second oldest profession and there were well-known tactics, techniques, procedures and methods that the organization could utilize. However, after Vulkan, there were clearly many lessons learned that Wolf wanted brought to bear in the training process, and thereby, it became more nuanced. Wolf’s summary of how agents were trained to penetrate security screening and penetrate specific targets is something advanced technology and other firms in the US should pay close attention as present day intelligence services, aware of Wolf lessons, might seek or have already managed to infiltrate their staffs. Wolf recounted in Chapter 4: “Each agent’s training was personally supervised by the man who would be running his operation, and special training was added if there was a scientific or technical objective. Once accepted in West Germany, agents usually began their assignments with an inconspicuous period of manual labor to help overcome the bureaucratic barriers of getting established in the West. We therefore preferred candidates with craftsman’s skills or practical experience in a professional. Almost every one of the students and budding scientists who emigrated in the early years found employment in research facilities or companies of interest to us–the Federal government’s nuclear research facilities in Julich, Karlsruhe, and Hamburg; the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt-am-Main, which had been set up by the United States; Siemens, Germany’s largest electronics company; and IBM Germany or the giant German chemical companies BASF, Hoescht, and Bayer. Because we assumed that Germany’s traditional arms manufacturers would–after the storm over German militarization died down–eventually resume military production, we also placed people in companies such as Messerschmidt and Bölkow.” With specific regard to the controllers, they were not mere handlers of spies in the West but expert psychologists who prided themselves on their close personal ties to their charges on the “invisible front”.

As mentioned previously, West Germany was Wolf’s main target. He explained in Chapter 10: “Department 9, responsible for penetrating the West German intelligence institutions, was the second largest in the service, after the Scientific and Technological Sector was one of the busiest. It was the department to which I felt most closely attached.” Fortunately for him, the West was easily accessible to his spies and couriers, who, given new Western identities, were indistinguishable from West Germans. Wolf was also well-equipped to recruit West Germans as his sleeper agents and deep cover assets. He claimed to have a firm understanding of the habits and mentality of middle to upper middle class Westerners and above all their weaknesses as those were his prewar origin. Confident of being able to collect information at the human level, human intelligence played an outsized role as compared with electronic and technical intelligence gathering done at Sektor Wissenschaft und Technik (the Sector for Science and Technology) or SWT.

It has typically been enough to state that for the intelligence officers, the goal is to compel actions by another collect information or act in any way that would promote the interests of the officer’s country. The officer will seek primarily to penetrate organizations, institutions, and communities, and insinuate themselves in the lives of others. After having maneuvered, with Berliners guidance into a position close enough to the target, they would use their tradecraft to attempt to compel a target through seduction or some other form of manipulation. At a more advanced level, it is less akin to police work to the extent that police are typically required to obtain immediate results more often through stressful even harsh interrogations, threats, and offers of protection. Still, there are occasions when the obligation of meeting requirements to satisfy consumer of intelligence, national leaders has required the use of coercive actions, to include torture. In Chapter 4, Wolf made clear that this was his concept for using his intelligence service. Still, to conceptualize further, the intelligence officer’s main task is to open doors. Whether by their own hands or using the hands of an agent, they must very often find the doors of file rooms, code rooms, vaults, and unprotected and protected computers and open them. However, there is an additional effort made to open doors of the officer’s contacts and targets for recruitment. Before the officer is a figurative wall, a barrier to the inner thinking of the target that may be underpinned by patriotism, an honor code, religious beliefs in good and evil, right and wrong, a political philosophy, loyalty to his service and his comrades. The list is exhaustive. Yet, the intelligence officer’s must get through. Smashing through the wall or hoping to get up and over it may be accomplished through those law enforcement tactics of interrogation and carrots and sticks would represent failure. A pitfall would occasionally be betrayal down the road by the same target as he may be intercepted, neutralized, and recruited or re-recruited by his own side as counterespionage agent. He may simply betray the intelligence officer’s with not just chicken feed, but false information that may arouse the officers managers and stall, paralyse, or disastrously distract and divert activities to bring what may once have been a viable operation to its knees. The intelligence officer must believe that there is a door to the inner thinking, soul of the target, which the officer, if experienced and skillful enough, will manage to open.

The Evolution of Recruitment and Training

In Chapter 5, Wolf explained: “The early years of a new espionage undertaking are always prone to the workings of Murphy Law, and scientific technical activity offered abundant potential for errors and misjudgement.” Wolf made adjustments his initial methods. Concerning penetration into the West, he noted that during the 1950s, thousands of the GDR’s citizens streamed across the then practically open borders into West Berlin and West Germany. Those numbers, according to Wolf, increased considerably after a June 1953 uprising in the GDR. Nearly 500,000 of the nation’s 18 million people fled in the following three years. Those considered to be of suitable material, were still being sent along that stream, and they, Wolf says, “laid the cornerstone for many of our later successes.” When they were picked up and questioned in the refugee camps once they got to the West, and the usually were, they still had a good chance of blending in with the mass of refugees. The HVA would equip them with a viable cover story. The declared wish to join relatives in the West was useful. However, HVA diversified the pretexts for to move West. Wolf explained: An agent might say that he had been caught trying to hide his past membership in the Nazi Party or the Waffen SS, or that he made negative comments about our government’s policies.” Diligence in assuring those pretexts were strong, caused him to have HVA place what he referred to as “stains” into personnel files kept on these agents maintained at other ministries to ensure the charges had credibility if perchance BfV somehow got hold of their file. Concerns over the actions of BfV became great enough that Wolf shied away from staffing the HVA with individuals who had relatives in the West. Wolf reasoned that Western intelligence services, particularly West Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service) or BND, could more easily penetrate us-as we did them–through family links and pressures. Wolf also noted that whereas sending our agents into West Germany, a country with the same language and culture, was clearly an advantage, as the two German countries grew apart, such infiltration became more difficult. The building of the Berlin Wall created even greater problems. Wolf said that it “cut to a trickle the heavy flow of émigrés in which we hid our agents.” Concerning pretexts for moving West, Wolf noted: “This meant cover stories had to become even more foolproof.”

Regarding training and control upgrades, Wolf displayed a firm sense of what he needed from his agents. Wolf stated: “For each person we sent across we had a predetermined mission, and each agent was trained by a staff handler responsible for the mission. We limited training to the elementary rules of espionage and tips on acquiring the information we wanted. It made no sense to train these agents in subjects and skills that did not concern them; in some ways, it would make the operations more risky by unnecessarily complicating their mission. In some cases, we retrieved agents from the West and brought them back to the GDR for additional training when the appropriate time came.” Interestingly, so ubiquitous and ever industrious were Wolf’s spies that they would often encounter each other without knowing due to compartmentalization they were both working for HVA. As a result, there were occasions, those with access to their true identities at headquarters would be tickled on those occasions when they would respectively submit reports on one another suggesting each had useful qualities and would go as far as to recommend one another for recruitment.

In examining the HVA’s success in recruiting West Germans, Wolf recognized that varied, special motives drove them. Wolf explained that among many issues, some felt a conservative distaste for West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s “Americanization”, and other disgust over the top leadership roles former Nazis, Chief of Staff of the German Chancellery Hans Globke, President Karl Heinrich Lübke, and Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, all of the Christian Democratic Union, managed to play in Federal Republic politics. Many HVA recruits in West Germany believed that their actions were humanitarian contributions to peace. Wolf’s network of spies, sleepers, informers and instructors in West Germany, today estimated to have numbered as many as 20,000 at the height of the Cold War. It should also be noted that Wolf’s agents often sailed under the “false flag” to appeal to the thirst for adventure of potential traitors in the West. At times, they posed as KGB agents. The thinking was that spying for the Soviet Union would sound more exciting for West Germans than spying for the GDR. It worked in many cases. There were times when HVA agents would pose as agents of Western intelligence services under the guise of trying to understand what their West German allies were doing or determine whether West German operations were secure.

Additionally, recruitment and collection was facilitated by the use of so-called “Romeo agents”. Sex has been used to gather intelligence since ancient times. Typically, the female spy would seduce her male victim to obtain secrets. The HVA did not hesitate to use loyal GDR women as well as suitable prostitutes in that capacity. Yet, Wolf’s thinking would go beyond the usual in the sense that he imagined reversing roles to have male agents seduce female targets. To Wolf, it appeared easier for determined agents to ensnare the secretary of a high-ranking Western official than the official himself. In reality, she would often have the same access to confidential information as her boss. He established special team of “women hunters” with the mission of seducing secretaries in West German government offices, turning them into informants. The scores of lonely women that Wolf’s Romeo spies seduced were referred to by the HVA as “Juliets”. Ostensibly, spotters would watch targets, and through observation determine the individual’s needs, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. Wolf’s Romeos would happily waste their substance on lonely women in Bonn government offices and the NATO headquarters in Brussels targeted by HVA.

Within the Eastern intelligence services, the HVA would be known for having a committed visionary at its helm. Whenever Wolf’s spies and others came to light in the West, the event would feed into a paranoid doctrine that all foreign intelligence services were penetrated by Communist spies and intelligence victories were actually their victories. Within the Eastern intelligence services, the HVA would be known for having a committed visionary at its helm.In the West, Wolf was looked upon as a threatening spectre, and he knew it. To quote Wolf from the Introduction of Man without a Face, “As even my bitter foes would acknowledge, it was probably the most efficient and effective such service on the European continent.” Managers in the counterintelligence departments of Western intelligence services would wake up every morning pondering : “We know Wolf has been doing something. What could it possibly be?” Too often, they found themselves chasing shadows. Ironically, a spotlight was placed on a spy chief and his clandestine operations, both of which could not be seen. Der unbestrittene Meister schien unbesiegbar. (The undisputed champion seemed invincible.)

Interestingly, Wolf did not particularly stress the presence of NKVD intelligence officers whose job was to guide members of the burgeoning intelligence service into an effective tool for the GDR’s security but more importantly for exploitation by Soviet intelligence. He would only mention that reality here and there, somewhat higgledy-piggledy, in the text. When the “Institute for Economic Research” was stood up, it actually functioned under the control of the Soviet intelligence. In those same postwar years, Soviet organization of its intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security functions went through its own period of transformation donning an alphabet soup of titles from the GPU, to OGPU, to GUGB/NKVD. to NKGB, to MGB. In 1954, the service eventually landing on the title, KGB. The KGB or the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) would be praised by the Soviet Union’s leadership as the country’s ”sword and shield” and the “Vanguard of Communism”. The organizations and intelligence operations undertaken by the Stasi and other Eastern Bloc intelligence services essentially duplicated of those of the Soviet KGB. Their role was made more important due to attention the KGB to Moscow’s chagrin  garnered on the world stage. After only a few years of operation, the KGB became a renowned, albeit dangerous, feature in international affairs. Looked upon as curiosities and celebrities, in foreign policy circles of many capitals, there was considerable, often banal speculation as to who among diplomats at Sovist embassies, consulates, and cultural centers were KGB officers. In certain countries, Moscow determined that was too high profile to use discreetly in the recruitment of agents. The alternative was to make use of other Eastern Bloc intelligence services that were very often operating under the radar in many countries around the world. That effectively took some pressure off the KGB. However, the KGB would insist on maintaining a tight grip on the reigns of all operations of other Eastern Bloc intelligence services. Eastern Bloc intelligence operations directed and controlled by the Chief Directorate of the KGB. The consequence of disobedience to their Soviet masters was well-understood. There is a common belief that those who rise so quickly, much as shooting star, tend to flame out just as fast. Wolf rise was fast, even a bit unsettling for him. Luckily, he and all around him soon discovered that he was a natural at the craft of intelligence. Nevertheless, it would seem he was not out in the world alone when his efforts at HVA first took flight.

