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Secret service museum in Russia is ... secretive

MOSCOW — Camouflaged behind its nondescript entrance on a busy central Moscow street, the museum of Russian secret services is shrouded in secrecy — like the agencies whose operations it chronicles.

From outside, there is no sign or hint of what lies behind the forbidding marble faade and the several sets of tinted-glass doors. No visitors are allowed in without an appointment. And no cameras or recording devices can come inside.

The secret service museum stands behind the notorious headquarters of the Soviet-era KGB on Lubyanka Square, in whose cells thousands were tortured during dictator Josef Stalin's purges before being sent to the gulag.

Many of the museum's exhibits document the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry, a topic recently revived with the worst espionage scandal in years. About 50 diplomats were ordered out of each country over spying allegations in the past two weeks.

Friday, museum employees seemed proud to show off their achievements to a visiting group of foreign journalists.

The museum was created in 1984 as a private exhibition for Russian secret service employees. It started to allow in some general public five years later, amid then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's democratic reforms, but even now tours have to be arranged through a small group of Russian travel agencies and other organizations working with the museum.

The exhibits include a flashlight, gun and poison pin seized from Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of the American U2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. The pin, with which Powers was to take his life if he was tortured, was hidden inside a seam of his overalls, the guide said.

"Since then, all agents who are detained by security bodies are told to undress and are given new clothes before they are transported to their place of detention," the museum guide said.

Powers, who never tried to use the poison, was exchanged for a Soviet spy convicted in the United States.

Several radio transmitters laid out in glass display boxes carry tags identifying them as property of the United States government, the guide, who introduced himself only by first name and patronymic — a derivation of someone on one's father's side.

"We once had a group of American tourists here, and we thanked them all because the museum effectively exists thanks to U.S. taxpayers," Igor Nikolayevich joked.

The museum chronicles scores of counterespionage operations of the past decades, most of which gained less public attention.

One of the radio transmitters, seized from an American spy in 1986, is still functional, Nikolayevich said.

"The spy masters of course have long known that this agent has been exposed, but when the (museum) janitor lifts the glass to dust, we punch a button on the transmitter and a signal goes out — as a sort of a hello from us," he said.

Other exhibits range from records of the 14th century, when Prince Dmitry Donskoi sent spies into the camps of the Golden Horde, the Mongolian armies that occupied Russia for three centuries — to radio transmitters, cameras concealed inside watches, and invisible ink seized from Western spies in recent years.

Nikolayevich, in his late 40s with graying hair, bright blue eyes and military-style straight back, refused to give his last name or tell anything about his past career. However, he repeatedly referred to the Federal Security Service as "our agency."

The exhibits note Stalin-era persecutions. But Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB's dreaded precursor, the Cheka, is treated like a hero. A towering statue of Dzerzhinsky stood for decades on Lubyanka Square before being torn down by pro-democracy protesters in 1991.

Another room details Russian operations against Nazi spies during World War II, and some simple but effective tricks used by the Russians.

At the start of the war, undercover Nazi agents sent to Russia were furnished with fake Soviet passports held together by stainless-steel staples, Nikolayevich said.

"But in our country, all the best metal was used for defense needs, so when somebody saw a document that did not have rust stains, it immediately aroused suspicion," he said.