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Computers

Live and let spy: Inside the KGB Espionage Museum

From an umbrella that shoots ricin poison to the "widows kiss" lipstick gun, the KGB developed some of the most innovative — and lethal — gadgets in history.

This lipstick case disguises a 4.5mm single-shot pistol.

According to the International Spy Museum, this lipstick case disguises a cunningly wrought 4.5mm single-shot pistol. It was designed for use by KGB operatives during the Cold War. This particular gun was confiscated at an American checkpoint in West Berlin.

International Spy Museum

Before there were Russian hackers, there was the KGB. Established in 1954 during the Khrushchev regime, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti was notorious for developing sophisticated technologies designed to gather information from its targets. "It might be fair to call them hackers," said Agne Urbaityte, curator of the KGB Espionage Museum. "They were before computers, but the jobs were similar."

Located in lower Manhattan, the KGB Espionage Museum opened in early 2019 and contains the world's largest collection of KGB gadgets, including cipher machines, secret cameras and hidden weapons. According to Urbaityte, who curates the museum with her father, Julius Urbaitis, the collection is almost entirely authentic. "The only replicas are for educational or display purposes," said Urbaityte. "Everything else [on display] is directly from history."

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Urbaityte proudly shows off a handful of gadgets that, she says, Russian covert agents used routinely. The Fialka Wheel is an encryption gadget that contains 10 dials imprinted with letters and numbers and was used by Russian spies to send secret messages. The Deadly Kiss is a single-shot, small-caliber gun hidden inside an ordinary tube of lipstick. Loaded with ricin poison, the Bulgarian Umbrella was designed to assassinate targets in public. 

The museum is also a reminder of the KGB's dark history: A replica prison cell and an "interrogation" chair are displayed prominently, accompanied by short blurbs of historic context. But the prisoners who were detained and often tortured by the KGB are barely mentioned, and the Soviet Union's surveillance apparatus that helped fill gulags is often polished to a kitschy gloss. A bust of Vladimir Lenin peers over the entrance, and the museum's walls are lined with propaganda posters. Rows of spy gadgets are neatly filed next to deadly weapons and the instruments of torture. The communist-themed gift shop, ironically, sells a sanitized KGB "handbook" for aspirational agents of espionage.