Wolf (center) stands in his dress uniform with colleagues at an official event. Within the Eastern Bloc intelligence services, the HVA would eventually be known for having a committed visionary at its helm. In the West, Wolf was looked upon as a threatening spectre. Managers in the counterintelligence departments of Western intelligence services would wake up every morning pondering : “We know Wolf has been doing something. What could it possibly be?” Too often, they found themselves chasing shadows. Der unbestrittene Meister schien unbesiegbar. (The undisputed champion seemed invincible.)

Action and Adventure!

Wolf’s discussion of the various adventures of his agents has been thoroughly recounted in previous reviews of Man without a Face as well as various scholarly studies, books and articles on Wolf in which his memoir was used a source. Much as a previous reviewer noted, espionage enthusiasts would certainly find what Wolf laid out concerning the adventures of his agents is spine-tingling stuff. Some of the more popular stories concerning his actions and the adventures of his agents are still very much worth reading. Among those that greatcharlie found most edifying are: the Gunter Guillaume case; the Kuron walk-in case; and, the Tiedge walk-in case.

1. Gunter Guillaume Case

Gunter Guillaume was a HVA sleeper agent who navigated his way up to become a top staff assistant to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and a liberal whose Ostpolitik, looking toward reconciliation of the two Germanys, made him GDR’s favorite West German Chancellor. Wolf admitted that he was somewhat surprised by Guillaume’s success. As he explained in Chapter 9: “We never lost hope of penetrating the heart of Bonn, but no one expected to get so close to the top man. Nor would I have bet on Guillaume, who we codenamed Hanson, to be the one to accomplish this historic espionage coup.” Guillaume and his wife, Christel, were a husband and wife team, just two of the hundreds of potential spies, sent into the West in the 1950s. Guillaume was recruited from an East German publishing house with fairly well-known links to the Stasi. The couple was sent to Frankfurt-am-Main, where Christel’s mother ran a tobacconist’s in the mid-1950s. They opened a small copying business and joined the local Social Democrats. His efforts in SPD politics and his contact with Leber really got the ball rolling for Guillaume. In praise for Guillaume, Wolf recounted: “His discipline and dedication never faltered. He rose to become a member of the Frankfurt-am-Main city council and head of its SPD group. Guillaume’s organizational abilities, along with his staunchly conservative position at a time of great ideological upheaval in the SPD, caught the eye of George Leber, the leader of the building workers’ Union and later minister for transport in the grand coalition of 1966-1969 between the SPD and the Christian Democrats.” Eventually, Guillaume was offered a job in Leber’s office and gained access to a number of secret NATO and Federal Republic documents. These were carefully copied by Guillaume and passed to his controller in empty cigar cases “sold” to the East German intelligence officer in his mother-in-law’s tobacconist’s shop.

Wolf went on to explain that when the SPD became the leading party in West Germany in 1969, the HVA ordered Guillaume and Christel “to play a waiting game and not push for personal advancement in the new administration.” Wolf believed that since the record indicated that Guillaume former worked in East Berlin publishing, if he tried to move into a government job, red flags would be raised. Indeed, Wolf would discover the following: “Herbert Hellenbroich, later the head of West German foreign intelligence (Bundesnachrichtendienst), confirmed that Guillaume had been investigated like no one else before him–but without turning up anything. There had, however, been two vague tips from the evaluators in West Germany’s counterintelligence (Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz–BfV) and Horst Ehmke, the head of Brandt’s office and thus responsible for personnel there, decided to confront Guillaume headlong with these suspicions.” Guillaume brilliantly dealt with all of the suspicions coming his way. With the rare use of a first name, Wolf praised his covert agent, writing: “Gunter’s reactions and his overall demeanor as he explained away his work at the Volk and Welt publishing house seemed so natural, as a stunned Ehmke would say later, that all doubts were put to rest.” (A hidden hope among West German counterintelligence specialists, that such a deep penetration into their country’s political arena was not probable, may have led to a preconception of Guillaume’s innocence that in turn colored their investigation. Such is always a danger. Intensified, thorough research, more interviews, in an effort to find the missing pieces of the figurative ring is the answer, certainly not spurious over compensation in the opposite direction.) When HVA agent, Willy Gronau, one the intelligence service’s oldest sources, was arrested in West Berlin there was concern that suspicion about his concept acts would placed Guillaume in jeopardy. Gronau and Guillaume had maintained professional contact as part of their jobs. However, it was one of those occasions in which neither knew the other’s true identity as an HVA agent. The BND and BfV were never caused to think any similar issues of spying existed among both.

The political world, being complex and often confused, required Guillaume to sift through whatever he came across for golden nuggets. While stuck to the matter at hand, for his own security, he also had to be aware of everything happening around him. Seemingly  extraneous matters were not out of court. In November 1969, Guillaume was offered the post of a junior aide to the newly elected Social Democrat Chancellor Willy Brandt. Guillaume methodically made his way up through the hierarchy of the Chancellery, steadily passing intelligence to East Berlin. Eventually, he became one of Brandt’s top aides. Guillaume’s mission was essentially a political job, monitoring the Brandt administration. Guillaume was able to provide the HVA and hence the KGB with details of divides among NATO members US President Richard Nixon and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger  sought greater control over the alliance. However, sex would play a part in Guillaume’s work, too! Brandt was a womanizer. According to Wolf, Guillaume procured women for him.

A CIA counterintelligence officer looking into suspicions that there was a spy within the Chancellery remembered a clue from the late 1950s. The East Germans sent messages to their many agents in the West using a five-figure cipher broadcast read out by a female broadcaster who in western intelligence circles was nicknamed “Magdeburg Annie”. The codes were cracked by US computers; one was to an agent in West Germany known as “G” who was active in the SPD. As it was described by another previous reviewer of Man without a Face, with Teutonic precision, the Stasi remembered to radio birthday greetings to its agent. He was also  important enough to be congratulated on the birth of his son. That untidy behavior proved disastrous. The radio traffic was analyzed by the BfV who eventually figured it out. The known details of the agent, and, crucially, the date of the boy’s birth, matched those of Guillaume and his son, and he and his wife were put under surveillance. Guillaume was arrested on April 24, 1974. Brandt resigned ten days later. While the penetration was looked upon with amazement, Wolf lamented that it was all in all a defeat. Wolf, expressing the sense that he had only achieved a bit of a Pyrrhic victory,  explained in Chapter 9, “Our role in bringing down Brandt was equivalent to kicking a football into our own net,” He also stated: “We never desired, planned nor welcomed his political demise. But once the chain of events had been set in motion, they had their own momentum. Where was I supposed to have yelled stop?” Brandt was the architect of Ostpolitik, West Germany’s opening of relations toward the GDR and remainder of the Eastern Bloc beginning in 1969 and the German Basic Treaty of 1972,  setting the basis of relations between West Germany and the GDR. Moreover, the GDR secretly supported and encouraged Willy Brandt’s Ost-politik policy of rapprochement with the East German government. than the former chancellor. His successor as Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, was less committed to the “Eastern” policy.

West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (right) and Gunter Guillaume in tinted glasses (left). Gunter Guillaume and his wife, Christel, were a husband and wife team, two of the hundreds of sleeper agents set up in West Germany by the HVA in the 1950s. Guillaume managed to navigate his way up to become a top staff assistant to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. Guillaume dealt well with all of the suspicions that came his way. Wolf admitted that he was somewhat surprised by Guillaume’s success. As he explained: “We never lost hope of penetrating the heart of Bonn, but no one expected to get so close to the top man. Nor would I have bet on Guillaume, who we codenamed Hanson, to be the one to accomplish this historic espionage coup.”

2. Klaus Kuron Walk-in Case

There were occasions fortunate for Wolf when his intelligence officers came across the “walk-ins”, those who on their own volition turn toward and even work for the East. Among those stories is that of the spectacular recruitment of Klaus Kuron, deputy chief of the BfV. Wolf stated in Chapter 10: “ This was exceptional, even for the entanglements of the spy business.” The Kuron walk-in began with a tug of war between HVA and BfV over one of Wolf’s sleeper agents, Joachim Moitzheim. Moitzheim had been caught by BfV attempting to recruit the man who operated the counterintelligence computer named Nazis. Once intercepted by the chief and deputy chief of the BfV, respectively Hansjoachim Tiedge and Klaus Kuron, neutralized him with the threat of a lengthy  imprisonment and recruited him to work as a double agent for them. Moitzheim agreed, but informed Wolf and  his superiors at HVA  of the recruitment effort. The verdict was that Kuron, who was not seen as a threat to the GDR should be function as a triple agent for the HVA. Having been in contact with BfV officials. Moitzheim was asked if he could take a look at a letter anonymously dropped off at the GDR Embassy in Bonn in 1981. The letter written by an individual Wolf believed knew the structure of HVA well, offered to provide a high degree of inside intelligence for a one time payment of 150,000 Deutschmarks. In the letter, Wolf beloved as an effort “to whet our appetites,” by informing in the letter that there was an effort to recruit an official at HVA’s SWT, the unit responsible for technological espionage. To Wolf’s astonishment, Moitzheim identified the handwriting on the letter as Kuron, the deputy chief at BfV with whom Wolf had struggled in the intelligence war. Kuron communicated again by telephone call during which a meeting was arranged in Vienna.

Wolf noted that Kuron “was unembarrassed by his treachery” as he described his situation at BfV. Kuron who came from modest beginnings worked his way  lacked a university degree and was regularly passed over for more senior positions at higher salary levels. Wolf quoted Kuron directly: “It has been a struggle . . . Everyone knows how good I am, but I’ll never go any further.” Noting the bitterness of Kuron’s tone, Wolf quoted him further as saying: “In the West, they say that there is freedom and an equal chance for everyone to achieve their potential. I do not see it like that. I can work till I drop and still end up being treated as a drone. Then they bring along some half-wit bureaucrat whose daddy has paid his way through school and has a glittering path ahead. I can’t bear it any longer.” Wolf saw Kuron as being worth every penny. He noted that for six years, “Kuron did sterling work for us. With the innocent help of his teenage son, who thought he was just doing a favor for his dad for work, . . . . “ Wolf also noted that Kuron took professional pride in his work for the HVA, often helping with projects that fell outside of his agreed contract. While acting for the GDR within the BfV as a figurative predator in the forest, Kuron also had to have an awareness of his surroundings much as prey. Wolf recounted what that entailed. The HVA achieved successes with Kuron, undetected, right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the most part, defections of Kuron’s type were typically driven by such unbalanced ambition. While the overwhelming majority of officers will find the intelligence service to be an acceptable way of life. Evaluations from his supervisors and managers reflect not only the officer’s performance and work product, but attitudes and behavior as observed. When the officer cannot come to terms with the job and the system, a resulting decision may be to escape it. The worst possible impulse would be to take on the defectors cloak and strike against the institution that tried to embrace the officer. The impulse to conquer the institution was equally powerful. It was certainly more than a lack of good judgment. The problem is the insufficiency of the individual.

