The KGB Spy Museum, which had a soft opening in early January on West 14th Street in New York City, calls itself “The Largest KGB Spy Collection in the World.”
It’s in a long narrow street-level space with overhead pipes which previously housed a contemporary art gallery, and its ominous contents live up to the billing.
Installations include a wooden sculpture, colored like a child’s toy, of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s secret police capo and rapist of teenage girls, standing above a KGB safe, spilling with rubles. Another Beria, this time a bespectacled white marble bust, sits above a replica of the killer umbrella with which Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, was shot with a ricin pellet on London’s Waterloo Bridge in 1978. He died three days later.
The umbrella is one of just two replicas in the show. The other recreates the wooden carving of the Great Seal in the ambassador’s study in the US Embassy in Moscow, plus The Thing, the bug infamously bedded inside. The wall caption notes of the bug that, “It is called a passive device as it does not have its own power source. Instead it is activated by a strong electro-magnetic signal from outside.”
For seven years it worked perfectly for the NKVD special services. Note that NKVD, like Cheka and OGPU, are all historic variants of what here is called the KGB, and which is now the FSB.
These two devices aside, all the stuff is real. And riveting. It includes Ajax, a video camera, barely an inch and a half long, that was developed in 1961 and a hollowed-out faux tree into which video and sound recording equipment has been installed, which is something Ken Adam might have dreamed up for one of his James Bond movie sets.
Likewise Photorobot, a device developed to create portraits from verbal descriptions and a picture bank of body parts. “At first it was artists, painters who made the pictures,” my guide remarked. “This was to save some money.”
Also on view are a mini-camera to be secreted in a belt buckle, another alongside the boot heel in which it was embedded, and a document copier ready for use in a compartment at the bottom of a standard doctor’s bag. Also fake buttons to cover the camera lenses.
That may sound spy-movie-goofy, but there is other stuff on view that exhales a breath of the sinister. Such as Lavanda-M, a device built in 1986 which was used to discover people in hiding. The wall text observes that Lavanda can pick up on heartbeat, respiration, and muscle contraction. All these signals are converted into electrical signals, which are less than 20 Hz and not heard by the human ear.
There is also the NKVD thermometer. We learn: “This device was used by the NKVD executioners. After shooting a person, they wanted to make sure she/he was really dead, so the thermometer was stabbed usually into the stomach to check if the temperature dropped. If not, they fired a second control shot.”
A bust of a broody Lenin looks at you through the window alongside the entrance and there’s more Lenin within. Stalin likewise, together with such ephemera as a lamp from his mansion. There are two actual cell doors, taken from the KGB headquarters in Kaunas, Lithuania.
A red banner hung up high quotes Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of Cheka and OGPU and an enforcer of the “Red Terror”, out-Orwelling George Orwell with the observation: “The fact that you do not have a criminal record is not your achievement but our lack of input!”
That seems to be Dzerzhinsky’s exclamation point, though he was not famously a joker. There is dark installation humor here though. There’s a Touch And Guess box with apertures into which you can stick a hand—I found that I had been fondling a rubber human head—and visitors are invited to pose for KGB selfies.
An alert reader will have noted that the opening of the KGB Spy Museum seems oddly timely, what with Trump's ongoing collusion controversy and the suspicion that GRU, Russian military intelligence, poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter last year in the U.K.
Much of the material in the museum was put together by Julius Urbaitis, a Lithunian scholar, lecturer and devoted collector. In 2014 he opened a museum in Lithuania.
“It is called Atomic KGB Bunker,” says Agne Urbaityte, his daughter, who is helping run the New York operation. “It’s called that because it is situated in a real civilian bunker. We have the world’s largest collection of Second World War radio units and radio sets. We have the biggest collection of old European gas masks.”
From there the segue to surveillance and espionage tech, as developed by the KGB, was natural.
The emergence of this material into the outside world is as dark as the uses to which it was originally put.
“The artifacts are from ex-Soviet Union states,” Agne says. “They come from workmen who were working in the KGB. There are human factors. Someone stole it or someone hid it. Or someone stole a car and found a camera inside the car. So just by accident.”
But how do the workers connect with the collectors?
“The children or grandchildren of these workers want to get rid of these devices. So they sell them or give them away. That’s how the artifacts reach the market.”
Julius Urbaitis is part of an international community of specialists in such material. And it’s an active market. “This is how everything is collected,” Agne says. “The collectors travel around the world talking to people making as many contacts as possible. You get to know someone who knows someone who knows someone.
“It’s really hard because these are still secret devices in Russia. They have to be destroyed with a signature. But as I said there’s the human thing. Some of them might be stolen or hidden. And that is how they get into the market.”
The Urbaitis collection began as an exhibition for collectors or other highly interested parties. “Prime ministers and presidents came to see it,” Julius Urbaitis told me, his remarks being translated by Agne. “They said why are you hiding this? You have to show to the world!”
In a world of fakery, how can they be sure that their material is the real McCoy? “My dad has been collecting for 30 years,” said Agne. “You have to read a lot of technological magazines. He has developed expertise. Now a lot of other museums are calling my dad.”
In 2017 Urbaitis did get the opportunity to show the world when he was approached with an offer to open a museum in New York by an American company, the Nothing Secret Group Inc. “They are collectors. That is how our relationship started,” Agne Urbaityte said. “They own this museum and we are invited as the main curators.”
All powerful countries have shadowy agencies like the FSB. And all such agencies do black ops. That goes with the territory. One could certainly put together a CIA museum, or an MI6 one, if one had the access, though those collections might be less brazen. But the USSR is broken up. The Western agencies must hold onto their stuff pretty tightly, I suggested.
Agne Urbaityte was politely sceptical.
“Yes. But you can find different materials from other intelligence services in auctions,” she observed. “Humans are humans.”
I asked Julius Urbaitis whether he had had any feedback from the FSB about the exhibition of their tech expertise in his twin museums. No, nor does he expect any. That was material from an old war, the Cold War. “It can inspire them to move forwards,” he said.