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The secrets of the KGB’s spycraft

Declassified: the secrets of the KGB’s spycraft

A new museum shows how the Soviet intelligence agency spied on its enemies

A new museum shows how the Soviet intelligence agency spied on its enemies

Kylie Warner | January 29th 2019

Since the election of President Donald Trump, American newspapers have been filled with stories about Russian spies infiltrating the United States. Now Americans can snoop on their Soviet predecessors at a new museum in New York City. The KGB Spy Museum is dedicated to the espionage operations of the Soviet Union’s infamous intelligence agency. Its Lithuanian founder, Julius Urbaitis, has over three decades collected around 3,500 gadgets belonging to the KGB, encompassing everything from practical, heavy-duty spy gear, like listening devices and cipher machines, to more niche accessories, such as shooting pens, lethal lipstick and a camera camouflaged within a tree trunk. 

These intriguing objects possess dark pasts. Active between 1954 and 1991, the KGB was responsible for many of the Soviet Union’s most grievous human rights abuses, from the extrajudicial executions of thousands of people during Joseph Stalin’s regime to the suppression of several regional revolutions during the second half of the 20th century. The museum avoids most of these grim tales. Indeed, it provides little information about the history, structure and inner workings of the KGB, and many objects on display lack dates and details about their provenance. 

The curators seem to prefer ironic fun to sobering facts. Guests celebrating the opening of the museum at a recent press night were greeted with a carnival of kitsch: as visitors knocked back shots of vodka and ate slices of hardboiled egg topped with caviar, young women in form-fitting KGB uniforms posed next to a mannequin of Joseph Stalin while a musician played jolly songs on an accordion. Visitors to the museum can get the KGB look by posing in leather jackets similar to those worn by agents, or “experience” the KGB’s harsh interrogation methods by having themselves strapped in a chair purportedly taken from one of the insane asylums run by the organisation.

 

 

Weeks before the end of the second world war, a delegation of Young Pioneers (the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts) presented the real version of this wooden wall decoration, emblazoned with the Great Seal of the United States, to the American ambassador to the Soviet Union. Delighted with this “gesture of friendship”, he hung the Great Seal in the American embassy in Moscow. Little did he realise that he had inadvertently enabled the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor, to listen in on his conversations. A wireless bug, later nicknamed “The Thing”, was hidden inside. It was one of the first covert listening devices capable of passively transmitting an audio signal. To operate it, NKVD agents in a house across the street from the embassy broadcast a radio signal into the room where the Great Seal was hung. A microphone, concealed in a hole below the eagle’s beak, captured the sounds in the room. “The Thing” would not be found for seven years, but the Americans kept their discovery secret until 1960, when they dramatically revealed its existence during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. Faced with accusations of spying after the Soviets shot down their U-2 spy plane over Soviet airspace, the American ambassador to the UN held the Great Seal aloft in order to prove his point: that both countries were guilty of espionage. 

 

This is a replica of the so-called “Bulgarian umbrella”, the weapon that killed Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian journalist, in September 1978. At the time of his assassination, Markov was working for the BBC World Service in London and regularly documenting the harsh reality of life in Communist Bulgaria for Radio Free Europe. This work made him an enemy of the regime, and it is believed that a member of the Bulgarian secret police – with ties to the KGB – was sent to murder Markov as he commuted to work.

The umbrella shot a small, ricin-filled pellet into Markov’s leg, which was designed to melt at human body temperature and release poison into the bloodstream. Markov initially did not feel any pain beyond a slight stinging in his thigh; but by evening, he had developed a small red mark on his leg, akin to a pimple, and a high fever. His death four days later was inevitable – at the time, ricin had no known antidote.

 

In Russian, “fialka” means “violet” – a sweet name that belies this gadget’s wicked intelligence. Also known as the M-125, the Fialka cipher machine became an invaluable asset to many cryptographers living in the USSR and its satellite states between the 1950s and 1990s. With its ten cipher wheels (cleaned with strong alcoholic spirits between code-breaks) and ability to switch between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, the Fialka was capable of creating nearly 600 trillion different code combinations. Because of its similarities to the Enigma, the cipher machine famously used by Nazi Germany during the second world war, Soviet-era intelligence organisations sometimes referred to it as “Enigma’s granddaughter” or “Russia’s Enigma”. 

 

The seemingly innocent book bound in blue contains a hidden camera, intended to document foreign agents’ secret meetings in parks, train stations and other public locations. Because the camera was literally built into the book, KGB operatives could easily pretend to read while observing their target. When the time was right, they pushed a button on the side of the book to snap an image through the aperture in its cover.

 

Back when smoking was a widespread habit, permitted everywhere from public transportation to restaurants, the Soviets took full advantage. The KGB created another kind of hidden camera, this time concealed within a cigarette packet. The box was mostly filled with real cigarettes, which agents could smoke for cover while they observed their target. However, one of the cigarettes was fake: when it was pulled upwards, the camera’s aperture opened on the side of the package; when it was pushed downwards, the picture was taken. Similar technology was used to transform other household objects, such as flashlights, notebooks and handbags, into hidden cameras.

KGB Spy Museum, New York City