3. Hansjoachim Tiedge Walk-in Case

As aforementioned, It was Hansjoachim Tiedge’s job as chief at BfV, to intercept, neutralized, and when possible, recruit GDR spies to work as double agents for the Federal Republic. It was believed by many at BfV that Tiedge addicted to the bottle. Tiedge’s condition was more than corridor gossip at the BfV. He could scarcely drag himself through the working day. On the day that Tiedge defected to the GDR, as Wolf thoroughly details in Chapter 10, he used tradecraft. In the summer of 1985, Tiedge reportedly came to the Magdeburg section of the Inter-German Border that a man identifying himself as “Mr. Tabbert” had arrived, demanding to speak to a representative of the foreign intelligence service. Wolf, who was preparing to go on summer vacation in Hungary, was called. According to Wolf: “Throughout Kuron we knew that Tabbert was Tiedge’s code name.” Wolf ordered to quickly pass him through without further questioning, and be treated well. Wolf also directed Karl-Christoph Grossmann, who ran Department 9 and handled Kuron’s first approaches, pick him up on the Autobahn junction leading to Berlin. Once stirred in a safe house outside of Berlin, Tiedge asked to speak with Wolf directly, but he declined to leave the matter to Grossmann. Wolf claimed that he was already planning to retire and decided continuity in terms of his handling was important given all of the ramifications.  After identifying himself to Grossmann, Tiedge reportedly stated: “I’ve come to stay. You are my last chance.” Then the full measure of Tiedge’s dilapidated state became known. Tiedge confirmed that he was a heavy gambler and drinker. His wife died in an accident at home after he had been involved in a drunken fight with her. Investigated for manslaughter, the verdict was death by misadventure. His children were unruly, never forgiving him for their mother’s death. His lifestyle had led to disciplinary proceedings. Tiedge believed he was being kept on at BfV as a means for his superiors to keep an eye on him. Wolf assessed his situation as follows: “Here was a man who had descended into such a psychological hell that he could see two possible escapes, suicide or defection.”

Wolf said regarding Tiedge’s arrival: “It was a much a surprise to me as to everyone else. I had some inkling that he might wash up on our shore if things got much worse for him in Cologne, but we did not seek contact with him.” Wolf used Man without a Face to categorically deny that Tiedge had been HVA’s agent before his defection. Based on what has been made public, Tiedge was very likely Wolf’s greatest catch. Outlining the benefits that Tiedge brought to HVA, Wolf noted: “Tiedge had a memory like a computer for names and connections and filled in a lot of blanks for us, though not as many as he thought, since he was unaware that his colleague Kuron was in our pay.” As the story goes, away from the book’s text, due to Tiedge’s defection, the West German intelligence community was at sixes and sevens, trying to determine what would happen next, who was who, what was real and what was not. His betrayal was called the most damaging of the Cold War for the Federal Republic. It resulted in the recall of numerous West German agents still in the field. In that period, the East Germans captured 168 West German spies. Wolf stated in Chapter 10: “We rubbed our hands in glee at the turmoil.” However, there would soon be a bit of irony to befall HVA as Grossmann, the man entrusted with handling both Kuron and Tiedge, two days after German Unification, accepted an offer to help track down HVA agents. Overall, Wolf believed that the successful recruitment of officials and the collection walk-ins from his adversaries confirmed his notion that intelligence work never simply rests upon technology. It rests upon what cannot be bought, the human element, the mind, thoughts, emotions, conscience and will. Wolf stated in Chapter 10: “Our successes right up to 1989 indicate a technological superiority is of limited usefulness if the basics of the service are mishandled. That kind of expertise can be bought, but good organization, tight discipline, and the right instincts are not commercially available.”

Hansjoachim Tiedge (above) was very likely Wolf’s greatest catch. As chief of West Germany’s Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution) or BfV, Tiedge’s job was to intercept, neutralized, and when possible, recruit GDR spies to work as double agents. His betrayal was called the most damaging of the Cold War for the Federal Republic. It resulted in the recall of numerous West German agents still in the field. In that period, the East Germans captured 168 West German spies. Wolf believed that the successful recruitment of officials and the collection walk-ins from his adversaries confirmed his notion that intelligence work rests upon the human element, the mind, thoughts, emotions, conscience and will, and never technology alone.

A Thought about Wolf and the German People

It is not difficult to imagine that Wolf firmly believed that through reeducation and practice, the German people would appreciate the Communist Movement’s benefits and the promise that the Socialist system brought for the GDR’s future. He would work toward the cause of establishing a proletariat paradise. Although Communism had been present as a political movement in Germany, it was never an idea universally accepted by the German people. Before World War II, the German people faced the dilemma of choosing between what were considered two undesirable options: Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and the Communist Party of Germany. The two parties engaged in a tumultuous and very violent struggle for political control of the country. Through the efficacious application of force and a more effective political strategy, the Nazis gained the upper hand. Once Hitler and his Nazis came to power, the Communist Party was eviscerated and banned. The road was left open for German people to fall under the spell of Hitler and to be overcome by the false promises and manipulations of the Nazi Movement. It all seemed inspired by ingenious telepathy from Hell. Nazi Germany was an abomination. Under the Nazis, the German people suffered loss beyond imagination. They were plunged into endless depths of despair, anguish, and agony.

For centuries, the German people had been steeped in Western religious traditions and a spiritual link to God. To that extent the laws of Western societies were generally an amplification of Divine law or biblical law. Much as expressed in Ephesians 4:18, under the Nazis, the German people were alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that was in them, because of the blindness of the heart. Postwar, the Communist finally had their chance to rule in Germany. With their country literally fractured by the war and the majority living in privation, the people of the GDR were subsumed by Communism as pressed upon them by their Soviet occupiers. Unlike their fellow countrymen in West Germany, they had to survive what became “Part 2” of a dark, bitter authoritarian epoque in German history. Once again, Germans in the East found themselves in a far country, which is anywhere outside the will of God. The Communist made certain that the people of the GDR were more thoroughly torn from their spiritual underpinnings. Under the Communists, the mystery of the covenant between God and man and His creation was reduced to a mere human puzzle whose pieces can be arranged according to limited human intelligence. Much as Wolf became an albeit willing victim of institutionalized atheism, which the Communist world’s Soviet masters called “gosateizm”, the same requirement to believe in unbelief was imposed on the people of the GDR.

As a true believer in the Communist movement, Wolf acknowledged feeling somewhat unnerved when he observed how the GDR’s society began to vibrate in response to the benefits of the opening and opportunity created by glasnost and perestroika. Suppressed no longer was the desire by the people of the GDR to have for a better life, a better world, better existence. The people of the GDR also heard a message from the West that resonated. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte has also been quoted as saying: “There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.”

It is not difficult to imagine that Wolf firmly believed that through reeducation and practice, the German people would appreciate the Communist Movement’s benefits and the promise that the Socialist system brought for the GDR’s future. He would work toward the cause of establishing a proletariat paradise. However, as a true believer, Wolf acknowledged feeling somewhat unnerved when he observed how the GDR’s society began to vibrate in response to the benefits of the opening and opportunity created by glasnost and perestroika. Suppressed no longer was the desire by the people of the GDR to have for a better life, a better world, better existence.

In Man without a Face, Wolf apparently sought to present himself as the man he believed himself to have been throughout his career, doing his job for his country as best he could. Through all the years of official secrecy and darkness, he saw himself as a normal man. Surely, normal and fine could be considered relative terms when it comes to Wolf, but letting the world know that he felt that way seems to have been an important point of the book. To that extent, Man without a Face is even more a very personal human story. Of course, everything discussed in Man without a Face is open to interpretation by the reader. One is certainly entitled to form their own opinion of Wolf and his work. To encourage that, greatcharlie suggests its readers take a look at the book give it the old school try! Without hesitation, greatcharlie highly recommends Man without a Face to its readers. Find a copy! For those who have already read it, take a second look. It is truly worth the read!

By Mark Edmond Clark

Why Putin Laments the Soviet Union’s Demise and His Renewed “Struggle” with the US: A Response to an Inquiry from Students

When Putin occasionally grieves publicly over the Soviet Union’s demise and expresses pro-Soviet sentiments, some confusion usually ensues among listeners worldwide. Putin, just being himself, certainly does not make it easy for anyone to understand him. Still, he is not beyond human knowledge, comprehension, and speech. A group of university students in the US inquired with greatcharlie on Putin’s expressions concerning the Soviet Union following a lively seminar debate. It was decided that this post would be used to provide a response to their inquiry. Hopefully, what is at the root of Putin’s stance on the Soviet Union has been figuratively dug up for them to see.

In late-May 2019, greatcharlie received an intriguing message from some undergraduate students of a university in the US concerning recurrent comments of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, lamenting the Soviet Union’s demise. There had apparently been a very lively debate in their political science seminar on Putin’s “often public lamentations over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, his insistence that it had many positive attributes and that as a superpower, it played a valuable role globally.” The students’ solicitation of greatcharlie’s thoughts on the matter was flattering. It was even more stirring to see them express great interest in international affairs and Russian politics in particular. Another subject was selected for greatcharlie’s June post.  However, rather than simply suggest a few books and journal articles to supplement their seminar debate, it was decided that this post would be used to provide a response to the students’ inquiry. Undergraduate and graduate students represent a significant portion of greatcharlie’s audience. The hope of greatcharlie is that by responding in this way, these intrepid students and others reading the blog will be encouraged to further pursue their international affairs studies and to continue reaching out beyond their classroom lessons to augment their knowledge base.

Confusion over one’s thinking can often issue from imprudently offering enthusiasms on a subject. When Putin occasionally offers pro-Soviet sentiments, some confusion usually ensues among listeners. Putin, just being himself, does not make it easy for anyone to understand him. Yet, Putin is not beyond human knowledge, comprehension, and speech. It would be counterintuitive not to accept that when Putin acts at any level, he does so with purpose and that purpose can be uncovered. What is at the root of Putin’s nostalgic, pro-Soviet position is figuratively dug up for them to see from this somewhat informal, multidirectional examination. Hopefully, it discusses a few valuable points perhaps not covered in the inquiring students’ seminar. Further, from this examination, insights were generated on the Russian Federation President’s intentions and actions that will contribute to the foreign policy debate internationally. Nulla tenaci invia est via. (For the tenacious no road is impassable.)

What has been striking about those occasions when Putin spoke so fondly of the Soviet Union and lamented its collapse was the very public nature of his expressions. Even in those dire initial days in office, Putin rarely offered comments off the cuff that could possibly produce a marked impression. True, expressions of sentimentality as they related to feelings of patriotism were heard from him before. Still, he avoided uttering sentiments that stemmed from truly personal feelings. If Putin was at all comfortable with publicly bemoaning the demise of the Soviet Union, it was because he thought it was the best thing to do on each occasion.

