PRINT March 2019



KGB-designed tooth embedded with potassium cyanide, ca. 1975.

LIKE SEX AND TORTURE MUSEUMS, institutions dedicated to the history of the KGB, the infamous Russian intelligence service that was active between 1954 and 1991, are increasingly common in the former Eastern Bloc. Since the mid-1990s, such institutions have popped up in Riga, Prague, and Vilnius, acting as grim reminders of the Soviet Union’s elaborate efforts to maintain its empire. In Leipzig, a local iteration focusing on the East German secret police highlights the disguises that transformed spies into unwitting members of the Village People; in Tallinn, Estonia, visitors can walk through a former surveillance office in a luxury hotel, which was abandoned in a hurry when the USSR collapsed.

And as of this past December, there is a KGB museum in New York.

It’s not exactly clear why the museum’s anonymous American benefactors chose to pursue this project. After all, KGB museums usually serve a memorial purpose, ensuring that victims of repressive regimes are not forgotten and that younger generations inherit the lessons of occupation. Work of this kind is crucial, as it helps countries that have only been independent since 1991 write their own histories. Those noble goals, however, are not the point of New York’s one-room KGB Spy Museum. It is pan-Soviet and without a clear historical arc. It is not interested in the ethical implications of its collection, which includes an impressive array of Soviet torture devices and surveillance equipment, all gleefully described on grammatically challenged labels. Nor is it interested in the contexts in which these sinister items might have been used. It is, simply, what a museum of mid-century Russian technology would look like if it were curated by Ian Fleming.

I went to the museum only days after it opened. Perhaps to keep things on message, staffers blurred the line between solicitousness and surveillance. Anytime a guest took an interest in something, a young Russian guide would appear out of nowhere to explain how it worked. While admiring a portrait of Lenin, I was approached by Sergei, who told me that Lenin was a brilliant student (“Every grade was A+”) and seemed genuinely surprised that KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky is not a household name in the US. Sergei showed a group of assembled visitors several luxury Soviet items—a wooden radiogram that once belonged to Stalin; a Belarusian carpet honoring the centenary of Lenin’s birth—before handing us off to Daniil, a young man dressed in black who announced that he was “responsible for the torture.” Daniil led us to an apparatus described as a “KGB psychiatric hospital’s tramp chair,” to which “big troublemakers for the Communists” were strapped and tormented for days on end. The chair, which visitors could sit in, was one of many examples of the museum’s misguided insistence on social-media-ready interactivity. Guests can pose for a photo as a Soviet prisoner or officer or, in an unfortunate echo of a children’s science museum, play a game called “touch and guess,” in which you insert your arm into a darkened box and try to figure out what’s inside.

These are certainly poor curatorial choices, but what sets the KGB Spy Museum apart from, say, the museums of pizza or ice cream that have recently graced New York’s cultural landscape are the range and rarity of the items in its collection. Much of what’s on display is truly remarkable. In addition to the spy gadgets seen in movies—poison-needle umbrellas, cipher machines, night-vision goggles, and many, many tiny hidden cameras—a number of fascinating devices speak to the lengths to which Soviet leaders were willing to go to monitor and suppress their population.

Consider the letter remover, a surgical device that fishes papers out of a closed envelope without breaking the seal, or the cyanide-laced molar that captured agents could bite into to commit suicide. There is a camera that shoots laterally, so spies can pose as tourists while photographing targets off to the side; there are micro-cameras embedded in books, belts, and radios; and there is a “tree with eyes and ears,” an apparently normal tree that has been enhanced with extra senses. There are pen guns. There are lipstick guns. There are suitcases with false bottoms outfitted with tracking equipment, bugged ashtrays from tourist hotels, and something called a “photorobot”—a cross between a Rolodex and the Wooly Willy children’s game, which creates “sketches” of suspicious individuals. Is paranoia the true mother of invention? It might seem so. 

Walking past vitrine after vitrine of spy cameras, one comes away impressed by both the insidious extent of Soviet surveillance and the USSR’s technological prowess. Yet perhaps the most politically revealing item on display is distinctly analog: On a table near the exit are two wooden hooves with straps to attach them to shoes. During attempts to escape from the USSR, people would wear them to throw off border guards.

Agne Urbaityte, one of the museum’s curators, told me she had recently arrived from Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, where she worked at the KGB museum that inspired the one we were standing in. Americans, she said, often made up the bulk of their crowds. Perhaps our interest in Soviet ephemera stems from our smug satisfaction over having won the Cold War, or simply from our curiosity about Russia, the eternal cartoon wolf of American politics. Of course, the relevance to today’s geopolitics is obvious: While the KGB has morphed into the FSB, and undercover agents have been backed up by armies of online trolls, Cold War fault lines are still active. But that’s only part of the story. Slavophiles often say that the US and Russia have far more in common than either side realizes. While we in the US may chafe at that idea, as we come to grasp the scope of our own mass surveillance and the threats to our democratic institutions, the parallels are increasingly relevant.

Jessica Loudis is a writer based in New York.