Putin joined the KGB in 1975 upon graduation, and underwent a year’s training at the 401st KGB school in Okhta, Leningrad. He then went on to work briefly in the Second Chief Directorate (counter-intelligence) before he was transferred to the First Chief Directorate, where among his duties was the monitoring of foreigners and consular officials in Leningrad.
From 1985 to 1990, the KGB stationed Putin in Dresden, East Germany. During that time, Putin was assigned to Directorate S, the illegal intelligence-gathering unit (the KGB’s classification for agents who used falsified identities) where he was given cover as a translator and interpreter. One of Putin’s jobs was to coordinate efforts with the Stasi to track down and recruit foreigners in Dresden, usually those who were enrolled at the Dresden University of Technology, in the hopes of sending them undercover in the United States. Despite this, Putin biographer Masha Gessen disputes the “KGB Spymaster” image that has been built around him and instead says that Dresden was essentially a backwater job that Putin himself resented:
Putin and his colleagues were reduced mainly to collecting press clippings, thus contributing to the mountains of useless information produced by the KGB. Former agents estimate they spent three-quarters of their time writing reports. Putin’s biggest success in his stay in Dresden appears to have been in…[contacting] a U.S. Army Sergeant, who sold them an unclassified Manual for 800 marks.
Following the collapse of the communist East German government, Putin was recalled to the Soviet Union and returned to Leningrad, where in June 1991 he assumed a position with the International Affairs section of Leningrad State University, reporting to Vice-Rector Yuriy Molchanov. In his new position, Putin maintained surveillance on the student body and kept an eye out for recruits. It was during his stint at the university that Putin grew reacquainted with his former professor Anatoly Sobchak, then mayor of Leningrad.
Putin resigned from the active state security services with the rank of lieutenant colonel on 20 August 1991 (with some attempts to resign made earlier), on the second day of the KGB-supported abortive putsch against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin later explained his decision: “As soon as the coup began, I immediately decided which side I was on”, though he also noted that the choice was hard because he had spent the best part of his life with “the organs”. In 1999, he described communism as “a blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilization.”