Putin Has Said Some Interesting Things about the Soviet Union

When Putin first began publicly discussing his feelings about the Soviet Union, he provided a rare glimpse of how thoughts coalesced in his consciousness. Only a few years earlier Putin had become a full-fledged political man, a deputy mayor of St Petersburg, and then suddenly found himself at the very top, learning his way through the Kremlin jungle, domestic politics, and the larger world of global international affairs. Prior to his statements about the Soviet Union, Putin left no doubt that the essence of his thinking was akin to a “Russia First” concept. On August 16, 1999, the members of the State Duma, the Russian Federation’s Parliament, met to approve Putin’s candidacy of a prime minister. He was President Boris Yeltsin’s fifth premier in 16 months. In his speech to the Duma, Putin stated with spirit: “Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest . . . We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.” Being Yeltsin’s choice, Putin was dutifully confirmed as prime minister without much been made in support of, or against, his nationalistic stance. His strong patriotic tone was heard again in a statement made in Part 5, “The Spy” of Putin’s memoir First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000) page 80. One of the interviewers preparing the book, notes that she asked him, “Did you suffer when the Berlin Wall fell?”, he explained: “Actually, I thought the whole thing was inevitable. I only really regretted that the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe, although intellectually I understood that a position built on walls and dividers cannot last. But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That’s what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away.”

Even so, only after a few short months as acting president and as the elected president, Putin, with the apparent aim of keeping the Russian Federation a welcomed player on the international stage, began taking a nuanced approach in issuing statements. When Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin departed in 1999, he left his young, hand-picked successor, Putin, with a rather dire situation economically, socially, and politically. Through strenuous efforts, Putin managed to halt what was once the country’s downward spiral toward abject ruin. Yet, after leveling things off, he hoped to move forward with plans and programs to improve living standards for average Russians and conditions around the country as a whole. At Kremlin press conferences, official government meetings and events, political rallies,  presentations at universities, policy think tanks, scholarly journals, and other institutions, Putin expressed his desire to create something better for the Russian people. Reading through Putin’s December 31, 1999 essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”, that appeared on the website of the Russian Federation on December 31, 1999, he clearly believed, boiled down to the bones, that the key to Russia’s progress would be a successful effort to maximize the performance potential of the Russian people. That became his stated aim. He would focus on those factors that have brought some level of success and advancement, and attempt to amplify them to create some change.

Putin also was interested in acquiring Western investment into his economically troubled country to provide the people with the support they needed. For a while, he seemed to stoke Western approval of the Russian Federation with his words. However, he also made a number of half-turns away from a pro-Western position that really evinced there was a duality in thinking. As an example, on March 5, 2000, Putin made a statement to the effect that he did not rule out having the Russian Federation join NATO. However, he stressed that it would only do so “when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner.” After stating that he could not imagine Russia being isolated from Europe, Putin went further on NATO to state: “it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy.” Putin’s nuanced language was apparent, too, when very publicly broaching the issue of the Soviet Union’s fall. He remarked: “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart, whoever wants it back has no brain.” Putin’s efforts were successful to the extent that statements as these caused the West, if not to drop its guard, certainly to take a more relaxed view of him and his intentions. It would seem even then, that his true feelings and intentions would have readily identified him as a Russian nationalist. In that same vein, those pro-Western statements ran counter to the strong nature of his later statements of near adoration of the Soviet Union.

Soon enough, that nuanced bit of his statements that provided a touch of goodwill to the West was dropped. The collapse of the Soviet Union was publicly discussed by Russian Federation officials with the apparent goal of amplifying the message to world of how badly Russian people suffered as a result and that consideration might be given to increasing any efforts to invest in and generally assist their country. It also had the purpose of letting the Russian people know that their government was aware of their plight. No deception was being used then to hide deficiencies in the system which was the practice under Soviet rule. On April 25, 2005, Putin stated: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” In process of repairing things, however, Putin encountered significant obstacles that primarily concerned the capabilities and capacity of the Russian people to get beyond only making changes here and there for the better, and get behind efforts at making real progress. The product of his efforts could be characterized as rather anemic. There was still an uneasiness in Russia when Putin began as president. Morale was low, fruitful activity was sparse, and new, useful ideas were absent. One might posit that faced with disappointment and discontent over immediate results of his own efforts over the years, he has been able to manage his greatest concern which is not to allow the country to roll backward. That was probably a nightmare that likely nearly suffocated him many nights at the time. In order to stabilize the situation, he apparently decided to turn toward something that felt familiar and safe. Eventually, Putin’s goal became to develop some simulacrum of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the Soviet Union. Sustainability was less likely a concern given the exigent circumstance of a need for immediate answers. On March 2, 2018, Putin issued his most direct comment to date about the Soviet collapse. Taking questions from supporters in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad, Putin was asked what Russian historical event he would like to change. Putin immediately answered, “The collapse of the Soviet Union.”

What has been striking about those occasions when Putin spoke so fondly of the Soviet Union and lamented its collapse was its very public nature. Putin has never been anything akin to some wandering preacher, expressing his convictions about matters. Even in those dire early days in office, Putin, who emerged from the secret world of Soviet intelligence, rarely offered comments off the cuff that could produce a marked impression. True, expressions of sentimentality as it related to feelings of patriotism were certainly heard from Putin before. Still, Putin is a man who has typically avoided uttering sentiments genuinely stemming from personal feelings, which in this case was his grief over loss of the Soviet Union. If he ever slipped up and revealed blithely his inner feelings on a matter, he would have moved quickly to preserve the confidentiality of such statements. If Putin was at all comfortable with publicly bemoaning the demise of the Soviet Union, it was clearly because he thought it was the best thing to do on each occasion.

Typically after hearing Putin’s worldview was shaped by his service in the KGB, the imagination runs wild among many in the West. Putin is more likely visualized as being still on the beat, working in the exotic and mysterious segment of the organization that engaged in kidnappings, harsh interrogations, relocations of citizens to prisons and internment camps, paramilitary operations, and assassinations. With tongue in cheek, Putin has fueled exaggerated Western characterizations of himself by posing in photos as a stern man of action, training his sights on targets with pistols, sniper rifles, and other weapons.

The KGB Factor

An immediate impression of Putin’s words might reasonably be that he and most likely many others who were part of the Soviet apparat continued to adhere to their “unique reality” about the Soviet Union. Indeed, his statements were true to life with respect to the commitment to the Soviet system by hardline, old guard, former apparatchiks, which includes Communist Party functionaries or government bureaucrats, nomenklatura or high ranking management, and dead-enders among former rank and file Soviet citizens. For all those from the same water in which Putin swam, each time anyone referenced the Soviet Union in such a positive manner, there would doubtlessly be agreement that it was the full version. For them, such words from Putin likely ring patriotic bells. It strikes greatcharlie as hopelessly derivative to remind readers that Putin’s decisions and actions have been influenced by his life in the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security, initialized from Russian and better known as the KGB. It was Soviet agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Nonetheless, it is a reality and an important factor that should be examined first.

A seemingly infinite number of primary and secondary sources exist on the KGB. However, an intriguing Cold War era description of the KGB that greatcharlie has referred to often is a concise November 13, 1982 New York Times article entitled, “KGB Praised By Some Feared By Many”. The article explained that the KGB was the most widely feared instrument of the Soviet Government. It measured the strength of the KGB at 90,000 or so staff officers inside the Soviet Union to guard against internal security threats and run the political prisons. Along the country’s borders, 175,000 of border troops patrol its 41,800 miles of frontiers. Outside of the country, the article noted that its scientific-technical operatives sweep Western countries seeking the latest secret inventions, while its ”illegals” try to penetrate foreign intelligence operations. The article explains further that the first Communist secret service, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counterrevolution, Speculation and Sabotage, mainly referred to under the acronym Cheka, virtually copied the Czarist secret police organization and even co-opted some of its more capable officers. The Cheka’s founder, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, was quoted as saying, ”Trust is good, but control is better,” and, in 1918, ”We stand for organized terror.” In its earlier years, the article states, the Soviet secret police acquired a reputation as an instrument of mass terror: beginning in the 1920s as the organizer and supplier at home of huge concentration camps where millions perished; in the 1930s as Soviet Premier Josef Stalin’s executor of huge purges of the party and the Red Army officer corps; and, in the late 1940s and 1950s, as the perpetrator of assassinations of opponents abroad. The latter killings were performed by a group specialized in what Soviet intelligence reportedly  called ”wet affairs”. In the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death on March 5,1953, the KGB was accused of trying a coup in the Kremlin, using secret police troops. Its chief, Lavrenti P. Beria, was seized by his party comrades and executed. The article notes that it was not until 20 years later that the KGB recapture the degree of respect it once held in the Soviet Union when its director, Yuri Andropov, was elected to the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo.

Citing a common perspective of Western intelligence specialists then, the article states that the KGB, while retaining excellent abilities in traditional espionage was devoting greater resources to acquiring Western military and industrial technology. In fact, in the decade before the article was written, the KGB has acquired the plans of American spy satellites, advanced radar, computer source codes and conventional weapon innovations. It posits that those acquisitions could have been attributed to Andropov. It was under his supervision the KGB became a type of office for technology transfer from the West, in addition to its conventional tasks, such as penetrating the coderooms of the NATO alliance. The article further explains that the KGB, to the envy of foreign intelligence services, was able to retain key personnel for many decades, providing a kind of continuity particularly valuable in counterintelligence. The article quoted an assessment of the KGB by James J. Angleton, retired head of the CIA’s counterintelligence branch, a controversial figure, yet sacred cow US intelligence. Angleton simply stated: “I wish we had their continuity.”

Interestingly, the New York Times article’s treatment of the KGB had an almost prosecutorial tone. Still, there should not be any misunderstanding that among those who were or potentially could have been victims of the KGB in the Soviet Union and abroad, the organization was not by any means viewed as the “good guys”. its actions were not misunderstood. However, while it is a bit one-sided, the article manifests prevailing Western impressions of the KGB at the time, It hopefully allows one to gain a sense of the tension and tenor of the geopolitical struggle between East and West during the Cold War as late as the 1980s.

In First Person, Putin, himself, left little doubt that his service in the KGB was a crucial feature of his life. Having had a rather successful career in the renowned security organization, Putin certainly has memories of an existence quite different from most Russians in the Soviet Union. Indications are that members of the KGB managed to skirt many of tribulations most Soviet citizens endured as a result of his service. Moreover, they were able to enjoy certain privileges. Putin found great value in what the Soviet Union was able to provide for him in terms of a livelihood and in terms of self-respect. He has great reason to be thankful to it.

On Putin’s KGB Perspective

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem. (Into the truth through shadows and images.) Typically after hearing Putin’s worldview was shaped by his service in the KGB, the imagination runs wild among many in the West. Putin is more likely visualized as being still on the beat, working in the exotic and mysterious segment of the organization that engaged in kidnappings, harsh interrogations, relocations of citizens to prisons and internment camps, paramilitary operations, and assassinations. While embellished to a considerable degree, that remains the “commercialized”, Hollywood version of the KGB officer, popular in the West during the Cold War. It was certainly a great departure from reality. Essentially, for Putin, they paint a portrait of someone who does not exist. Some appear so satisfied seeing Putin as such, they do not seem interested in getting the picture straight. With tongue in cheek, Putin has fueled exaggerated characterizations of himself by posing in photos as a stern man of action, training his sights on targets with pistols, sniper rifles, and other weapons. A fair appraisal of Putin’s career would be that he was good at his work and that he well-impressed his colleagues and superiors alike. Certainly, he could be dashing and audacious when necessary, but moreover he was honorable and discreet, using his wits and memory. He progressed gradually and fruitfully with agents he recruited. As a result of his many successes, he received promotions up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Similar to most of his young colleagues, the KGB offered Putin a solid basis for believing that the Soviet system could be protected and sustained. The KGB, as a central organ of the government, ostensibly had the know-how and the resources to prevent the Soviet Union, and the contiguous countries of the Eastern bloc that it led, from falling into a chaotic condition.

