I was just all alone in a secret KGB prison outside of Berlin with ghosts of people once held there. If someone is held in a KGB prison, it’s probably because they are a good person, not a bad person. Alone in that prison, I couldn’t help but think of two presidents, Putin and Trump, talking privately for two hours about their power and how to wield it.
In the 1980s, a young Vladimir Putin was a rising star in the KGB, working right there in Germany when this prison was full of unjustly incarcerated people. Now, he’s Mr. Make Russia Great Again. He’s leading his country — with a cunning ruthlessness that impresses both his people and our president — back to a position of global strength after its fall with the implosion of the USSR.
Pondering photos of people broken here, solitary confinement cells, and what it takes to rule a people who are not really free, I wondered what motivates our president to admire autocrats across the globe. Fighting for democracy and civil liberties is messy and frustrating I’m sure. Perhaps brutal measures by autocrats who have unbridled power are more rewarding. People don’t get in your way. You see results strong and fast.
Putin helped run and organize a system of prisons like this back then and he runs his country with a similar heartlessness today. The cost is real lives. Broken lives. This prison is silent today, but its ghosts spoke to me. Its inmates were silenced by isolation. They could do nothing.
But we are not isolated. We can make a difference. Silence on our part, as our president cozies up to autocracy, is a choice.
If ever you’re in Berlin, and you need a little such inspiration, here’s my entry for this sight from my Berlin guidebook:
KGB Prison Memorial at Leistikowstrasse, Potsdam
Standing in stark contrast to all of Potsdam’s pretty palaces and Hohenzollern bombast, this crumbling concrete prison has been turned into a memorial and documentation center to the Cold War victims of USSR “counterintelligence” (free, Tue-Sun 14:00-18:00, closed Mon).
On the nondescript Leistikowstrasse, a few steps from the lakeside park, the KGB established a base in August 1945 (mere days after the Potsdam Conference), which remained active until the fall of the USSR in 1991. The centerpiece of their “secret city” was this transit prison in which enemies of the Soviet regime were held and punished in horrible conditions before entering the USSR “justice” system — to be tried, executed, or shipped off to the notorious gulag labor camps. While most prisoners were Russian citizens, until 1955 the prison also held Germans who were essentially kidnapped by the USSR in retribution for their wartime activities.
From the blocky modern reception building, you’ll enter the complex. In the yard find the model illustrating how this was just the inner core of a walled secret city which until 1991 was technically Soviet territory and run by the KGB. Then head inside the prison, where the hallways and cells are an eerie world of peeling paint, faded linoleum, and rusted hinges. The two floors host a well-presented exhibit in English, explaining the history of the building and profiling many of the individuals who were held here.