A Winter's Tale: From Russia with forced smiles and firm handshakes

For years, the Lubyanka in Moscow was the centre of the KGB's darkest deeds. Today, its Museum of the Intelligence Service has become a tourist attraction
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The Independent Travel

It was -24C in Moscow: stay-indoors temperature by anyone's standards, particularly a Brit in inappropriate clothing. Having struggled in countless layers along icy pavements, my feet were frozen stumps and my nostrils were full of ice. Just as I was beginning to see why Russians have no moral qualms about wearing fur, we reached the entrance to a featureless building. It was time to come in from the cold.

It was -24C in Moscow: stay-indoors temperature by anyone's standards, particularly a Brit in inappropriate clothing. Having struggled in countless layers along icy pavements, my feet were frozen stumps and my nostrils were full of ice. Just as I was beginning to see why Russians have no moral qualms about wearing fur, we reached the entrance to a featureless building. It was time to come in from the cold.

In a gloomy hallway, I was greeted with a forced smile and a firm handshake by a man in pinstripes. He marched us up a staircase and refused point-blank to give his name. No doubt if he had, he would have had to kill us. Why? Because he was an officer of the KGB, - sorry, Federal Security Service - and he was taking time out from his duties as a post-Communist secret policeman to show me and other curious tourists around Moscow's Museum of the Intelligence Service. Tour information, including names, was on a strictly need-to-know basis.

A few years ago, a tourist wouldn't have made it past the front door. The museum is housed in the infamous Lubyanka, the KGB's centre of repression for so many years that is said to have as many floors underground as it does above. It was the gateway to Siberia, or worse, for countless thousands, but today it's all gritted smiles and gentle propaganda. Stalin's atrocities are brushed aside in favour of Second World War heroics and accounts of highly efficient spy-catching.

We were taken past cabinet after cabinet of Soviet memorabilia charting the careers of spy masters and their moles. The history is fascinating but not nearly so much as the museum's main draw, the gadget area.

This is the stuff 007 fans' dreams are made of. A watch that takes photographs, a torch that fires high-velocity bullets, a lethal dart-pen and a microscopic message hidden in the title of a National Geographic article were all proudly displayed. I imagined midnight pursuits across the frozen Moskva river and mysterious figures in raincoats exchanging attaché cases in Gorky Park.

Not everything had the romance of the spy novel. I couldn't get excited, for example, by the secret tape-recorder that packs amazingly into a very large briefcase (admittedly circa 1940). But the overall effect was pure Fleming. I asked the Man with No Name if he liked James Bond. He replied stiffly, "Children's world compared with real thing". Fair enough but why is all the stuff American? Did Russians not go in for gadgetry? "We display theirs, they display ours. Visit the Museum of the FBI in Washington. You will see our apparatus."

Good to see that the Cold War isn't over just yet.

* Visits to Moscow's Museum of the Intelligence Service can be arranged as part of a city break through specialist operators such as Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711). Don't ask anyone's name and remember to take your passport. To see the Russian 'apparatus', visit the newly reopened FBI museum in Washington; details from www.fbi.gov

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