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian noted: “Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.”  In his bildungsroman, First Person. Putin, himself, left little doubt that his service in the KGB was a crucial feature of his life. The officers of the KGB were the tried and true protectors of the Soviet Union. The organization was praised by the Communist leadership as the country’s ”sword and shield”. The KGB certainly had the trust of its customers. At the same time, the KGB, was an indispensable instrumentality of the government to the extent it was the means through which it subjected the Russian people to terrible conditions believing that there was little chance that those conditions would fully effect its members. Indications are that KGB officers managed to skirt many of the tribulations most Soviet citizens endured as a result of his service. Moreover, they were able to enjoy certain privileges. Having had a rather successful career in the renowned security organization, Putin certainly has memories of an existence quite different from most Russians in the Soviet Union. Putin found great value in what the Soviet Union was able to provide for him in terms of a livelihood and in terms of self-respect. For those reasons alone, he has great reason to be thankful to it. In Part 3, “The University Student” of First Person, Putin states about himself: “I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.” Ubi bene, ibi patria.  (Homeland is where your life is good.)

It must be mentioned that Karen Dawisha, in Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Shuster, 2014), insists that there was more than an emotional connection between former KGB officers and the Soviet Union. Dawisha explains that in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Chekists were asked to take control of the currency that the Communist Party had accumulated. There were Central Committee decrees ordering such activity. Dawisha cites an August 23, 1990 decree which authorized: “urgent measures on the organization of commercial and foreign economic activities of the party” and laying out the need for an autonomous channel into the Party cash box . . . the final objective is to build a structure of invisible party economics . . . a very narrow circle of people have been allowed access to this structure . . . .”  Dawisha makes the connection between this period when KGB officers heard the clarion call of the Communist Party to loot state coffers and Putin’s start in politics at the local level in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As head of the St. Petersburg Committee for Foreign Liaison, a job he received through KGB patronage, Putin began working with a tight knit circle of Chekists.  Grabbing money became their métier, and they worked hard at it. In St. Petersburg, Putin obeyed his patrons and proved himself to be reliable.  He also gained a solid understanding of the linkages between organized crime, which is of a special breed in Russia, bureaucrats, and former KGB officials. (While in St. Petersburg, he befriended an attorney named Dmitry Medvedev.) When his boss, Alexander Sobchak lost his bid for reelection as St. Petersburg’s mayor, Putin was out of a job. Yet, in the course of less than two years though, Putin rose from being an out-of-work deputy mayor to head of the FSB. A year later, Putin was the prime minister. Six months after that, he was Russian Federation President. On April 2, 2015, greatcharlie posted a review of Putin’s Kleptocracy. There is far too much to follow along that argument to unpack here. However, Dawisha does an excellent job of providing evidence to support her thesis. It could very well be an important part of the larger picture of Putin, the KGB, and governance in the Russian Federation.

Why a KGB Veteran Is Likely to Follow His Former Institution’s Line of Thinking

Surely, those who joined the KGB would say that they had answered the call to serve their nation in the security service. Some likely found a home, that offered employment security, a steady salary a place to belong to, a place where they will be taken care of, and an ordered life. That would not be considered irregular. The same could be said of those who have sought military careers or foreign service careers. Yet, as a result of more than a “collective consciousness” about defending the homeland, and given the unique nature of their work, a bond would form among KGB personnel and their families to the extent that a sort of mini society existed in the service. There may be some evidence that KGB officers, having an innate sense for being discreet, were mainly repressed people. Unable to express love within family or in close circles, the repressed have a habit of investing emotionally into larger organizations. Their love can be put into an institution, which in the case of Putin and his colleagues, was the KGB. The intelligence service, that closed off part of the intelligence officer’s life, becomes his family. For some, it becomes their raison d’etre. That type of linkage can lead to difficulties upon retirement and separation from organization. That makes associations of retired intelligence professional all the more important by creating links to the organization in which they served. The more contentment officers found in the KGB, the more settled and satisfied they became with their lives. Through the KGB, they got the picture of their lives straight.

Putin rose meteorically through the newly formed Russian Federation Government under Yeltsin almost as if his life had been mapped out by providence. He found support and guidance from former KGB colleagues from St. Petersburg which is both his hometown and where got his start in politics at the local level. Many have since become officials in Putin’s government, political leaders, and key business leaders with whom Putin remains in close contact. In the KGB, these former officers are affectionately referred to as Chekists. They come from a community of families whose “roots” go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Among the aforementioned cadre of government officials, political leaders, and business leaders with whom Putin has surrounded himself are men who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg were mostly Cheka. Putin’s own Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He was in fact raised in the Chekisty (Chekists) community, attending schools and a university Chekists’ progeny typically attended. With a loyal and effective team, Putin could stay ahead of troublesome political and business leaders that would disrupt his plans more often than not to the extent they would enable themselves to achieve their own self-aggrandizing, short term goals. However, by surrounding himself with like-minded Chekists of his “KGB family”, retaining his prevailing Chekist beliefs that aspects of the Soviet Union provides a good model for Russia to itself build upon has been made easier for Putin.

While it might be viewed as daylight madness in the West, some former Soviet citizens in Russia imagine the Soviet Union as a better place than it was. Moreover, these Russians, who miss the past, even crave it, warts and all, were not all from among those who were privileged in the Soviet system. Those who were not privileged seem to discount just how shabby the majority of their lives were under that system. According to a December 19, 2018 Levada Center poll, more Russians regretted the breakup of the Soviet Union then than at any other time since 2004.

Is Putin in Touch with His Fellow Russians Regarding the Soviet Union?

His KGB life aside, Putin must be able recall that the Soviet Union was not satisfying for all Russians. Even in First Person, Putin admits that housing conditions for his family in St. Petersburg were far less than perfect, nevertheless, they still lived better than many. For those not so enthusiastic with the Soviet system, Putin’s pro-Soviet sentiments likely reminded of the ugliness of a not so distant past. The majority of Russians were unable to obtain positions equivalent in prominence and power as Putin held. Surely, they did enjoy the relatively staid and secure life that came with it. While it was more “democratic” to claim that Soviet citizens had equal access to education, opportunity, housing, sustenance, health care, social welfare, and other programs, efforts by the Soviet system in that direction were more cosmetic than consequential in establishing the type of society to which they made claim. All of those services, while satisfying when made available and were of appropriate quality, hardly reflected an effort by the Soviet government to respond to the will of the people.

Under the authorized description of the Soviet system, it was a so-called classless society. However, it assuredly was economically stratified, and could be visualized in terms of concentric circles. The quality of life for citizens in the society would degrade sharply as one looks outward from the center all the way to those circles at the end where citizens struggled daily to survive. Those who occupied the center circle were the nomenklatura, the country’s leaders and power elites at the top. Those moguls lived in luxury relative to other citizens, and enjoyed the best things that Russia had to offer. Outside of the nomenklatura, the standard of living was passable for Soviet citizens from what would approximate “middle-class”. Those were usually the apparatchiks of the Soviet system, full-size functionaries of the Communist Party or the Soviet government apparat (apparatus). Apparatchiks were also those who worked in any bureaucratic  position or position of political responsibility. In many cases, they were lucky enough to be employed under the “self-management” concept positions, which required employees to evaluate the quality of their own productivity. However, that virtual middle-class was never completely comfortable for they , too, could suffer the effects of housing shortages, rationing, corruption, and other inconveniences. In some cases, they had to pay their superiors in order to keep their positions. This was even true in some parts of the military

Russian citizens living under a lower standard encountered those same problems and more with far greater intensity. They often suffered periods of rationing and privation. Some fell into a state of penury, a reality that the Soviet system desperately sought to conceal. They were forced to make the most of nothing. Those citizens emerged from the Soviet system holding a worldview, infiltrated by pessimism. They fully experienced the self-serving, self-enriching, behavior of national leaders for whom they were simply statistics.

Of the many Russians émigrés who escaped the Soviet Union during the Cold War, some who were activists or associated with activist organizations, were labelled anti-social elements when they lived there, and the Soviet government was likely happy to rid the country of them. There were some defectors, and some who managed to immigrate in order to take advantage of Western educational and professional training programs, getting away from the Soviet Union. What these groups typically had in common though, was the manner in which they spoke with disdain about of the Soviet system once they arrived overseas. They generally told stories with unmitigated rancor of an abominable government security apparatus that abused power, had neighbors spy on neighbors, obliterated all aspects of privacy, and made freedom something that could only be enjoyed in dreams. They could vividly recount their difficult lives in a manner that would bring the walls down. Very often, Soviet intelligence services would troll émigré communities in the West, to recruit and develop agents abroad using the threat of harming family members still living in the Soviet Union if cooperation was not provided.

Immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse, tens of thousands of detailed facts, intriguing anecdotes, and classified debriefings collected on furtive actions taken by the KGB were collected from the archives (vaults) of what was once called 2 Fellx Dzerzhinsky Square Moscow, the headquarters and prison of the KGB. With that information, and insights such those discussed here, there is enough to assess today, as it had been at the time of the Soviet Union’s demise, that the inability of the government to find an efficacious way to meet its all important responsibility to provide for and ensure the well-being of its citizenry, that led to the country’s downfall. Despite all of the alleged promise and dogma uttered about the “great socialist system”, the results confirmed that the Soviet concept was never viable. Despite all appearances, the country for years was slowly being strangled by many ills from within. While not easily stirred by the transfer from one national leader to another, at some level, Russians surely had expected that the rather shrewd, worldly-wise young ex-KGB man, Putin, might be the elixir their country needed. Many may have hoped that he would be able to present a concept for change to overcome what was before. It certainly would not have expected that Putin main focus would be to use Russia as a platform from which the supposed splendor and the power of the Soviet Union could be reestablished

As Putin, himself, acknowledged, the average Russian citizen had little idea beyond the US and the European Union to find examples of what they quietly wanted to be after the Soviet Union collapsed. Even in that case, they had absolutely no idea what it would really take to reach such heights. They also had little knowledge of how to discern what would indicate a political leader has the qualifications or capabilities to put the country on a path to advance there successfully. Steps in that direction were made. Russia was made a member of what became the G8 and G20. It would become the key member of NATO’s Partnership-for-Peace and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It participated in UN peacekeeping and peace-enforcement missions mandated by resolutions. After the 1990s, there was the image of Russia acquiring a place at the main table with the top industrialized countries despite its precarious situation economically, socially, politically, and militarily. As a policy, Russia sought to incorporate itself into the international system of regulating foreign economic operations, particularly the World Trade Organization. However, paying careful attention to Putin’s words when he was acting President, the impression is created that finding a true path toward comity with the West was not actually on his mind. Putin explained in his very revealing essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”: “Russia will not become a second edition of say the US or Britain, where liberal values have deep historic traditions. Our state and its institutions and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and its people. For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly to be gotten rid of. Quite the contrary, it is a source of order and the main driving force of any change.”

