Sorry, No Kandinskys

You enter the KGB Museum through a cavernous, columned foyer adorned with a huge white bust of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police. Then you walk up a flight of stairs, past a gold-leaf inscription reading "To the Chekists-Soldiers of the Revolution," and meet the official guide, himself a long-time veteran of the old KGB, who refuses to give his name to visitors.

The Chekists were the members of Version 1.0 of the KGB, which was originally known, on its founding in 1918, as the Cheka (actually an abbreviation of its long and bureaucratic name, the "Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Sabotage and Counterrevolution"). Officially the KGB's history ended in 1991, when the abortive attempt to remove Mikhail Gorbachev from the head of the Soviet Union ended up leading to the breakup of the secret police into half a dozen component parts. One of those is the domestic security service, the FSB, which was recently tasked with running the guerrilla war still grinding along in Chechnya. The other, the SVR (which stands for Foreign Intelligence Service), runs Russian spies abroad-including, until last week, Robert Philip Hanssen, the accused FBI mole revealed to have been secretly working for the Russians for 15 years.

When asked about Hanssen, the guide-with-no-name says, deadpan, "I don't know anything about it and I won't comment on it." When pressed, though, he finally smiles and says that the museum might one day contain an exhibit about Hanssen's work, "assuming, that is, that we're unified with the SVR again some day."

The KGB Museum lives on today, in post-Soviet Russia, and does so without apology. The guide will inform you with pride that the museum was founded in 1984 by Yuri Andropov, who became the head of the USSR after years as KGB director. When new recruits join the modern-day FSB, they take their oath on the Russian constitution in the Historical Hall of the museum. And just in case you didn't get the message about continuity, a showcase at one end of the hall displays three Soviet secret police uniforms dating from the early 1920s to the 1970s-and a fourth, the present uniform of the FSB. A big book introduces visitors to the organization's directors, starting with Dzerzhinsky and ending with Nikolai Patrushev, the present head of the FSB, who succeeded Vladimir Putin, now Russia's president. The last room of the museum contains exhibits from the 1990s, including weapons confiscated from organized crime groups and Chechen rebels.

The KGB Museum has 2,000 exhibits, some of them quite fascinating for fans of espionage-including the pipe once smoked by Kim Philby, who spied for the USSR from within the British secret service, or gadgetry taken off of CIA agents captured in Russia. Every year, thousands of visitors pay around $10 to spend two hours (only guided tours are allowed) browsing through the exhibits. Past guests have included former CIA Director William Webster and many a spy from both sides of the old Cold War divide.

For all their cachet, though, it's less the objects on display than the version of history presented in the KGB Museum that makes it a perfect introduction to Vladimir Putin's Russia. The Historical Hall, for example, starts its explanation of the KGB's history much earlier than the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution-in fact, it begins with Peter the Great's creation of the first foreign intelligence branch. "Actually," says the guide, "you can even trace our history back to the fourteenth century." Back in Soviet times, he explains, the museum naturally wasn't allowed to draw any links with the secret police of the Czars, since official communist ideology insisted that history had started from zero when the Bolsheviks took over power. The museum guide thinks that that was wrong: "A lot of those traditions were good and everything that was good in the Czarist period should have been retained."

By the same token, Chekists past can't expect to get good brownie points in the museum just for being good communists. One of Stalin's bloodiest henchmen, the secret police chief Genrikh Yagoda, gets a bad review at the KGB Museum because of his supervision of the Great Terror in the 1920s: "It was a great tragedy for our organization-20,000 of our members were shot." (There is little mention of the millions of other Soviet citizens who fell victim to Stalin's terrors, and the official death toll from the Stalin period, noted on a small board in an inconspicuous corner, is far lower than that given by most respectable historians.) Yet Dzerzhinsky, the secret police founder, gets high praise: "He was a great economic reformer. If he had lived, perhaps we would have been able to move to a market economy earlier and we would have avoided many of the mistakes later made in the economy."

Curiously, another secret policeman who earns similar good marks is Lavrenty Beria, who lost out in the power struggle after Stalin's death and was shot shortly thereafter. "Yes," admits the guide, "Beria was a killer" but then explains that he also wanted to institute market reforms and was even prepared to allow for the unification of Germany.

In short, what matters in the KGB Museum is neither old-style communist ideology nor modern-day democracy and human rights. The FSB and other Russian security services remain unencumbered by the kind of parliamentary oversight that puts at least some restraints on the work of their western equivalents, a point nowhere mentioned in the museum. Ask the guide about the Gulag, and he offers the Orwellian argument that "it bore no relation to us-that was part of the police."

That's an out-and-out lie, but it's perfectly in line with the rewriting of history that's back in vogue under Vladimir Putin, whose own autobiography contains some throw-away remarks about how "gently" the KGB treated dissidents. Putin has spoken repeatedly of his own "pride" about his work for the KGB intelligence and has promoted countless secret police alumni into key positions in the government since his own rise to power. And the kind of Russia they seem to want looks remarkably like the one on view in the KGB Museum-the new nationalist ideal of a revitalized, authoritarian Russia with a modern economy. In short, no one should be expecting the museum to be closing down anytime soon.