Brand new to Manhattan, the KGB Spy Museum takes you deep into the world of Soviet espionage from the early 20th century to today. Located on West 14th Street, this museum exposes kids and adults to the secretive technologies that make spying possible, like cryptology machines, tiny recording devices, and poisonous umbrellas (you read that right!). You’ll also find out how the covert work of intelligence agents has shaped the world and influenced our public fears of Russia, a country still prominent in the American imagination today.
KGB stands for Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti in the Russian language and means “State Security Committee.” Its first iteration, a secret corps of police called the Okhrana, was founded in 1881 during the rule of Tsar Nicholas II. Later, when the organization was dubbed the KGB in 1954, it was called “the sword and shield of the Communist Party.” Not only did this security organization seek to protect political leaders and patrol the border, but it also surveilled its citizens and members of the political opposition both at home and abroad.
Essential to these functions were weapons, recording equipment, and cameras that could be operated and transported in secret. The KGB Spy Museum exhibits a wide range of these devices, including a lipstick pistol called “the Kiss of Death” and a metal detector for discovering hidden eavesdropping equipment. Though newly opened, the museum’s collection of artifacts numbers around 5000 items.
Not only can you learn the story of the KGB from artifacts and historical documentation, but you can experience the unsettling realities of life on both sides of Soviet intelligence. Sit behind the desk of a Soviet official, complete with secure rotary phone, or sit behind bars on a KGB prison bed.
You can also decode an encrypted text, operate a switchboard, sit in an extremely uncomfortable interrogation chair, and play in a KGB dentist’s office, complete with dental chair and instruments. Kids will love the robot hand on site, free to manipulate and grab objects behind glass.
The fascinating history of the KGB includes stories about double agents, mysterious deaths, and ingenious deception. Inside the museum, you’ll learn about double agent Aldrich Ames, head of the CIA’s anti-Soviet counterintelligence branch and a secret operative for Russia, who was found out in 1994. You’ll also learn how the heads of major Soviet security organizations were frequently removed and later died under mysterious circumstances.
There’s no end to the creativity of some concealment devices for these Soviet spies. Agents had to hide items like money, poison, guns, cameras, listening devices, and photos on their person without detection. On display at the KGB Spy Museum are shoes with removable heels, a handbag camera, a Bulgarian umbrella (which can dispense poison on command), and a KGB camera ring on display. You’ll also learn about the creative places the KGB placed bugs: in homes, parks, bathrooms, and as a chip in the ear of a family pet!
Spies always need a camera for photographing everything from passports to important people to nuclear weapons. In addition to the Minox camera, other devices like subminiature cameras, concealed cameras, and copy cameras are on view. As shown in one archived photograph, cameras and other recording equipment were often concealed in bras, neckties, belts, and beneath clothing.
At the museum, you can also see the developments in spy radios, which KGB operatives used to communicate quickly with others. These include a suitcase radio, a portable transceiver that could be used in secret and shut down quickly if the opposition was listening in.
A hairbrush with a built-in radio. Photo from KGB Spy Museum.
It was also common for the KGB to “bug” the homes of allies and enemies in highly creative ways. A drawing at the museum shows the many hiding places for Soviet recording equipment, from window adhesives to the insides of walls to telephones. One positive aspect of these ingenious, often creepy devices is that the technological developments were later used to improve aeronautical engineering and enable underwater recording. A range of recording devices will be on display in the exhibition hall, including the Soviet era’s small recording device called the Mi-51.
A ring with a built-in camera. Photo: KGB Spy Museum.
There will also be crypto and cipher machines on view at the KGB Spy Museum. These devices created coded messages only the KGB’s intended recipients could read. Germany’s famous Enigma machine, used during World War II, was the precursor to the KGB’s ultra-sophisticated Fialka. This special typewriter, on view at the museum, uses small electromechanical wheels to scramble letters when typed onto the keyboard.
The exhibits at the KGB Spy Museum will give you an inside look into the fascinating land of Russia, as well as teach you about the technological forebears of the smartphone and other technologies we use every day. You’ll be reminded of the importance of personal security and—probably—maintain a healthy respect for secrecy.
The KGB Spy Museum is open now at 245 W. 14th St. Hours are 10am to 8pm, seven days a week. Call 917-388-2332 or visit kgbspymuseum.org for tickets and more.