Picture this: you’re descending, slowly, in an elevator. You’ve just made your way through the top floors of a museum dedicated to the most violent mechanisms of oppression invented. In the elevator is a looping execution video. You emerge from the elevator into a basement, converted to an interrogation cell. It is quiet, haunting, and horrifying. Is this the new KGB Spy Museum in New York City? Is this a nightmare I had about 4Chan? Absolutely not! I’m describing Budapest’s House of Terrors, located in the former headquarters of both the Arrow Cross (Hungary’s home-grown fascist party), and the KGB. Designed as a monument to those who had been tortured and killed in that very building, as well as all those who suffered under the yoke of oppressive states, the House of Terror opened in 2002 as one of the first museums to attempt to process the combined traumas of 20th century history as both a place of mourning and an interactive exhibit.
When I visited in 2011, I was impressed, disturbed, and startled by the combination of authenticity and innumerable video screens. One room, intended to tell the story of Siberian exile, lined the floor with screens showing moving train wheels, as plaques above detailed the stories of those who faced the long, harsh trip to the gulag. Another room showed the spread of fascism, in red, on a large screen, as we prepare for the WWII part of the permanent collection. To exit the museum, visitors must pass through a room filled with images of those who collaborated with the Soviet and Fascist overlords—while most of the museum is focused on the suffering of the Hungarian people, it’s nice to know that they’re willing to acknowledge the participation of ordinary people in evil things.In the world of displayed artifacts, one must walk a careful line between education and entertainment.
A few weeks before visiting the House of Terror, I had found myself exploring the tiny East German Spy Museum, located in Berlin, and stuffed with cigar-box cameras, watering-can listening devices, and other hokey and improbable artifacts from days gone by. The entire museum took just about an hour to peruse, unlike the mammoth House of Terror, with its several stories worth of suffering. The small exhibit had a powerfully different message—how could people with such dinky technology and far-flung theories ever have had so much control over those around them? There was, of course, some mention of the near-quarter of East Germany’s population spying on the other three quarters, but the museum’s overall impression was not nearly as menacing (or ready to emphasize complicity) as its multi-media Hungarian counterpart.
At the end of the vacation, I was left wanting a museum dedicated to the legacy of the Soviet espionage machine that would both move me and entertain me. And now, 8 years later, I have found that (un)happy medium, in the space of the new KGB Spy Museum, which joins a wave of newly opened palaces to espionage located across the world. A new spy museum opened in Berlin in 2015 with far more emphasis on the interactive elements, but as I have yet to visit, I can’t speak to the museum’s efficacy in teaching a complex and messy story to school groups (although, if anyone can do that, it’s the Germans). An international spy museum now graces the museum-filled parks of plazas of DC, while the SpyScape museum in New York promises to help you learn just what kind of spy you should be. That’s the tip of the iceberg. It would take some spy sleuthing skills just to come up with the full list of museums dedicated to the art of deception and subterfuge, even as the world enters a new era of digital espionage divorced from ideology and with stakes just as high—if not higher—than any Cold War antics.
In the world of displayed artifacts, one must walk a careful line between education and entertainment. Like today’s universities, museums are no longer spaces of pure, serious learning (if they ever were to begin with, given that museums could equally lay claim to status as merely the latest place to stash one’s imperialist trophies and national treasures), but instead, designed to attract patrons with an “experience.” The new KGB Museum, located just two blocks away from the CrimeReads office (coincidence? I think not…) takes a page from other history museums and is a heady mixture of Soviet schlock, deadly ingenuity, and sobering reminders of KGB horrors, all mixed in together.
There are only two non-original pieces in the museum—a replica of the “Bulgarian umbrella,” a famed device for delivering poison used to murder a Soviet dissident writer in London in the 1970s, and a replica of “The Thing,” also known as “The Great Seal Bug,” designed by Leon Theremin (also inventor of the eponymous early musical instrument), a passive listening device that hung in the American Embassy in Moscow for 8 years picking up sensitive data before being its accidental discovery. I squee audibly after learning that Theramin invented the bug, a predecessor of RFID technology, and squee internally when I spot a tree that has been hollowed out and filled with a listening device, embarrassed to explain to the tour guide that the tree reminds me of a key plot point from Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy (and if you have to ask what that is, it’s probably not for you).There are KGB stationary kits, KGB lamps, and KGB disguises (including fake beards!); there are endless hidden cameras and listening bugs, absurd concealed weaponry, and commemorative posters and art from throughout the history of the Soviet Union.
The rest of the collection is original, and leans toward gadgetry and ephemera. There are KGB stationary kits, KGB lamps, and KGB disguises (including fake beards!); there are endless hidden cameras and listening bugs, absurd concealed weaponry, and commemorative posters and art from throughout the history of the Soviet Union. There is—I sh** you not—a lipstick gun, designed to fire one single, deadly shot. It is called, appropriately, the “Kiss of Death.” A tour guide enthusiastically points out the Minox in a case full of miniature cameras, ready for American viewers to recognize the device from James Bond, but most of the other gadgets bear the forgotten names of Soviet technology, and trace a parallel path to American inventions, growing gradually more sophisticated toward the end of the Soviet Union’s tenure, yet obviously behind their US counterparts.
