Museum of the History of the Political Police

   - darkometer rating:  3 -
A quirky little museum about an unusual subject matter in the heart of St Petersburg, where Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka secret service, had his office in 1917-1918. It covers various aspects of the subsequent NKVD and KGB secret services of the USSR as well as touching upon the post-Soviet Russian successor organization FSB. Unfortunately, for most international visitors, it is a rather old-school museum and that means that all labelling and almost all explanatory texts are in Russian only.   
More background info: The museum is housed in what used to be the City Municipality and City Police Administration. From the later 19th and all through the first half of the 20th century it had also been the seat of a succession of secret service organizations.
The infamous Felix Dzerzhinsky himself, head of the newly formed “Cheka”, the precursor of the NKVD and later KGB, worked here from 1917 to 1918, i.e. in the immediate post-revolution period.
Today's museum is run under the aegis of the State Museum of Political History. When this branch at Gorokhovaya was first set up is hard to establish, but I've read somewhere that the Cheka office is a reconstruction from 1987. So presumably the exhibition was set up together with this or afterwards.
Apparently it has also undergone lots of changes in more recent years and more changes may still come. So take the description below with a pinch of salt. I visited the place in early August 2017.
What there is to see: When I visited this museum, four rooms were accessible, and it seemed to me that that was all there was (I read reviews that at times only one hall was open while the rest underwent refurbishment).
The first room is the main exhibitions space – and it is a bit of a jumble room. That is to say, it's full of odd items and there's no clearly discernible structure. Most labelling and texts are in Russian only, except for a couple of general intro panels in rather clumsy English.
Many items on display, however, sufficiently speak for themselves, and there are even some in other languages. The most notable of what's on display are the English-language documents by US President John F. Kennedy concerning the early release of the Soviet spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel. This led to the exchange of Abel for the USAF pilot Gary Powers (whose U2 spy plane had been shot down over Soviet territory – see under IMW Duxford and Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow). This was the first and highest-profile such spy exchange at the famous Glienicke Bridge in Berlin.
The rest of this room has lots of photos and objects such as weapons and hand grenades, various medals (including ones with the head of Dzerzhinsky on them), spy cameras, a hollowed out book for hiding things in, uniforms (both KGB and the present-day FSB are represented), an old computer screen, a dummy diver in a wetsuit and a bomb-disposal robot. Some of the latter items I gathered have to do with current issues of counter-terrorism.
But overall quite a lot in this room remains obscure (and that even if you do know Russian, as my Russianist wife confirmed). The only things immediately obvious to me were the photos of Gorbachev and Reagan during negotiations in the 1980s and two US-presidential pens, one with Reagan's signature engraved on it, the other with George Bush's (presumably Bush senior).
The next room has an exhibition about secret service operations in the run-up to and during WWII. Here one exhibit that stood out for me was one in German, namely the document from the GDR that acknowledged the title of “Held der Sowjetunion” ('hero of the Soviet Union') posthumously awarded to Richard Sorge. He had been a German spy working for the Soviets in Japan, from where he obtained information about Hitler's plans to invade the USSR, which he did do in 1941. Shortly afterwards Sorge gathered intelligence that made it clear that Japan would not attack Soviet territory. This information allowed Stalin to transfer valuable forces to Europe instead. However, Sorge was uncovered as a spy in Japan, arrested and executed in 1944.
The following room consists basically just of a row of heavy document albums with metal frames and full of papers about individual spies and their operations. I gave it a miss.
But the final room is the main exhibit of this museum. Yes, the whole room is the exhibit: the (1987 reconstruction of the) former office of the chief of the St Petersburg Secret Political Police Department. It's full of heavy, dark furniture, period telephones and a tiled oven in the corner. This room gives the museum a little more of an air of history.
But overall, this is a rather strange museum, and probably not to be recommended to many. Without a sound previous knowledge of Soviet history, and, more importantly, without a good knowledge of the Russian language, you won't get much out of it.
Before or after visiting the museum, also take note of the Dzerzhinsky plaque on the side of the building, on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa. It shows the man's face with his iconic goatee beard and wild eyes and hair flying. A proper Soviet relic!
Location: right in the centre of St Petersburg, Russia, with the official address of 2 Ulitsa Gorokhovaya, but the entrance is actually round the corner at 6 Admiralteysky Prospekt, right opposite the Admiralty building and round the corner from the top end of Nevsky Prospekt.
Google maps locator: [59.9365, 30.3109]
Access and costs: very centrally located, though not as obviously marked as could be; quite inexpensive.
Details: The closest metro station is Admiralteyskaya, just a few steps away. From the station exit walk up the short remaining bit of Nevsky Prospekt, simply turn left at the end of that boulevard, and the next building is the one with the museum, right opposite the iconic Admiralty building and the park in front of it. Outside there's only a sign in Russian and the entrance to the building may not look all that inviting, but just enter and head up the stairs to get to the museum rooms in the north wing's first floor (the rest of the building still has various other functions, don't stray there).
Opening times: different sources state different things – the museum's own website, as well as few travel sites, say: weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed at weekends and on public holidays. The IYP guide (last checked in December 2017), on the other hand, claims it's also open at weekends from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., but closed on Tuesdays. I can only say that I went on a Monday around lunchtime and it was open then.
Admission: there is conflicting information about this too. The museum's own website says 100 RUB (under 18-year-olds free), and no charge for photography. But the (usually trustworthy and up-to-date) travel website says 150 RUB (and students 60 RUB, children 40 RUB) and that a photo permit costs an extra 100 RUB. I can't remember what exactly I paid, but no matter, either way it isn't very much.
Time required: this very much depends … namely on a) whether or not you can read Russian, and b) how deep your interest is in the minutiae of secret service operations. I spent at best half an hour in there, but others might need significantly longer.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under St Petersburg.
The most important combination in relation to this museum has to be its “mother” institution, the State Museum of Political History in the Petrogradsky district across the Neva River east of the Peter & Paul Fortress. It's a ca. half an hour's walk from here using Troitsky Bridge. And a few blocks further up the road from there is the Kirov Museum, which is also a shrine to early Soviet days.
In no way thematically related, but much closer by is the Kunstkamera with its anatomical collection. It's just across the the river west of the Palace Bridge, a mere 10 minutes' walk or so away.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Thanks to its location, this museum easily combines with a whole host of St Petersburg's top mainstream attractions such as the Hermitage and Palace Square, Nevsky Prospekt, or St Isaac's Cathedral, all of which are literally just round the corner.
  • Political Police Museum 1 - main exhibition roomPolitical Police Museum 1 - main exhibition room
  • Political Police Museum 2 - Dzerzhinski and medalsPolitical Police Museum 2 - Dzerzhinski and medals
  • Political Police Museum 3 - powerful weaponPolitical Police Museum 3 - powerful weapon
  • Political Police Museum 4 - the spy exchange of Abel and PowellPolitical Police Museum 4 - the spy exchange of Abel and Powell
  • Political Police Museum 5 - side roomPolitical Police Museum 5 - side room
  • Political Police Museum 6 - heavy metal booksPolitical Police Museum 6 - heavy metal books
  • Political Police Museum 7 - Leningrad NKVD officePolitical Police Museum 7 - Leningrad NKVD office
  • Political Police Museum 8 - well connectedPolitical Police Museum 8 - well connected
  • Political Police Museum 9 - the present-day successor organization FSBPolitical Police Museum 9 - the present-day successor organization FSB


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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