Last year the world looked on in disgust as revelations surfaced about the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. British police said a lethal nerve agent was surreptitiously delivered into Skripal's home in liquid form by Russian spies, who were trying to stop Skripal from continuing his work as a double-agent for Western interests. Father and daughter survived but a British woman died after she was accidentally exposed to the poison at a nearby town.
This attack was just the latest in a long history of cloak and dagger activities by Russia, which are the subject of a new museum in New York. The KGB Espionage Museum, which opened in January, contains a riveting array of gadgets and artefacts from the Cold War era.
The museum claims it is the only public museum dedicated to Soviet KGB devices and appears to be inspired by the acclaimed television series The Americans, which focuses on a Russian family who are ostensibly American but have been planted as spies in the US. "The museum presents the same spy devices used in the popular TV show The Americans", its flier proudly announces.
Some are jaw-droppingly ingenious and others sound so corny they could have been on Get Smart, the '60s TV spy spoof. They range from high-tech to low-tech to no-tech.
At the no-tech end are wooden horse hooves which defectors and agents would attach to themselves to throw their pursuers off the scent when they tried to cross the border. As an added measure, they would sprinkle them with pepper to put dogs off the human scent. For those who tried to escape or hide in cars, or houses, the KGB created a device called a "heart finder". This machine detected mechanical deviations in the car or home triggered by a person's heartbeat, respiration and muscle contraction. Once this came into use, KGB border guards dispensed with sniffer dogs, who could only detect humans through smell.
Another nifty gadget is a tweezer-like scroll that could open envelopes without revealing that they had been tampered with. The pincer-like scroll could be inserted into the unsealed gap at the top of the letter. The letter was squeezed, creating space for the scroll to catch the letter, rotate and pull it out without damaging the envelope – to be replaced once the contents were known.
There were any number of everyday clothes and accessories that were armed with cameras and listening devices – plates with ears, ashtrays with listening bugs, cameras in lipstick, handbags and shoe brushes. There is also a camera with a fake lens, with the real lens on the side to take photos around corners. Ironically, these could make a comeback for today's wannabe paparazzi.
Some items on display are squeamish: a suicide tooth with poison hidden inside to break open if you're captured, and a cigar-shaped tube described as "rectal concealment", that screws open to hide codes or micro-dot film, and which does not need further explanation.
Other exhibits tell more sinister and significant stories. Top of the list is a replica of the James Bond-style Markov umbrella, centrepiece of the most famous Soviet spy assassination until the Skripal scandal. In 1978 in London, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian author and BBC broadcaster who had been classified as a "non-person" by the communist authorities, was waiting alongside commuters for a bus on Waterloo Bridge when he felt "a stinging pain in his thigh", the exhibit reads. A heavily built stranger dropped an umbrella, mumbled "sorry" and fled in a taxi. Markov thought little of the seemingly trivial incident and continued his journey home but in three days he was dead from a high fever.
The murder weapon was the umbrella, partly developed by the Soviet KGB, which fired a pellet the size of a pinhead, containing the lethal poison ricin. The exhibit shows the firing mechanism of the umbrella and offers a detailed explanation of the scandal, which London's Telegraph reported was still being investigated as recently as 2008 by detectives trying to establish the identity of the assassin.
An even more fascinating exhibit is the huge circular wooden coat of arms presented to the US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman in 1945, which contained a unique listening bug. The NKVD, forerunner to the KGB, learned of Harriman's passion for wooden souvenirs in his biography, and hid a high-powered listening bug invented by a jailed spy, Leon Theremin, in the souvenir, which Harriman hung proudly on the wall above his desk.
Over the next seven years, the US had four ambassadors, each of whom rearranged the furniture but left the coat of arms intact, until radio technicians in 1952 accidentally detected the unique radio frequency that the bug operated on. Western security services were shocked and embarrassed that they did not pick it up for such a long time.
The story gains an added level of interest because of Theremin's later claim to fame as the inventor of a musical instrument, named after him, which is based on radio wave frequencies that make a wailing sound simply by moving your hands above it, without touching anything. The Theremin was famously used by Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys' 1960s hit Good Vibrations. Its distinctive echo sound can be heard clearly towards the end of the song.
In addition to its extensive collect of artefacts, the museum also offers some fun for visitors. For example, you can sit in a KGB interrogation chair, which comes with harness restraints that are strapped around your arms and legs. With a bright light shining on your face, you get a pretty good idea of what it is like to be completely helpless in the face of your interrogator.
On your way out to the exit you can also have your photo taken in a Soviet or KGB coat and hat, with a choice of colours and styles – drab green or dull grey, black leather or faux fur.
We took a tour with an excellent guide whose thick Russian accent lent a layer of authenticity and intrigue to the riveting array of artefacts and devices.
My wife agreed reluctantly to visit this museum in exchange for shopping time at the nearby Chelsea Market and High Line. But once inside, she like me, loved travelling back in time to the Cold War era and quickly forgot about the modern world outside.
Michael Visontay travelled at his own expense.
The KGB Espionage Museum is open Monday to Sunday, 10am to 8pm, adults $US22 and kids aged 7 to 17 $US13. It is located at 245 West 14th Street, New York. See kgbespionagemuseum.org