Do Russians Want to Go Back to Soviet Days?

In the West, one might expect that concerns or fears would be so universal among all Russian citizens over any wording that would even hint some form of the Soviet Union would be reanimated in Russia. That uneasiness clearly would not be based on unreason and paranoia, but rather upon the experience of having lived so shabbily under its system. Conceivably as a result of the experience many Russians had enduring dissatisfaction in the Soviet Union and living with the limitations and inconveniences of daily life in the Russian Federation, they had become expert in keeping a sense of proportion. The follow-on to the Soviet system was supposed to be the great Russian liberalization. However, that was not the case.

There are occasionally some significant grumblings about Putin’s governance. Protest rallies become considerably more intense than perambulating demonstrators near election dates. Flaps of clashes with police and the security services by more politically active segments of the population have been predicted by Western experts, and reported in the Western media, as spelling the beginning of the end for Putin. Nevertheless, Putin remains. Interestingly, Putin has been ridiculed and denounced in the news media. Further, there has been television programming in the Russian Federation that has lampooned Putin much to his dissatisfaction. However, he hardly dealt with any problems of considerable intensity from his core constituency or, relatively, from the majority of Russians countrywide. They have not really exhorted Putin to try harder. They keep within the margins. Perhaps the old adage “go with what you know” could be applied, for it best suits the situation for the Russian people regarding their country’s path and its leadership. To the extent that they will continue have any order in their country, average Russians believe that they can at best rely upon Putin. That begrudging sense of being somewhat satisfied has been just enough to bring Putin victory in election after election. One might say therein lies a sort of duplicity on their part. Still, in an even bigger way, the Russian people are really gambling on Putin’s mortality. The possibilities of who might come to power from other powerful political forces in Russia is hair raising. Via trita, via tuta. (Beaten path, safe path.)

While it might be viewed as daylight madness in the West, some former Soviet citizens in Russia imagine the Soviet Union as a better place than it was. Moreover, these Russians, who miss the past, even crave it, warts and all, typically are not all from among those who were privileged in the Soviet system. That is quite intriguing because those who were not privileged seemingly discount just how shabby the majority of their lives were under that system. They are the dead-enders. It is posited here that in some cases, such pro-Soviet elements apparently focus upon and magnify aspects of Soviet life that they may have enjoyed from the totality of their experiences and then determined that it was as a result of the benefits of being Soviet. To be more precise, it appears that as a result of some psychological transference, what defined their private existence somehow became what universally defined their existence under the Soviet system. Those positive, pleasant aspects of Soviet life may actually have been things such as good times had among family, friends and colleagues that in reality are common to people all over the world, transcending citizenship or nationality. Perhaps in Soviet terms, it could be chalked up to humanism. While being a Soviet citizen may have been a common experience, what they had even more in common was their humanity. It was the US philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, John Dewey, who stated: “Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire.”

Statistical evidence of such pro-Soviet thinking among former rank and file Soviet citizens was provided by a poll published on December 19, 2019 by the Levada Center, a Russian independent, nongovernmental polling and sociological research organization. According to that poll, more Russians regret the breakup of the Soviet Union at that moment in time more so than any other since 2004. The poll was conducted between November 18, 2018 and November 28, 2018, surveyed 1,600 people nationwide. When asked whether they regret the 1991 Soviet collapse, 66 percent of respondents answered “yes”. That represented an increase of 58 percent from 2017, and is the highest proportion since 2004, the last year of Putin’s first term. Reportedly, 25 percent of respondents said they did not regret the Soviet breakup, the lowest proportion since 2005, and 9 percent said they could not answer. Interestingly, Levada found that Russians’ concerns about their economic security today were among the main reasons for the increase in the number voicing regret. Indeed, a Levada pollster explained that 52 percent of respondents named the collapse of the Soviet Union’s “single economic system” as the main thing they regretted. The peak of regret over the Soviet collapse came in 2000, when 75 percent of Russian polled by Levada answered “yes” to the same question. At the same time, 36 percent said they miss the “feeling of belonging to a great power,” and 31 percent lamented mistrust and cruelty in society.

US and Soviet armor units face-off at Checkpoint Charlie on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin October 27-28, 1961 (above) For nearly 50 years, the West struggled against efforts by the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries to spread the Communist philosophy that underpinned their governments. An almost universal belief in the West was that the way of life on its side was elevated well-above the Communist world. The West always emphasized its moral superiority, but that never needed to be done in a sententious way. The tragic nature of the situation for the people in the East, revealed widely in West through newsmedia stories, spoke for itself.

The World Does Not Miss the Soviet Union

An examination of the Soviet Union’s position in the world cannot be made by only weighing how the government administered the domestic affairs of the country against the preferences of quondam citizens. Those who speak nostalgically before the world about their own positive version of the Soviet Union, such as Putin, typically engage in an act of omission by airbrushing its realities. The impression is given that its collapse was the result of some benign decision among its republics to succeed to pursue their own aims. They omit, albeit intentionally, that the failed country not only posed problems for its own citizenry, but particularly after World War II, it posed a threat to the world. To be frank, the history of Soviet behavior is atrocious. The people of countries that stand just outside of its sphere of influence but close enough to feel threatened, and the people of border countries that are former Soviet republics, many of which in some way have been victimized by Russian Federation transgression, would unlikely ever think or say anything positive about the Soviet Union. The haunting spectre of the departed Soviet Union has helped to form negative impressions of the Russian Federation. Surely, one should not, using a broad brush, condemn the people of a country for the acts of their government. It was the Soviet government that ruled by fear and terror and was the anathema. As for the Soviet people, they were most often appreciated around the world. Many significant contributions were made by the Soviet people to the arts, mathematics, sciences, engineering, philosophy,  that were remarkable. Some space could reasonably be granted for former Soviet citizens wax about the loss of a homeland and those good days that existed. Still, looking at the pertinent facts, the greater realities about the Soviet Union cannot be denied.

Running through the basics of the Cold War, one would learn that in the postwar period, the Soviet Union essentially replaced Germany as occupiers large areas of Eastern Europe, to include Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In a very powerful speech in Fulton, Missouri in March 5,1946, the then former United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill would say that those countries were locked behind an “Iron Curtain.” In those countries, a process of “Sovietization” began. Soviets operatives worked behind the scenes to establish puppet governments that would serve as an extension of Moscow’s rule. These governments had the initial appearance of being democratic but in reality were not. Local Communists were gathered into a coalition party then handed power, usually after coups or rigged elections. All political parties, other than the Communist Party, were dissolved. Leaders of the Soviet-dominated countries would lie about or deny realities about what was occuring in their societies. As a result of Soviet efforts, an “Eastern Bloc” and “Soviet Bloc” had been established. US officials agreed that the best defense against the Soviet threat was a strategy called “Containment” formulated by the US diplomat George Kennan. In his famous February 22, 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow outlining the policy, Kennan explained that the Soviet Union was “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi [agreement between parties that disagree]”; as a result, the only choice for the US was the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” US President Harry Truman agreed with Kennan and stated before the US  Congress on March 12,1947, “It [Containment] must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation . . . by outside pressures.” In his speech, Truman also asked Congress for $400 million in military and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey to counter Soviet meddling in those countries. The Containment Policy would shape US foreign policy for the next four decades.

Direct confrontation came when the Soviet Union cut all road and rail links to West Berlin, allegedly in response to a decision by the US, the United Kingdom, and France to merge their occupation sectors of the city. With no access to any sustenance, the US and United Kingdom flew in tons of food and supplies by air transports in what was known as the Berlin Airlift. Elsewhere in the world, North Korean forces, trained, equipped, and supported by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. Led by the US, UN forces collectively responded. The fighting was halted on July 27, 1953. Pro-Soviet Russians, might point to the fact that actions taken by Russia in the period capsulated here were the result of Stalin, who many Russians decry as a corrupt despot who sullied the grand ideals of the revolution. However, in the years that followed his death in 1953, the commitment of Moscow to the revolutionary and expansionist paradigm continued. Under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union, despite calls for peaceful coexistence and desire to reopen ties with the West, firmed the Soviet Union’s grip over its empire and increased its support of Third World Communist movements. On May 14, 1955, the Soviet Union and seven of its European satellites sign a treaty establishing the Warsaw Pact, a mutual defense organization that put the Soviets in command of the armed forces of the member states. The military alliance was named the Warsaw Pact because the treaty was signed in Warsaw. Warsaw Pact countries included the Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria as members. Similar to NATO, by treaty, Warsaw Pact members were required to come to the defense of any member attacked by an outside force. The force was initially set up a unified military command under Soviet Army Marshal Ivan Konev.

Soviet efforts to maintain a tight grip over its empire were highlighted by the quelling of protests against Communist rule in 1956 culminating with Soviet tanks successfully taking control of Budapest on November 10, 1956. On August 15, 1961, the Soviet Union initiated the construction of a wall between East Berlin under Soviet control and West Berlin under US, United Kingdom, and French control. The border between East and West Germany were also sealed by fencing. A decision by Khrushchev to construct a Soviet intermediate range nuclear armed missile base in Cuba, led to a blockade of the island country and strenuous demands from US President John Kennedy that the missile be removed. As the US prepared to invade Cuba, negotiations between Khrushchev and Kennedy, initially through back channels, led to an October 28, 1962 agreement to remove the weapons.

Khrushchev legacy was not one of diplomacy, but rather brinkmanship the nearly led more than once to nuclear war. On October 15, 1964, Khrushchev was removed from office. His successor Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev led the Soviet Union for nearly two decades. Brezhnev also wanted to launch a new era of negotiation with the West, labeled détente by US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger in the administration of US President Richard Nixon. However, under his leadership, the Soviet Union never ceased its military buildup and pressed its efforts to expand Communism into Africa, Asia, and Latin America. From July 1965 to April 1975, the Soviet Union supplied North Vietnam and the Communist Viet Cong in South Vietnam with everything from rifles to fighter jets in war against the South Vietnamese government which the US and its Southeast Asia Treaty Organization allies supported with troops and materiél. The result was the intensification of fighting and prolonging the wreckage of human lives. On August 20, 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed efforts by Czech President Alexander Dubcek to initiate reform programs, known as the “Prague Spring”. Dubcek was arrested when he refused to halt his efforts. On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. On December 30, 1980, the Solidarność (Solidarity) Movement in Poland was crushed with the imposition of Martial Law. It was finally under Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who in attempting to reform the Soviet Union under perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), destabilized it to the point of collapse.

