Serov headed both the political intelligence agency (KGB) and the military intelligence agency (GRU), making him unique in Soviet/Russian history. Inside the Soviet security forces, Serov was widely known for boasting to his colleagues that he could "break every bone in a man's body without killing him".
Serov was born on 13 August 1905, in Afimskoe, a village in the Vologda Governorate of the Russian Empire, in a family of Russian ethnicity. Major changes in Russia occurred during his childhood, culminating in the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917. In 1923 (when he was 18) he joined the Red Army, shortly after the end of the Russian Civil War; in 1926, he became a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and graduated from the Artillery Officers' School of Leningrad in 1928. A major step in his career as a Red Army officer was the attendance in the mid-1930s of Higher Academic Courses in the prestigious Frunze Military Academy. In 1939, Serov entered the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), in a major capacity.
Serov became the Ukrainian Commissar of the NKVD in 1939, and from this point onwards he played a major role in many of the actions of the Soviet secret police in World War II, helping to organize the deportation of the Chechens and people from the Baltic States, becoming Beria's primary lieutenant in 1941.
Serov was the Ukrainian commissar of the NKVD from 1939 to 1941. Time magazine has accused him of being responsible for the death of "hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian peasants" during this period. Serov was also a colleague in Ukraine of Nikita Khrushchev, the local Head of State, who himself was nicknamed the "Butcher of the Ukraine".
As well as performing his duties in this post, Serov was also responsible for the co-ordination of deportation from the Baltic States and Poland. He was one of the top ranked officials responsible for the Katyn massacre of Polish officer POWs.
In 1941 Serov was promoted to become Deputy Commissar of the NKVD as a whole, serving under Beria as one of his primary lieutenants; in this function, Serov was responsible for the deportation of a variety of Caucasian peoples. He issued the so-called Serov Instructions, which detailed procedures for mass deportations from the Baltic States (For some time confused with the NKVD Order No. 001223 by historians.). He also coordinated the mass expulsion of Crimean Tatars from the Crimean ASSR at the end of World War II.
Viktor Suvorov claims that in 1946 Serov personally took part in the execution of Andrey Vlasov, along with the rest of the command of the Russian Liberation Army, an organization that had co-operated with the Nazis in World War II.
Serov was one of the senior figures in SMERSH, the wartime counterintelligence department of the Red Army, Navy and NKVD troops, a deputy to Viktor Abakumov. It was in this function that Serov established the Polish Ministry of Public Security, the Polish secret police until 1956, acting as its main Soviet adviser and organizer.
Serov organized the persecution of the Armia Krajowa as Deputy Commissar, helping to bring about the Stalinist era of Polish history.
In 1945, Serov was transferred to the 2nd Belorussian Front, and he went to Berlin in May of that year. He stayed there until 1947, helping to organize the construction of the Stasi, the East German secret police.
After the death of Stalin, Serov, who had Beria's trust, betrayed him. He conspired with the officers of GRU against Beria to avoid his own downfall. Serov was one of the few senior members of the political police to survive this incident.
In 1954, Serov became Chairman of the KGB, and so the head of the greater part of the Soviet secret police. Serov organized security for the tours of Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev in Britain and he was decried by the British media as "Ivan the Terrible" and "the Butcher".
Serov played a key role in the Hungarian crisis, sending reports to the Kremlin from Budapest, and escorting visiting Soviet Presidium leaders Anastas Mikoyan and Mikhail Suslov via an armoured personnel carrier into Budapest on 24 October, because there was too much shooting in the streets.
In 1956, the Hungarian revolution overthrew the incumbent Communist Hungarian government and in response to this, János Kádár formed a new government more loyal to Moscow, but this received little popular support. Serov was responsible for arresting supporters of Imre Nagy who were trying to negotiate with Soviet military officials.
Serov organized deportations of Hungarians, among them Imre Nagy. Serov co-ordinated the abduction of Pál Maléter, the Hungarian general, and the disruption of peace talks between the Red Army and the Hungarian forces.
Serov was removed from his post as head of the KGB in 1958 after hints by Nikita Khrushchev, who had said that Western visitors could expect that they "wouldn't see so many policemen around the place", that the Soviet police force would undergo a restructuring. Serov was moved from his post to that of Director of the GRU.
As head of GRU, Serov was a player in the Cuban Missile Crisis, helping the Soviet leadership with American intelligence. After the failure of the Soviet Union to gain the upper hand in the crisis, Serov was dismissed from the position, and in 1965 was stripped of his Party membership, bringing his career to an end.
Serov died in 1990, the year before the end of the Soviet Union.
Interesting details about Serov's personality are included in the MI5 files about him. In these Serov was described by British agents who met him as "something of a ladies’ man", good mannered, carefully dressed and a moderate drinker. He displayed a considerable familiarity with detective fiction such as Sherlock Holmes. His sense of humour is somewhat heavy, and his jokes are of the heavy sarcasm variety. He told a couple of strongly anti-Semitic jokes, which were well received, not the least by himself.
According to the MI5 reports, Serov was "a capable organiser with a cunning mind".
Although Serov is generally considered less significant than Lavrentiy Beria in modern literature, his actions helped to bring Stalinism to Europe and to intensify the Stalinist process in the Soviet Union. Serov's consolidation of Soviet power in Eastern Europe was helped by his organization of both the UB (Polish Intelligence Service) in Poland and the Stasi in East Germany.
Serov's downfall from power has been linked to the Penkovsky affair. Oleg Penkovsky was Serov's protégé, an officer who turned to be a double agent.