Vladimir Putin gave an interview for NTV Television’s documentary “The Wall”
Vladimir Putin gave an interview for NTV Television’s documentary “The Wall”
Vladimir Kondratyev: Mr Putin, you arrived in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1985, when the Wall was still standing strong. When you looked at that structure, what did you think about the Berlin Wall and how did you take the news that the border was opened in Berlin?
Vladimir Putin: 1985 was a time when processes associated with perestroika were developing dynamically in Russia, which was still the Soviet Union at the time. I arrived in the GDR at the time when there was clear dissonance between what was happening in the Soviet Union and what I saw in the GDR. People in the GDR were living as though nothing was happening. And you know, strange as it may seem, the first feeling I had was a feeling of distress for these people. It seemed like they were living in a somewhat different world. It was not yet clear what the outcome of the perestroika would be in the Soviet Union itself, but it was obvious that without close interaction with the Soviet Union, normal life and stability in Eastern Europe, and in this case, the GDR, was impossible. At the same time, it was clear that there was no interaction between the Soviet Union and the GDR on some key issues.
I got the impression that I had arrived in a society that was like a fragment of the Soviet system from a distant past. It wasn't even the 1970s but an even earlier era. Outwardly, everything was rigid and controlled, but at the same time it was clear that very serious processes were underway in society and changes were imminent, and the leadership of the GDR at the time was against any changes. I'm not saying that they needed to copy everything that was happening in the Soviet Union, but certain processes were already underway within the GDR and these changes were called for. But there was nothing at all, no changes. And this, of course, gave rise to distress for the country itself, its political structures and for people who - and this is really important - really believed in what they were doing. That included many of the functionaries and many of those colleagues with whom I had the opportunity to associate.
As for the Wall itself, as you know, I was working in Dresden, not in Berlin, but we travelled to Berlin very often - something like once a week. When I first saw all of that, the Wall, of course, made an impression on me. What was that impression? It was the unnatural aspect and the unreality of what I was seeing.
Human history has known many barrier and division lines and structures. One of the most famous is the Great Wall of China. I think that it is the only man-made structure visible from space. But why is it still standing after hundreds of years? Because it protected a nation, while the Berlin Wall divided one. That, of course, was its unnatural aspect. It was clear to me that in the modern world, it is impossible to confine a nation and have it remain confined.
Vladimir Kondratyev: After the Wall fell, did you have a feeling that this was it, the end of the GDR?
Vladimir Putin: More likely yes than no. Of course, that depended to a great extent on the Germans themselves. Many people, as you also know, thought that it would be more beneficial - and I want to specifically use this word - for the Eastern part of Germany to look for some different forms of interaction with the western part of Germany. They could have got a lot more for themselves, primarily in the economic and social sense; I'm talking about prevailing sentiments within the GDR itself. For me it was obvious that a decision would be made in favour of direct reunification.
Vladimir Kondratyev: You are one of the few Russian citizens who had direct contact with the protestors. Everybody remembers the story you told in Dresden about the mob first storming the Stasi building and then crossing the street and getting ready to storm the building where you and your Soviet intelligence colleagues were working. Was the situation critical for you at that time?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, I had no contact with the people who entered the building of the Ministry of State Security of the GDR. I never came into contact with any of those people. It's true, one evening people approached our building, but there was no altercation. All of us, including myself, explained to them that the building was the property of the Soviet Army and that in conjunction with certain agreements, we had the right to be there and that we were working there. Some time later, the people dispersed. But, in general, the times were very stormy and turbulent.
Vladimir Kondratyev: Did you have to use all of your ability to persuade and convince them?
Vladimir Putin: You know, I got the impression that people in the GDR at the time, in resolving their domestic problems, tried in every way to avoid any conflicts with representatives of the Soviet Union. And, more than that, the opposite was true - they called for aid and support from the representatives of the Soviet Union. Therefore, in that case, it did not come down to a conflict.
Vladimir Kondratyev: After you became head of state and had access to detailed information, what conclusions did you draw? Had everything been done in order to defend the interests of our friends in the GDR and the interests of our country?
Vladimir Putin: This is a complicated question. Hindsight is 20/20. I won't say how I would have acted if I had been making the decisions back then. In any case, you also now know the opinions of other countries' leaders regarding alternative ways to develop relations and overcome the problems that arose in that period. What happened is what needed to happen. I was convinced that the division of Germany had absolutely no future. Historically, it had no prospects. This, first and foremost. By the way, the Soviet Union did not have the goal of dividing Germany. Even in Stalin's time, Soviet diplomacy did not pursue the goal of dividing Germany. More importantly, it acted on the assumption that Germany would be a single state, but one that was demilitarised and democratic. Incidentally, this is what happened with Austria. But our allies preferred to first announce the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), and that gave rise to the processes that eventually led to division.
Actually, in my view, Germany and the German people were hostages of the struggle of two superpowers and occupation forces both in the West and the East. I want to emphasise this - both in the West and the East. I know what I'm talking about because in my job in the GDR I worked together with colleagues from the allied countries. And I know the sentiments of our military personnel and those of the allies. In a way, Germany became a bargaining chip in the struggle between these superpowers. But dividing a nation has no future. In my view, it was clear from the very beginning that it could not be done. As for defending our interests during the reunification of Germany, some things could probably have been done differently. But I think that the main thing was achieved in the process; the main advantage was gained. And that was ensuring a new quality of relations between Russia and Germany. A feeling of trust and gratitude arose. This is one of the cornerstones of the foundation of our relations upon which our interaction today is based.