For nearly 50 years, the West struggled against the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries to spread the Communist philosophy that underpinned their governments. Its defense against those Soviet ideals was simply referred to as anti-Communism. Societies in the West were somewhat disparate, with loosely associated forms of freedom, and democracy in most of its countries must have appeared disorderly from the East, with up roars over government decisions and actions, demands for justice and social progress, and political rivalries that played out publicly. Yet, they still took on an amiable form. Moreover, it was well-accepted by those in the West that their world and way of life was worthy of protecting. Militarily, the means was collective defense. Those who were part of that struggle, using the white hat black hat symbolism of the Western film genre of the 20th century, saw themselves as the white hats representing all that was good, admirable, and honorable and viewed the Soviet and Soviet Bloc operators as the black hats, the villains. One was either on the right side or the wrong side. Using familiar terms of today concerning human interactions in societies to explain Communism, it posed a threat to individual freedom, inclusiveness, and tolerance. An almost universal belief in the West was that the way of life on its side was elevated well-above the Communist world. The West’s moral superiority was always emphasized, but it never needed to be presented in a sententious way. The tragic nature of the situation for the people in the East, revealed widely in West when occasional newmedia stories told what was happening there, really spoke for itself. US President Ronald Reagan, getting to the root of the differences between East and West in his renowned June 12, 1987 “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate” explained: “The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship. The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship and affront.” (Attempting to boil down to the bones the Cold War to provide an accurate, comprehensive summary of ideas and events felt a bit Sisyphean. Too much occurred. There were too many episodes, too many flaps of diplomacy and periods of aggression and war, to synthesize. If a sense for the monumental geopolitical struggle was created, this synopsis has served its purpose. Hopefully, the information has also provided some factual counterbalance to pro-Soviet statements recounted here.)

Primarily through the state run media, Putin has created a public persona of being a caring and empathetic leader, a friend to animals, but more importantly, the tough and virile vanguard of the Russian people, land, and culture.  He established that image brilliantly through televised conversations with Russian citizens. Putin appears attuned to the concerns of average Russians especially through televised conversations. There is an art to being a man that one is not. Perhaps Putin has mastered that. Russians have never seen the coming of a new day, but rather an ongoing dark night, a black void they have stared into for decades.

What Has Putin Established in Russia?

Primarily through the state run media, Putin has created a public persona of being a caring and empathetic leader, a friend to animals, but more importantly, the tough and virile vanguard of the Russian people, land, and culture.  He established that image brilliantly through televised conversations with Russian citizens countrywide. Putin appears attuned to the concerns of average Russians especially through televised conversations. There is an art to being a man that one is not. Perhaps Putin has mastered that. Indeed, it would not be out of court to say that despite what one might perceive at first blush, Putin seems, in practice, oblivious to the economic realities those conversations revealed. If the Russian people were to take a careful look over their shoulders today, they undoubtedly might recognize that nothing spectacular has been accomplished at home on their behalf by his government. There is no interest in disparaging any of Putin’s exertions, but many Western analysts and other observers would agree that Russians never seen the coming of a new day in their country, but rather just the ongoing dark night, a black void which they have stared into for decades. It might be stated with confidence that in a general sense they are not content. The reality that their lives have hovered in an endless limbo seems to be suppressed by most.

It may very well be that by the time Putin reached the top of the power pyramid, such people skills, his ability to understand others he is not associated with became a bit seared. Perhaps proper focus has not been placed on the people’s thinking and the ability to perceive their needs. Even his intuition regarding experiences of other Russians and where many were at a given moment seem darkened from disuse. A gentleman must always adapt to his circumstances. To a great degree, what has emerged in the Russian Federation is indeed Putin’s version of the Soviet Union. Although the struggle to establish global Communism is absent, Putin certainly has included imagery from the Soviet Union in his new Russia. It would seem that some methods well-used during the Soviet era to maintain social order and population control, were implemented by Putin in response to the fragility of the society and that the Russian Federation remains vulnerable to collapse. It is also assured that many of Putin’s former KGB colleagues would find ample opportunities to make use of their dark and unusual skill sets.

Once again, the old adage “go with what you know” seems to fit well, in this case with the Putin’s thinking. Of course, such explanations do not provide an excuse or a defense for his actions. The following list includes only a few of those elements: utilization of prison camps, “gulags”, in Eastern Russia, to detain reactionaries and other undesirable elements; the suppression of political opposition; assassinations of political opposition leaders; assassinations of journalists; the padlocking of media houses, newspapers the broadcast, publish, and post stories exposing what they perceive as questionable or even corrupt activities of Putin’s administration; and, the expulsion of “undesirable organizations” such as foreign and international religious, human rights, and civil society organizations and termination of their programs. There are also: massive military parades before the Russian Federation’s leadership; fiery anti-Western speeches at rallies; military deployments into other countries (e.g., Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus) the occupation and annexation of the territories of sovereign neighboring countries; the sudden death, murders, suicides of senior diplomats, senior military officers, senior intelligence officials, senior law enforcement officials, and senior officials of other security related services; the arrest and prosecution of Russians who are international business elites, known better as oligarchs, who have fallen into disfavor with the Kremlin; regularly renaming and repeating policy conferences, trade shows, and exhibitions of technology created to highlight Russian intellect, ingenuity, and advancements; the hosting international amateur sporting tournaments in Russia as a means to showcase the country; and, reported violations by Russian Federation national sports teams of rules and regulations of international sporting associations, including the International Olympic Committee. Ad mores natura recurrit damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable)

Being the solitary decider in Russia, and being in the harness leadership for so long, one might theorize that speaking so nostalgically of the Soviet Union might be part of the process of Putin imagining an easier existence. Surely, searching for an efficacious way to meet the needs of all Russians has doubtlessly been a considerable psychic drain along with the stresses and anxieties of other matters in which he has been engaged daily. He may never have publicly exhibited strong emotions when looking at the unappealing conditions in which many Russians live, yet as Russian Federation President, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Putin Knows How Much Progress Is Really Possible in the Russian Federation

There is rarely a single reason for anything, and that certainly applies to Putin’s claims about the Soviet Union. With no intention of being whimsical, it might be worthwhile to consider that theories on what may have influenced Putin other than his KGB background, can also be joined by others built on his additional dimensions. It should not be thought that analysis from another direction might even compromise theories already proffered on Putin’s pro-Soviet comments. After all, the hope and primary goal of this examination remains reaching the actual state of the matter. Putin may not necessarily be so dedicated to other foreign and domestic matters that he has not tried to develop a clearer vision for Russia and has not sought to respond at all to the echoes of those suffering economically in his country. It might be reasonable to doubt that Putin would be completely unable to see the world through the prism of average Russians. That would run counter to expectations of what should be among the suite of skills possessed by a KGB officer in the field. Interestingly, in Part 3, “The University Student”, a close friend notes that he once asked Putin about his work in the KGB. Putin cleverly replied, “I’m a specialist in human relations.”

Putin might very likely reject the idea that being in the intelligence service of the KGB seared his conscience and left him indifferent toward the situation of fellow Russians or cause him to disregard their well-known plight. Moreover, he would most likely reject the idea that members of the KGB thought to help the Soviet government subject the Russian people to “unappealing conditions.” It may very well be that a heartbreaking value judgment was made. Putin may have viewed it as unconstructive to turn his attention fully in the direction of the troubled state of affairs of the Russian people because his ability to be fruitful has been simply too limited. From the start, he knew that the job of Russian Federation President involved achieving monumental tasks. So much wrong had to be made right. Being the solitary decider in Russia, and being in the harness of leadership for so long, one might theorize that speaking so nostalgically of the Soviet Union at this point might be part of the process of Putin imagining an easier existence. Surely, searching for an efficacious way to meet the needs of all Russians has been beyond peradventure a considerable psychic drain in tandem with the stresses and anxieties caused by other matters in which he has been engaged daily. Psychologically, the aggregate disappointment and agony could have become so magnified in his mind and everything would become unmanageable. Being the true professional that he is, Putin knows that he needs to stay focused on the larger picture. He must avoid losing himself in the labyrinth. He must not allow himself to be over matched by difficulties. He has never publicly exhibited strong emotions when looking at the unappealing conditions in which many Russians live. However, as Russian Federation President, he must maintain his balance in spite of them

The Russian Federation government’s limited capabilities and capacity to resolve those domestic problems for some time, in fact, is not necessarily the result of Putin’s leadership being remiss. Certain inadequacies that have harmed output, seem to be intrinsic to the Russian system. Among them are included: unreliable governance at the republic, krai, and oblast levels, poor execution economic policies, banking and financial disarray, low moral in the workplace, alcoholism, drug abuse, mismanagement, corruption, and criminality. With focus has been placed on Putin’s efforts to extol cherry picked “virtues” of the Soviet Union, little attention is given to other comments that he made during his first months of service as a national leader. He often spoke the truth about the ills of collapsed superpower, and often explained that lingering problems from the Soviet era made getting the Russian Federation moving forward very difficult, if not impossible. A statement to this effect from Putin can also be found in his December 31, 1999 essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”. He stated: “We had to pay for the Soviet economy’s excessive focus on the development of the raw materials and defence industries, which negatively affected the development of consumer production and services. We are paying for the Soviet neglect of such key sectors as information science, electronics and communications. We are paying for the absence of competition between producers and industries, which hindered scientific and technological progress and prevented the Russian economy from being competitive in the world markets. This is the cost of the brakes and the bans put on Russian initiatives and enterprises and their personnel. Today we are reaping the bitter fruit, both material and mental, of the past decades.” It is hypothesized in a January 31, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Trump Wants Good Relations with Russia, But if New Options on Ukraine Develop, He May Use One”, that the type of success Putin really wants for Russia out of his reach, not by some fault of his own, but rather because it’s problems are so heavy, and may run too deep. He may have run out of real answers to put the Russian Federation on real upward trajectory given the capabilities and possibilities of the country using all tools available to him.

Even militarily, Russian Federation efforts to create an aura of technological modernity have fallen short. Its latest high tech, 5th generation fighters and hypersonic missile reflect the measure up only to the latest developments in the West nearly two decades past. The US move to lasers, 6th generation fighters that hardly resemble anything the world has seen before, and hypersonic systems that it has already has been developing almost the point of deployment, ensure that the Russian arsenal will pale in comparison with the US for some time to come.

Given all of that, it is very likely that Putin arrived at the conclusion that he had little choice but to simply do things as he saw fit with available resources to create the best circumstances possible. Unable to move steadily and safely in a new direction, Putin apparently saw the best option as creating a copy old order with all of its power and prestige. As aforementioned, sustainability was not at issue. He likely took this step originally as a temporary measure, to allow him time to chisel something better. That would certainly be in following with Putin’s modus operandi. However, in the end, in spite of many improvements, the country moved so much in the direction of the old order, the familiar for the Russian people, that it became figuratively “heavier” and more difficult way of being to transition from. If Putin learned anything from his KGB work, it was that sacrifice is required in nearly every endeavor. Many Russians have failed to benefit from his efforts. Indeed, there is a tendency for some to suffer while others benefit. Yet, those who continually fail to benefit have unlikely been forgotten. Imputing the best intentions on Putin, he will eventually use his full powers as president to make amends to them at some point, if time and opportunity will allow. Though the people may very well be uplifted at that point in the future, until then, they will be left twisting in the wind. Si sapis, alterum alteri misce: nec speraveris sine desperatione nec desperaveris sine spe. (If you are wise, mingle these two elements: do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.)

US President Donald Trump (left) and Putin (right) in Helsinki, July 16, 2018. The vengeful thinking which prevailed during Russia’s struggles with the Obama administration likely initially insinuated itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. However, the situation had clearly changed. Trump explained that he wanted to work with Putin to achieve things globally that could best be done jointly. In response, Putin has insisted upon playing a version of the great power game with the US mirroring the geopolitical struggle between it and the Soviet Union. He has promoted what greatcharlie has labeled un grand défi, a grand challenge against the Trump administration.

