The Soviet intelligence service was created in March 1954 under Ivan Serov following the execution of Lavrenti Beria, as the Komitei Gosudarstevnnoi Bezopasnosti (Committee for State Security) and was the direct successor of various intelligence agencies, including the OGPU and NKVD, that had replaced the tsar’s feared Okhrana in 1917. As well as being an instrument of repression within the Soviet Union, the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate (FCD) collected intelligence overseas from illegal channels, managed by “Line N” officers of Directorate S, and the more conventional sources managed by local rezidents operating under diplomatic cover. Until its abolition in December 1991 following the ill-fated August coup led by the KGB’s chairman, Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB exercised almost unbridled power within the totalitarian system. It also succeeded in penetrating most of its target adversaries and proved particularly adept at finessing hostile counterintelligence agencies, but was handicapped by a lack of independent political analysis and the defection of many middle-ranking personnel, mainly to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Based in Dzerzhinsky Square, and later at a new modern headquarters at Yasenevo opened in June 1972, the FCD was hurt by a series of defections, the first wave of which was prompted by the death of Beria. This event appears to have been the catalyst for defections of senior personnel in Canberra (Vladimir Petrov), Vienna (Piotr Deriabin), and Tokyo (Yuri Rastvorov), but over the following decades numerous KGB officers posted to Western rezidenturas took the opportunity to accept pitches made to them by the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service. Among the most significant were Anatoli Golitsyn, Oleg Lyalin, Vitali Yurchenko, Viktor Sheymov, Oleg Gordievsky, and Vasili Mitrokhin. Information gleaned from their debriefings ensured Western counterintelligence agencies remained well informed about the KGB’s order of battle and personalities, but nevertheless the FCD succeeded in running important Western spies, such as George Blake, John Walker, Aldrich Ames, and Robert Hanssen, for years before they were betrayed by defectors.
The KGB chairmen were Ivan Serov (1954–58), Aleksandr Shelepin (1958–61), Vladimir Semichastny (1961–67), Yuri Andropov (1967–82), Vitali Fyodorchuk (May–December 1982), Viktor Chebrikov (1982–88), Vladimir Kryuchkov (1988–91), and Vadim Bakatin (1991–92).