I visited Russia for the first time in November of 1985. I went with a tour (as my friend who was doing doctoral research said). I was clearly being followed.
One of my visits was supposed to be to a psychiatric hospital, as at that time I was working in day treatment. My “guide” told me that my visit had been canceled. I went anyway. It was clear they had been listening to my phone conversations. My friend who I visited used one of those kid “magic slates” so she could communicate with her friends and not have a voice conversation or a paper trail. We stayed at one of the approved government hotels that was monitored by the KGB.
So when I was invited to see the KGB Espionage Museum in New York City, I went with great curiosity.
The museum’s aim is to “present intelligence operations in an educational and interesting way, focusing on the importance of human intelligence and setting out a frame of reference for the public to appreciate the great extent to which spies have always influenced world events. The museum has a policy of presenting the history of espionage without political bias, thus offering visitors a factual and balance view of the subject.”
Touring the museum was amazing. I got to see many of the KGB tricks. The organization was engaged not just in intelligence, but in counter-intelligence, border control and security by people in government.
There were signs on the KGB offices back then, one of which read “Committee for State Security.” I also saw what looked like an ordinary umbrella, but in fact was a “killer umbrella” capable of shooting someone with ricin poison! They also have an umbrella with a camera in it. Then there is the museum’s collection of lipstick with bullets and shooting pens, right out of a spy novel.
We now know that people were put in psychiatric hospitals, but not for day treatment like I saw. (Back in 1985, one of the psychiatrists told me they did home visits “like Sherlock Holmes.”) I saw a chair with straps designed to hold inmates they did not want roaming about the old Soviet Union. I also saw an interrogation desk. It looked like a normal desk except the person being interrogated could not move away. It was very scary.
The museum has one of the first lie detectors, as well as a KGB radio receiver (radio was way before the internet and even before television, and therefore was state-of-the-art at the time). When I was growing up, we had a shortwave radio. So did the KGB, which they used for counter-intelligence. The museum’s shortwave dates from 1959.
The Museum leaves nothing out, and even has doors from the prisons that held people. They are quite amazing. What we now call “selfies” were used back then to take photos. The museum also possesses a 1956 cipher machine that required a key card to use.
Most interesting was a seal given to the U.S. It took seven years to find the hidden microphones, and was used to spy on Americans at our embassy. What was supposed to be a gift was really just another way for the KGB to spy.
Also on display is a microphone that can hear 660 feet! They also have a dinner plate (very similar to what I ate from in 1985) that has “ears” so conversation could be captured while eating.
One of the most amazing things was a camera. It looks like a normal camera, but as the “spy” is taking a photo, the camera actually shoots in a different direction.
I think the thing that gave me pause were teeth filled with cyanide. A spy, if caught, could commit suicide. The teeth looked like regular teeth and no one would know they were filled with cyanide.
They have other elements of KGB spycraft, including shoes with a camera inside the heel and boots/shoes that actually made animal prints so it would not be known who was making them.
I am sure none of us would be surprised to see cigarettes with spycraft or envelope openers that left the contents intact and it never looked like the envelope was opened, or a briefcase that takes photos. Most of us think of those things when we think of spying, but few of us know to what extent the KGB went though.
The KGB Spy Museum in New York City tells the story.