The Carefully Orchestrated Glamour of the KGB

We deciphered their telegrams; they got a U.S. Army cipher clerk to tell them about it. We tapped the phone lines in East Berlin; they found a British intelligence officer to keep them informed. We listened to their subs; a National Security Agency employee let them know. Indeed, Special Agent Robert Philip Hanssen was, if you believe the Washington Post, only the latest in a long line of Westerners to spill the beans to Russia. And I don’t think they did it just for the money. As it happens, I was in Moscow last week at the old KGB (now FSB) headquarters in Lubyanka Square and caught a glimpse of just how carefully that organization continues to craft its glorious image.

Or rather, I wasn’t exactly at headquarters; I was around the corner from headquarters, visiting one of those anonymous Moscow office buildings to which only expected visitors are admitted. Inside, there is a gloomy columned hall, a bust of Feliks Dzherzhinsky, a plaque: “To the Chekists, Soldiers of the Revolution.” The Chekists were the secret police of Lenin’s era, but the term, for those fond of the organization still best known as the KGB, has become generic. Beneath the plaque, someone had laid flowers. On closer examination, they turned out to be plastic.

The plaque marks the entrance to the KGB museum, a curious institution set up in 1984. Originally, the exhibits were intended for the enlightenment of the KGB’s employees, who remain the museum’s most frequent visitors. Now they are also open to the occasional outsider who is willing to book far in advance—and, of course, to pay a small fee.

We were met by a guide—a KGB historian and FSB colonel who wished to remain anonymous—who ushered my small group into a long room covered with photographs. In its center a Russian flag was draped over a pedestal, precisely the sort of pedestal upon which once sat busts of Lenin. To the left, there was an empty display case. I am reliably informed that it once contained a portrait of Boris Yeltsin. Now it is gone, which is hardly surprising: Yeltsin, after all, is the man the KGB held responsible for the destruction of the Soviet Union, an event that the colonel flatly described as the result of “negative external pressures, working in conjunction with internal agents of Western influence.”

Other than that, there were surprisingly few signs of the times. Indeed, for all the changes of the past decade, the Russian security services have, it appears, a surprisingly traditional view of themselves. Although the museum contained a small corner dedicated to the more than 20,000 secret police officers who lost their lives in the purges of the 1930s, there was no reference either to the many thousands of other secret police officers who killed them or to many hundreds of thousands of completely innocent people they killed as well, or even to the Gulag, the vast camp complex that was directly under the control of the Soviet security services from 1929 to 1953, and within which millions of completely innocent people also suffered and perished.

Needless to say, there was no mention of the KGB’s historical support for international terrorism; on the contrary, the last section of the museum is dedicated to the “fight against terrorism,” which the FSB says it is waging in Chechnya today. Nor was there a mention of the role the KGB played in creating some of the bloodier secret police services in the developing world. In fact, the museum was almost entirely given over to espionage and counterespionage, briefcases cleverly designed to hide radio transmitters, tiny tape recorders concealed within fountain pens and watches, the sorts of thing that would appeal to James Bond and to American FBI agents with free time on their hands.

Indeed, the KGB’s descendants remain inordinately proud of the foreign spies they captured—there is a photograph of the American U-2 spy plane that crashed, infamously, on Russian soil, and a thread from the rug that Gary Powers, its pilot, wove while in Vladimir prison—and of the agents they recruited. A pipe that once belonged to Kim Philby, the most notorious of the Cambridge Five, the ring of British double agents, is lovingly displayed. Beside it is a battered coaster bearing a picture of Pall Mall, the “street in London where the clubs of English aristocrats are located,” as the accompanying label explains. “Kim Philby was a member of one of them.” Another plaque adds that “he dedicated his life to the fight for human happiness.”

The FSB also remains in awe of its former leaders and isn’t inclined to apologize for their mistakes. The colonel informed us that Dzherzhinsky—to whom a large exhibit is dedicated—was not, as some might mistakenly assume, an exceptionally paranoid policeman responsible for the deaths of thousands, but rather a forward-looking “free-marketeer.” He said almost the same thing about Lavrenty Beria, head of the secret police throughout the 1940s, an era when millions were arrested and deported. Alas, he explained, “Beria was murdered too soon.” The FSB is still convinced that had it been given a free hand, the Soviet Union would still be in place, and it would still be prosperous.

This all tallies well with official policy. In a rare interview last year, Lt. Gen. Sergei Lebedev, head of the SVR, the foreign-intelligence wing of the Russian security services, declared that the “romanticism” of the service was still what prompted many young recruits to sign up. In recent years, the agencies have sponsored the publication of exciting true-life spy stories; the colonel himself sold me a glossy, coffee-table history of Russian counterespionage from Peter the Great to the present.

Perhaps it is no wonder that Special Agent Robert Philip Hanssen felt—as he put it in his letters to his Russian contacts—”insanely loyal” to the KGB, whose double-agent he had wanted to be since his teen-age years. It hasn’t apologized for its mistakes; it hasn’t reformed its views of itself or its history. Carefully orchestrated glamour does, it seems, sometimes pay off.