As basically anyone I spoke with on my recent trip to the Swiss Alps can tell you, I am obsessed with spy culture. I spent three days in exclusive James Bond-like environments, just waiting for someone, anyone, to discreetly hand me some microfilm or deliver mysterious coordinates. I was ready. Unfortunately, no spies chose to make contact; perhaps it had something to do with my nearly nonstop monologue about being on the lookout for spies. (Or is that the perfect cover?) Fortunately, I had an overnight connection through New York on my way home, which allowed me to visit the KGB Spy Museum, which opened last month. This provided all the espionage I’d been craving.
The museum, which is pointedly apolitical in its mission, hopes to inform the public about the history and declassified innerworkings of the KGB — Комите́т Госуда́рственной Безопа́сности (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti), which, as my bilingual tour guide, Sergei, explained to me, means “Committee (Ministry) of State Safety.” The name Sergei means both “protector” and “shepherd” in Russian, and proved to be apt nomenclature for my guide, who shepherded me through the museum’s numerous display cases and interactive stations.
These displays are a heady mixture of real artifacts, dense geopolitical history, and some cheesy-but-fun activities, including many photo opportunities. At different points in the tour, I was strapped into a restraint chair used by mental hospitals to subdue antagonized patients (as Sergei explained, the KGB sometimes detained suspects mental hospitals when they lacked appropriate grounds to arrest them); had my mug shot taken in a prison booking area; had my photograph taken standing in the “Place of Honor” alongside Yuri Andropov, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; and costumed up for a photo op that virtually placed me at the desk of the KGB Director. In Soviet Union, museum watches you.
On one level, the KGB Spy Museum delivers exactly what you might expect: innumerable recording and transmission devices, uniforms and regalia, weaponized umbrellas and lipsticks, and dozens of discreet camera mechanisms. For anyone who appreciates object history, the museum is a full afternoon of fun parsing through the minutia of spy days past, with or without the help of a guide. But I was struck by the anachronistic vibe of these artifacts of surveillance culture, in an era where everyone carries a recording device, and it feels as if no public or private act goes undocumented in some way. What is left for spies to do these days, when people digitally survey themselves? It almost makes one yearn for the good old days, when just a few of us were spies.
Though their mission is explicitly apolitical, there are some unavoidable political undertones to a museum dedicated to Russian espionage, particularly as the current, disastrous politics of the US are understood to have been greatly impacted by, you know, Russian espionage. Is the display of these outdated mechanisms and means for the control of information a gesture of peace and reconciliation? Is it a demonstration of the lengths that the former USSR would go to maintain state “safety”? It’s hard to say how seriously to take the disclosures of the KGB Spy Museum, especially with the inimitable Sergei deadpanning throughout the tour with high Russian humor, but it’s safe to say the archives on display will not be setting any paranoid minds at ease, when it comes to suspicions about surveillance culture. Perhaps the whole thing is an elaborate campaign to recruit people with an abiding interest in the KGB, for dissemination of digital weapons, fake news, and fodder for the culture wars that threaten to topple the state. Or maybe it’s all in good fun. Like the code machine prototype on display there, many things about the KGB Spy Museum remain an Enigma.
The KGB Spy Museum is located at 245 West 14th Street, Meatpacking District, Manhatta. Tell them the lady in red sent you.