Also on display are the devices of bureaucratic control, both banal and hideous. Internal KGB guidelines describe the correct behavior in various circumstances—interrogation guidelines from the 1930s are as violent and nonsensical as one might expect, while instructions on how to handle security properly, complete with photographs of “bad” practices, such as leaving file cabinets unlocked, and “good” practices, such as signing out documents properly, emphasize the KGB’s turn towards bureaucratic density after Stalin.
Books of identification documents are on display in a quiet, dark room lit by a bright interrogation lamp. A descriptor explains that since Soviet citizenry had few clothing options at the time of peak surveillance, it was especially important to be able to distinguish suspects from each other by facial feature. A strange device in a nearby case that, with the help of hundreds of slides, could create a composite image of suspects through painstaking physical descriptions, bears this notion out. A mug shot wall, against which you can have your photograph taken (both head-on and in profile), testifies to at least some attention paid to height as well, and the experience is as uncomfortable and surreal as smiling against a height chart designed to surveil subjects should be in any situation. Additional photo opportunities include an option to put on a KGB overcoat, an officer’s cap, and sit at a large desk below a cameo of Lenin, where a photo is taken by an iPad, and, after selecting sepia, black-and-white, or full color for your photo filter, you can email it to yourself for free. The email arrives with the subject line “Secret Picture from our Office;” the body of the email reads “Hello, We have new KGB chief officer in our headquarters. Picture is attached.”
Luckily, there are no photo opportunities attached to the more violent mechanisms of social control on display. (There are, however, interactive games for children that are located in roughly the same area). One corner of the museum replicates a Soviet prison cell. Looping video set in the small windows of two Soviet-era prison doors appears to show prisoners being interrogated. A mannequin wearing a straight-jacket sits on a small cot, hopelessly staring at the looping video. A bruise marks her ankle, drawn with loving detail. Her hair is a stylish sixties cut, impeccable. A plaque nearby explains that, when prisoners were not perceived as cooperative, they were doped with powerful drugs and turned into, in the parlance of the time, “vegetables.” Next to the mannequin (and away from which she averts her eyes) is a surgical table from prison hospitals. A card above the table describes, in characteristically dry humor, how prisoners would attempt to get out of prison and to a real hospital through swallowing various objects, only to be subjected to a rude awakening and painful intervention from the prison doctor instead.
The most terrifying object in the museum, however, is a restraint chair. Straps are attached to every conceivable surface, and a nearby notecard explains that the chair was intended for use on those incarcerated in mental institutions and deemed uncooperative; straps would be tightened to the point of restricting blood flow severely, or so tight as to cut into the inmate’s skin. Part of the horror of the experience is the knowledge that, unlike some of the hokier aspects of KGB technology, the restraint chair is still in use in many a prison or asylum today, regardless of geography, as controversies over Guantanamo Bay have attested to. Other facts touted as examples of Soviet oppression, from the prison surgical table, to some of the stressors recommended in interrogation instructions, are also eerily familiar to those with knowledge of the US prison system.
Tour guides hover around the museum, ready to swoop in and point out an interesting detail, or explain how to partake of the museum’s more interactive elements. I ask the tour guide where the collection derives from; he answers that much of it was scattered across the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of the pieces in the collection are collected from former Soviet satellite republics, rather than Russia itself, some found their way to the museum from personal collections amassed in the United States and in Israel. The blurbs describing each object are detailed, and charmingly full of Russian-isms, perhaps deliberately.
The museum covers the full history of the Soviet secret service, from the Cheka, to the NKVD, to the KGB, to their modern-day FSB descendents. Continuity is a theme—a tour guide points out to me that Putin has had his office decorated in the same rare, expensive wood as Stalin. He also mentions that while the term “Chekist” for a member of the secret service derives from the initial Cheka, each subsequent generation has continued to be referred to as Chekists, including the FSB. I try to ask intelligent questions, but quickly realize I’m just showing off my knowledge of the Soviet Union. I ask one of the guides what he things of the film, “The Death of Stalin,” he goes into a long explanation for Soviet nostalgia that makes me think he doesn’t approve of the recent Steve Buscemi vehicle. He thinks people miss the old days, because they miss everything being free and/or guaranteed; education, health care, housing, even restaurant meals. He is confident that the old days, however, were very bad indeed, and the more disturbing artifacts in the museum bear with his theory.
As you are leaving the museum, next to the small gift shop where you can also tip your tour guide, is a video screen on which a faint image plays. You are encouraged to put on the “magic glasses” that will let you see the video clearly. Once you put these 3-D glasses on, the images on the screen resolve themselves into a looping video of a spy’s show-trial in the early 60s, with voice-over explaining that no matter how upstanding and innocuous a citizen may seem to be, they could well be a spy. Here, in the suspicion underlying the magic, we have a perfect distillation of the Soviet idea, and its unpleasant reality (although part of my American self likes the idea of none being above suspicion—at least that way, everyone is equally suspect!).