A generation later in another Soviet outpost on the western edge of Moscow’s empire a similar drama unfolded.
This time the city was Dresden – the year was 1989 and the outpost was the KGB’s mansion on Angelikastrasse – directly across from the local headquarters of the Stasi – the KGB’s East German counterpart.
A crowd of several thousand protesters had successfully breached the Stasi’s gates – gleefully ransacking the building while grim-faced intelligence officers stood by and watched.
Also watching from a window across the street was thirty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin – who was temporarily in charge of the mansion – its voluminous intelligence records and its staff of four.
Shortly after dusk a small crowd peeled away from the Stasi building with the intent of pulling off a similar victory against the KGB.
According to the New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers’s gripping account of this oft-told story in The New Tsar – Putin placed an urgent call to the local Soviet military command requesting reinforcements to protect the mansion – only to be told that nothing could be done without orders from Moscow and that ‘Moscow is silent’.
With his career and a treasure trove of highly classified documents on the line Putin decided to take matters into his own hands.
Approaching the mansion’s outer gates alone and unarmed he announced in German to the crowd assembled there ‘This house is strictly guarded.
My soldiers have weapons.
And I gave them orders: if anyone enters the compound they are to open fire’.
It worked at least in one sense: the crowd returned to the Stasi building, leaving the mansion and its contents untouched.
But if Putin won the battle – the Soviet Union lost the war.