Vladimir Kondratyev: Not so long ago, you held up the relations between Russia and the FRG as an example for other states with which Russia's relations were not developing equally well. Do you think this is thanks to your time in the country and knowledge of the German mentality?
Vladimir Putin: I would like to think that this is partially true, but it is a very small modicum in our relations.
Take note - whatever happened within the Federal Republic itself, however serious the processes that were taking place there, there is a certain transnational consensus on the development of relations with Russia. The first strong emotional and, I would say, significant impressions that I had were in meetings with Helmut Kohl when he was still federal chancellor and the government was in Bonn. He invited Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St Petersburg at the time, for a talk, which I also attended. I can say frankly that it left a lasting impression on me. I realised that there are people in Europe, high up in the government hierarchy, who are sincerely and profoundly convinced that Europe's future is linked with good relations with Russia and development of these relations. Mr Kohl spoke about this so convincingly that not only did I believe him but I began to look upon these processes in a somewhat different way.
There were difficult relations between Mr Kohl and the future chancellor from the Social Democratic party, Gerhard Schroeder, who is my friend today. Mr Schroeder and I built a rapport very quickly. Then he left politics and Angela Merkel came - someone from a totally different political spectrum, from another party, but she and I have developed wonderful relations, both on a personal and a professional level. What does it mean? It means that the interest in developing relations has deep roots. There is an understanding that we need each other and that this is the most important thing.
Vladimir Kondratyev: What, in your view, is the most significant aspect of the businesslike and mutually beneficial partnership between Russia and the new, reunified Germany?
Vladimir Putin: Mutual interests and increasing the competitiveness of our economies, uniting our efforts on the foreign policy arena, resolving issues in which our countries, Europe and the rest of the world are interested. There are many such tasks so I won't even enumerate them now.
Vladimir Kondratyev: Nord Stream is the most graphic example. Will it be built on time?
Vladimir Putin: You know, whether Nord Stream will be built or not, and I think that it will be, I'm confident of that - it's actually just a detail. Of course, it is important, but from the point of view of intergovernmental relations, it is a small detail. After all, sometime in the 1960s, we started building our gas system specifically tailored to meet the needs of consumers in the FRG. And at the time some countries put enormous pressure on the FRG to abandon these plans.
But even in the middle of the Cold War, when the construction of the Berlin Wall began, the German government was conscious of its national interests, did not cave in to the pressure and saw this project through to the end. Surely, today we won't cave in to any kind of pressure in view of the clear interest of the German and Russian economies in this cooperation? In the modern world, many things will be resolved differently. Even so, interests take precedence, and applying pressure, whether military, political, economic, diplomatic or any other kind of pressure, has no prospects. Basically, that's the way it always was.
I mentioned my impressions from the late 1980s, when I arrived in the GDR. Why did such a situation come about? Because the socialist system generated losses, primarily in the economy. The planned economy showed its inability to become competitive. But it was not always like this. In 1929, during the Great Depression in the United States, people died of hunger while the planned economy of the Soviet Union saw good growth rates. There was a completely different situation here. Engineers and experts from the U.S. came to work in the Soviet Union. I know such people personally. Then, as the technological revolution started to develop, the situation changed, and the planned system turned out to be completely unsustainable. It started to fail and showed that it was uncompetitive, and this had economic, social and political consequences. In the GDR, people saw that the standard of living in the FRG was higher and people there felt free, could move freely around the world and took active part in the political life of their country. Unfortunately, there was nothing similar in the socialist system. It was uncompetitive.
Nothing has changed in the principles of building up today's economy. Competitiveness is always the first priority. If energy cooperation and Nord Stream provide for the competitiveness of the economies of Germany and Russia, if we supply relatively cheap gas to the market - because pipeline gas is always cheaper than liquefied - then this will contribute to the stability and competitiveness of the German economy. Who would refuse such an opportunity? Nobody would ever give that up. And rightly so. I hope that nobody will give it up.
Today, when dealing with a unified Europe, we must be patient and obtain the necessary permits from countries the exclusive economic zones of which the pipeline system traverses. We must convince them of the project's expediency. I hope that we will be able to do this.
Vladimir Kondratyev: When you now travel to the former GDR, do you experience nostalgic feelings for a country where you spent several years of your life? Do you still have friends from that time?
Vladimir Putin: There is nothing remarkable about nostalgia. I spent several years of my life there. These weren't the worst years, and I would even say that they were good years. I had friends among my co-workers, we explored a new world, and I mastered the language by socialising with people. Our children went to a German preschool. We socialised with our neighbours. Everyday communication really provides an insight into how people live, what they think and how to build relationships with them. You know, it's like having another life. I'm sure you are aware of this as a person who has mastered a foreign language. It is a door to a completely different world, and it is very interesting. I had contacts with my colleagues from the Ministry of State Security, and from other fields. We often went on all kinds of trips and spent Christmas in the mountains. I remember we visited some company where they carved figurines out of wood - smokers and little pyramids. We were very warmly received. I still remember this warmth and cordiality. I am very grateful for it. Therefore, there is some nostalgic feeling. But I see how the Federal Republic is developing and I am glad that we're forming good relations on an altogether new basis. This, of course, makes all manner of nostalgia unimportant.
I visited Dresden last winter. I was bestowed public honours.
Vladimir Kondratyev: This was when you were awarded the Order of Saxon Gratitude at the Opera House?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, at the Opera House. I honestly try to get out of accepting these awards usually, because I have a certain attitude toward them. But I made an exception in this case because of the significance I attach to development of relations between Russia and Germany. You know, I arrived there and felt the same warmth that was there in the late 1980s. In this regard, nothing has changed. And I'm very glad about that.
Vladimir Kondratyev: Mr Putin, thank you for this interview.