Troubling Manifestations

It is important here to point out a unique aspect of Putin’s KGB world. Enlarging on a point made earlier about Chekists, they share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As heard in Putin’s public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. Fully xenophobe and suspicious, Putin was determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he saw as enemies that might weaken it. In many respects, Putin has conformed to what might be expected of a Chekist. Although he would seem to be much more than average, he appeared to have been poured into same mold as all the others. Putin has actually stated publicly that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. While on his way to the top of the political heap in the new Russian Federation, Putin saw how mesmerising “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts unmistakably negatively impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reform recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially.  In another statement made while he was acting President in 1999, Putin diplomatically explained the consequences of relying upon foreign experts for assistance. He stated: “The experience of the 90s demonstrates vividly that merely experimenting with abstract models and schemes taken from foreign textbooks cannot assure that our country will achieve genuine renewal without any excessive costs. The mechanical copying of other nations’ experience will not guarantee success, either.”

Some Have Said Putin’s US Policy Manifests His Revanchist Mindset

When character and behavior are brought together, one uncovers motivation. In the summer of 2013, the EU Council sharply condemned Russia’s mounting pressure on members of the EU Eastern Partnership, countries with association agreements with the EU. In 2012, the EU accounted for 52 percent of Russia’s exports, 68 percent of which consisted of fuel and energy. Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU suspended virtually all cooperation. Still, Putin’s thinking on the EU was not positive even before the Ukraine crisis. Putin saw the EU as a project of deepening integration based on norms of business, law, and administration at variance from those emerging in Russia. Putin was also concerned that EU enlargement would become a means of excluding Russia from its “zones of traditional influence.” Certain Russian actions, to include election meddling, indicate Moscow actively seeks to encourage members to withdraw from the EU sphere and discourage countries joining it. Joint projects with European countries reportedly allowed Russia to exploit their differences on political, economic and commercial issues creating a discordant harmony in the EU. As much as making money, a goal of such efforts has been to undermine EU unity on sanctions. The Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, for instance, has provided Putin with the means to disrupt, and potentially weaken, European unity. A murmur exists in Europe that solidarity ends at the frontiers of some countries.

Regarding NATO, in an interview published on January 11, 2016 in Bild, Putin provided insight into his thinking then and now. During the interview, Putin quoted West German Parliamentarian Egon Bahr who stated in 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” Putin then quoted what he considered an edifying suggestion from Bahr on how to avert a future problem in Europe. According to Putin, Bahr proffered: “the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structure.” Putin claimed that the former NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner had guaranteed NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin perceives the US and EU as having acquitted themselves of ties to promises to avoid expanding further eastward, and arrogating for themselves the right to divine what would be in the best interest of all countries. He feels historians have ignored the machinations and struggles of people involved. Putin further stated: “NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have. You can also see this striving for an absolute triumph in the American missile defense plans.” Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. (Fortunate is he who understands the causes of things.)

Putin did not stand by while the EU and NATO expanded. One might agree with the supposition that Putin has a revanchist mindset, his decision to attempt to pull independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit would surely support that idea. To accomplish that, Putin had to create something that did not preexist in most near abroad countries: ethnic-Russian communities forcefully demanding secession and sovereignty. That process usually began with contemptuous murmurs against home country’s identity, language, and national symbols and then becomes a “rebel yell” for secession. It was seen in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and more recently in Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. Each time an ethnic-Russian space is carved out of a country, Putin gains a base from which he can exert his influence in that country.

A greater part of the foreign policy matters upon which Putin, seemingly in revanchist mode, felt cause to be laser focused was the geostrategic competition with the US. By the time his third term as Russian Federation President began, Putin left little doubt that the Russian Federation would assert itself in the world and he would ensure that Russia would never fall victim to business and financial experts and multinational corporations. Hostile feelings toward the US seemingly came to a head during the administration of US President Barack Obama. The details that contentious period are too sizable to unpack here (The most recent posts in which greatcharlie has outlined those many episodes in detail include: “Commentary: Trump and Putin: A Brief Look at the Relationship after Two Years”; Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage; “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him”; and “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”.) Crimea was likely just the first step among what would likely have been far worse actions leading even to war had the interregnum between Democrat and Republican administrations had not occurred in 2016.

Un Grand Défi

One might theorize that the sort of vengeful thinking which prevailed during the Russian Federation’s struggles with the Obama administration, initially insinuated itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. However, the situation clearly changed with the arrival of the Trump administration. Putin and his aides and advisers should have recognized that. It was never the stated intention of the Trump administration to engage in a protracted, geostrategic competition with Russia. That is still the case despite the entreaties of some advisers. It was the expressed intention of candidate Trump during the 2016 Presidential Campaign to improve relations with Russia. As US President, Trump made it clear that he wanted to try to work with Putin and achieve things globally that could best be accomplished jointly. Trump has been graceful in his overtures to the Russian leader, focusing on finding ways to connect with Putin on issues, creating a unique positive connection as leaders of nuclear superpowers, and finding a chemistry between them.

Clearly, the Russian Federation has not been threatened by any unprovoked aggressive or outright hostile offensive actions on the geostrategic landscape by the Trump administration. In reality, with the current political environment in the US, sounding the alarm over what might be identified as revanchist behavior by Putin might have served Trump well in at least an attempt to mollify critics and detractors. Nonetheless, without such provocation, Putin, has insisted upon playing a version of the great power game with the US that would mirror the geopolitical struggle between it and the Soviet Union. Accordingly, he has propagated what greatcharlie is labeling un grand défi, a grand challenge against the Trump administration. The benefit from un grand défi that Putin stands to gain is that it helps him create the appearance that the Russia Federation is a world leader and superpower. Indeed, despite all of Putin’s other maneuverings, the Russian Federation is only able to seen as a superpower when it is interacting with the US or measured against it. Correspondingly, as long as the Russian Federation is competing geostrategically in a discernable form of rivalry with the US, it can retain a strong place for itself at the grand table of military superpowers, although it stands a far off second to the US. Further, from what is detectable, that military tie in Putin’s mind also allows the Russian Federation, by a slender thread, to set a place for itself among the world’s economic powers, although it is not one. (As a measure of goodwill from the West, Russia was once welcomed on the G7. Putin wrecked that by conquering Crimea.) Alas, any unvarnished assessment would confirm that without tying itself to the US, any claims by Moscow of being a true world leader would simply appear self-styled, and could not be substantiated. Unless there is something or someone who could change Putin’s mind otherwise, doubtlessly as a matter of policy, he will continue to create a competitive environment with the US, leaving US Presidents with little choice but to meet any challenges posed by the Russian Federation. Curiously, it may very well be that Putin, living the Judo Ichidai, likely appreciates being in a “struggle” with the US. Odimus accipitrem quia semper vivit in armis. (We hate the hawk because he always lives in arms.)

Thus far, Putin has shown himself to be very intelligent man. All of the factors pulling him away from positive relations with the US seem to have caused Putin to metaphorically miss his exit along the road of diplomacy. The truth about the Trump administration and its good intentions should have reached Putin and made an impression, if only subconsciously. It is difficult to believe that Putin genuinely does not understand what Trump has been doing and that he does not recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia do some good in the world. By now it should be clear to Putin that Trump will not rise to grab the bait and begun some contentious back and forth between Washington and Moscow. As a consequence of  un grand défi he purposefully designed and promoted to compete as a soi-disant “superpower” with the Trump administration, Putin must contend with the missed opportunities for progress and advancement of the Russian people by insisting the two countries remain essentially divorced from each other. Those realities seemingly make Putin’s own effort at keeping Russia on top both counterintuitive and somewhat Quixotic.

It does not appear possible to ascribe any basis for objectivity for Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a great loss for him, the Russian people, and the world. His coruscating flashes of pro-Soviet sentiment have naturally confounded to the world given that the Soviet Union was a country that failed its people and its collapse was nothing less than fated. It may very well be that through such recurring statements about the Soviet Union, Putin is not revealing any deeply personal feelings. His statements appear to have served a purpose in terms of his leadership, governance, and national image.

The Way Forward

By approaching the matter of Putin’s nostalgia romanticising of the Soviet era from a couple different directions and arguing matters from varied angles, it is hoped that the undergraduates who contacted greatcharlie, it has provided an edifying journey of exploration on their inquiry. It is also hoped that this essay was also satisfying for greatcharlie’s other regular readers. The purpose of greatcharlie’s examination was to simply consider Putin’s reiterative statements of praise for the Soviet Union. It does not appear possible to ascribe any basis for objectivity for Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a great loss for him, the Russian people, and the world. His coruscating flashes of pro-Soviet sentiment have naturally confounded to the world given that the Soviet Union was a country that failed its people and its collapse was nothing less than fated. It may very well be that through such recurring statements about the Soviet Union, Putin is not revealing any deeply personal feelings. His statements appear to have served a purpose in terms of his leadership, governance, and national image. Patriotism, national identity, national pride, history, and culture are powerful ideas to organize a country’s population around. Focus upon them, often allows tricky leaders to distract from the internal with external The argument is made that the cause of Russia’s problems is the outside world, not internal difficulties, lack of capabilities, mismanagement, corruption, criminality, and so on. Nemo mortalium omnibus horis sapit. (Of mortal men, none is wise at all times.)

For the past two decades, great wells of anger have stored up among Putin and senior Kremlin officials toward the US for a variety of reasons. That has made finding a moderate path more difficult.  At the same time, as a practical matter, the Russian Federation’s contentious interactions with the US create a tie to it that could imaginably support the claim that a superpower competition exists. As greatcharlie posits here, without interacting with the US or being measured against it on a geopolitical matter for example, the Russian Federation would simply appear as a self-styled superpower, unable to substantiate the title in any way except by ostensibly harkening back to historical examples of the superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Russian Federation can only steal a modicum of the “superpower light” radiating from the US. It has precious little ability to generate any light of its own in that respect. Thereby, negative interactions need to be regularized and promoted by Putin. Under such circumstances, engaging positive interactions with the Russian Federation will prove very difficult for the Trump administration. However, Putin should not believe that he has found some sweet spot from which he can take on the US without any real consequences. There are also inherent dangers that stem from un grand défi Putin has inflicted upon the US. It could very well open the door to unmanageable disagreements and potential clashes. Fortunately, the Trump administration has shown little interest in rising to take Putin’s unappetizing bait. Whenever Trump feels he needs to act in response to Putin’s moves, it will be at a time, at a place, in a manner of his choosing, most likely with some degree of impunity, and when necessary covertly with plausible deniability. In that respect, although he has promoted un grand défi, Putin has in reality only established pas de problème, or no problem at all.

Things could certainly be better for the Russian people. The “golden mean”, a middle way, could very likely be found to create positive relations with the US that would bring real benefits to the Russian Federation. Moving in that direction would certainly mean doing more than just putting a toe in the water. Still, as long as the Russian people are satisfied, as a few polls and studies indicate, attempting to judge from the outside what would be best for them seems unmerited. Putin’s actions appear to illicit some uniquely Russian reactions. Putin does not need to turn back the clock and resurrect the Soviet Union because it has not really moved too far away from what was in a functional sense. Actions that have resulted in economic sanctions and have prevented the Russian economy from participating in competitive world markets, attendantly hinder genuine scientific and technological progress. The potential of Russian enterprises and people consequently remains locked in. It is almost assured that bitter fruit will be reaped in the future by moving forward in such a troubled way. Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur. (Opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease.)