Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder and first head of the USSR security structures.
The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies was happening not only in the political arena, in the arms race, but also in the invisible struggle between counterpart special services. The intelligence services of all the conflicting sides were actively trying to uncover their rivals’ secrets whilst protecting their own. The Soviet Union, which had always had many external enemies, needed a reliable and efficient special service capable of ensuring the security of the communist regime and of competing adequately internationally. The State Security Committee, the KGB, established in 1954, became such an institution. It took over from its repeatedly reformed predecessors, the VCS, the NKGB and the MGB. While the KGB helped the Soviet authorities to control society through repressions and intimidation, it was also active in intelligence activities abroad and counterintelligence at home. The KGB has become one of the most powerful and well-known special services in the world, on a par with the most famous counterpart special services.
Intelligence in foreign countries, both adversaries and friends, was carried out by the First Chief Directorate of the KGB of the USSR – PGU. It consisted of several different units responsible for planning intelligence operations, technical means, agents, documents, radio communication, encryption, and analysis of the data received. Individual units were responsible for intelligence activities in certain foreign countries or regions, e.g. Unit 1 – USA, Canada; Unit 2 – South America; Unit 3 – Great Britain, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, etc. The agents themselves could operate abroad under official cover as employees of USSR embassies, consulates, international organisations, or illegally as undercover agents, with no official links to the USSR, often living and working under fictitious identities and forged documents.

The main tasks of foreign intelligence were:

1. Monitoring the political situation in the countries, clarifying politicians’ plans in relation to the USSR, and analysing emerging threats, especially those that could potentially lead to war;

2. Military, scientific-technical and economic espionage, keeping an eye on important discoveries that could provide a significant military advantage;

3. Looking for opponent’s weaknesses and, where possible and advantageous, to undermine them;

4. Disrupting various plots and provocations against the USSR and the socialist bloc countries;

5. Compromising, disorganising, and preventing ‘malicious’ activities of various anti-Soviet organisations or individuals (e.g., diaspora organisations, dissidents);

6. Supporting communist and pro-Soviet movements, both in rival countries and in third countries;

7. Identifying potential agents and operations being prepared for intelligence work in the USSR;

8. Organising disinformation campaigns to mislead the enemy, to disinform them on issues related to the USSR’s state policy, military and economic situation, and scientific and technical achievements. For the latter activity, a disinformation service was set up in 1947, and in 1959 a separate disinformation department ‘D’ (later renamed as department ‘A’, then service).

Some of the most prominent Soviet security agents. From left: Ashot Akopian, Konon Molody, Rudolph Abel.

Ashot Akopian was born in 1914. From 1946 he was an agent in Romania and from 1949 he worked in Italy, spying on the activities of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. He returned to the USSR in the late 1960’s. Died in Moscow in 1981.

Born in 1922, Konon Molody was an agent in the UK from 1955, spying on military and nuclear technologies under the name of Gordon Lonsdale. He was a successful businessman who mixed with the British high society. He was tracked down and arrested in 1961, and after three years of imprisonment was exchanged for a British spy arrested in the Soviet Union. He died in Moscow in 1970.

Rudolph Abel (real name William Fischer) was born in 1903. In 1948, under the cover of the passport of Lithuanian American Andrius Kajočius (who died in Lithuania in 1948), he was sent to the USA to spy on nuclear technology. He was arrested in 1957 and sentenced to 32 years in prison. In 1962, he was exchanged for Francis Powers, the pilot of the U-2 U.S. reconnaissance plane shot down by the Soviets. Upon his return to the Soviet Union, he trained young Soviet intelligence spies for missions abroad. He died in Moscow in 1971.

The second, and no less important, task of Soviet security was to fight against foreign intelligence activities inside the Soviet Union. Counterintelligence was the responsibility of the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate. Like other KGB divisions, it was also divided into several different units, the structure and names of which changed slightly over time along with changing priorities, but the basic tasks remained the same. Just like the First Intelligence Directorate, the Second Intelligence Directorate was divided into separate divisions for foreign countries and regions, responsible for neutralising the intelligence activities of these countries at home. The focus was on the most threatening rivals – the USA, Great Britain, western Germany, and China.

KGB educational literature on USA, British and Western German intelligence published.

Separate units were tracking foreigners arriving in the USSR – tourists, journalists, students, specialists in various fields, participants in sports and cultural events. Each of them was seen as a potential agent of the foreign special services. Foreigners were accommodated in special hotels and restaurants with hidden surveillance equipment and KGB-trained staff and were allowed to visit only in authorised areas. KGB agents monitored what the foreigners filmed and photographed, what objects were of interest to them, and with whom among the local population they communicated. They were checked to make sure they were not bringing or distributing banned literature.

Embassies of ‘capitalist’ countries and their staff were under continuous surveillance. Diplomatic immunity was a very favourable cover for intelligence activities, and embassies often became the main centres of intelligence. Own nationals who had established or were attempting to establish contacts with foreigners were subject to checks. Persons wishing to flee abroad and thus ‘betray their homeland’ were actively sought out and punished with the harshest penalties. The anti-Soviet press smuggled into the Soviet Union was searched for (what security officials called the fight against the enemy’s ‘ideological diversion’), its channels of entry were investigated, and those involved in distribution were caught. Foreign radio stations were also listened to, and the content of broadcasts was transcribed, translated into Russian and analysed. Considerable attention and effort were devoted to the protection of industrial enterprises, scientific institutions and transport areas which were related to the USSR defence industry, or which might have been important in a military conflict. Objects related to the army and military industry were concealed, their real purpose and production were disguised.

Extract from the KGB summary of foreign radio broadcasts on the territory of the USSR. An overview of the broadcasts of Voice of America.

KGB publishes a guide on how to control Soviet tourists travelling abroad.

The KGB exercised strict selection and control over Soviet tourists travelling abroad. The fear was that they might be recruited by foreign intelligence agencies, apply for political asylum, or become ‘infected’ with harmful habits of capitalist life. A separate section of the Second Board investigated smuggling and illegal currency operations. In the Soviet Union, citizens were forbidden to hold or trade in foreign currency and were facing imprisonment for such offences. The persistent shortages and often poor quality of many domestically produced goods made foreign goods highly marketable and attractive. Whenever the opportunity arose to go abroad, Soviet citizens tried to bring back as much as possible. Often, anti-Soviet press and other forbidden items were transported through the same channels as the goods, which could be used by foreign intelligence.
Throughout the Cold War, the struggle between the Soviet Union and foreign intelligence agencies brought its own victories and defeats on both sides. Agents on both sides have succeeded and failed in their operations and have sometimes been caught. Those caught were tried, imprisoned, and threatened with the death penalty. Agents who were caught were exchanged. Despite the KGB’s best efforts, some USSR citizens managed to escape the country. Some managed to apply for political asylum when travelling abroad, while others risked their lives by illegally crossing the USSR’s heavily guarded border. Anti-Soviet press and smuggled goods made their way, one way or another, into the Soviet Union through ‘the Iron Curtain’.
Intelligence agencies were not modest when it came to boasting about their victories. The exhibition offers visitors a series of photographs prepared by the KGB for propaganda and educational purposes on captured foreign intelligence agents, equipment and weapons seized from them, and smuggled items.