In Russia's Surreal Spy Museum, KGB Agents Are the Good Guys
Visitors get an inside look at the famed secret agency. But among the gadgets and gizmos on display, the full truth is oddly missing.
MOSCOW — GRASP the bronze door handle, emblazoned with a hammer and sickle, pull open the heavy, oak portal, and step past the khaki-uniformed guard into the cavernous gloom of the entrance hall.
Welcome to a world as twisted and bizarre as anything through Alice's looking glass: Russia's museum of the KGB.
Everything is in reverse in this proud memorial to the achievements of the Soviet-era secret police. Here, KGB officers were victims of Stalin's purges. Here, wicked American spies were cleverly trapped by valiant Soviet agents. And here, in what was once the world's most feared interrogation center, you ask the questions.
Your personal Mad Hatter, who guides you around the exhibits, is Colonel Anatoly (don't ask him his family name, it's a secret), an affable, bespectacled man in a pinstriped suit with a taste for heavy-handed jokes.
''Please feel at ease here,'' he told a recent group of foreign visitors. ''Everybody who comes in today will be allowed out.'' That has not always been the case, even for those who worked at the KGB.
Anatoly starts his tour with a look through an album of the agency's former chairmen. Six of the first eight men to run the KGB were ''repressed,'' in KGB parlance. ''In plain Russian,'' Anatoly says, laughing, ''we say 'shot.' ''
But he prefers not to dwell on the uglier chapters of the KGB's history.
In the years following its takeover of the headquarters of an insurance company at No. 2 Lubyanka Square in Moscow shortly after the Communists came to power in 1917, the KGB turned that address into the most hated in the Soviet Union.
But Anatoly instead speaks of the James Bond aspects of espionage and counterespionage, the tricks and gadgets that have always glamorized the sordid business of spying.
In exhibit after exhibit, items seized from captured American agents are proudly displayed amid much gloating. One sets out the equipment typically carried by spies airdropped into the Soviet Union in the 1950s, including pistols with silencers, fearsomely bulky radio transmitters with pedal-driven generators, and forged identity papers.
For several years these documents betrayed American agents, according to Anatoly, simply because the United States was too sophisticated. By the 1950s, the US used stainless-steel staples that did not rust. Staples in the Soviet Union did rust, meaning genuine Soviet documents bore brown stains around the staples. The American-made documents stayed suspiciously clean until the forgers realized their mistake.
Prized cache of CIA gizmos
More recent prizes on display from the US Central Intelligence Agency's bag of tricks include attache cases with satellite-transmission gear stashed in secret compartments, bugged calculators given as gifts to prominent Soviet scientists, a gizmo that looks like a flashlight but can electrocute a man at five paces, and the classic fountain pen that is really a gun.
Two computer-linked devices to tap Russian phones are also on view, one that was found at the bottom of the Sea of Okhotsk near the Kamchatka Peninsula and another that was detected just three years ago, after the cold war between Washington and Moscow officially ended.
Not that Anatoly shows any righteous indignation about US espionage. He freely admits that ''we do not put any of our own equipment on display because it is in use, and we don't want people to know what it looks like.''
He also is a bit vague when it comes to contemporary events. The walls are full of photographs of renowned Soviet spies of the past, such as the British traitor Kim Philby and Klaus Fuchs (who sold American nuclear secrets to Moscow) in the 1950s. But a question about Aldrich Ames, the former CIA agent sentenced to life imprisonment last year for espionage, elicits only an evasive reply that Moscow knows nothing of Mr. Ames.
Brutal history unmentioned
Anatoly is also silent about the blood on the hands of his predecessors. When he arrives at three wall panels, he turns to his group of tourists to tell them that the panels are ''devoted to the years of repression.'' Most of the visitors are expecting at least a brief statement of regret for the way Soviet agents under dictator Joseph Stalin during the 1930s murdered hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent citizens.
It comes as somewhat of a shock to find that the three wall panels honor only the 21,880 KGB officers who were shot or imprisoned during Stalin's purges, which became a paranoid orgy of self-destruction. Beyond airily mentioning a figure of 3.7 million people who were killed or imprisoned during the purges (a severe underestimate, according to most independent sources), Anatoly makes no reference whatsoever to his agency's brutal and bloodstained role in history.
Rather, the museum is designed to show off the KGB's pride in its work, whatever name the agency has gone under. From its first days as the Cheka to its current incarnation as the Federal Security Service, the Russian security forces have gone through seven name changes.
Opened in 1984, the museum was kept secret, with access restricted to KGB employees, until 1988. It was opened to foreigners in 1991. Now, Anatoly says, ''we want to show outsiders what a good job we do.''
The mood of the museum, which costs $15 to tour, is summed up in a quotation from ''Iron Felix'' Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Bolshevik secret police, which adorns one wall. ''If I had to start my life over again, I would do everything the same,'' he said.
Despite his obvious love for legend, Anatoly seems eager to deny what he sees as one myth about the KGB.''I know that you all thought the KGB was a monster,'' he tells his group of visitors. ''But here, our employees are just ordinary human beings.''
And I'm the queen of England.
Amid much gloating, the KGB museum proudly displays tools of the spying trade it has seized from captured US agents.