Oleg Kalugin, a man some credit with helping to foil the hard-line coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991—and others, including Vladimir Putin, have dubbed a traitor—did not appear to partake of the catered spread on Wednesday afternoon in the basement meeting room at the Discovery Times Square exhibit space. The occasion was a press luncheon pegged to the launch of SPY: The Secret World of Espionage, a traveling exhibition of Cold War memorabilia, and Major General Kalugin, now a professor with the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies in Alexandria, Virginia, was there to offer support—and perhaps to serve as something of a living relic himself.
Actually, maybe he wolfed down a turkey sandwich when we turned away. We can’t be sure, which is why we are not in the espionage game. But Maj. Gen. Kalugin has good reason to be careful. The former head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB, he publicly denounced the agency, spoke up against corruption and vilified Mr. Putin as a war criminal over the war in Chechnya.
A compact man with silvery hair, he noted that a former colleague had let it be known that Mr. Kalugin “would have been dead a long time ago” if he’d emigrated to Europe, instead of the states. “There has not been a single case of a political murder by the Soviets or Russians on the territory of the United States, and I would know,” he said, flashing an impish grin.
Mr. Kalugin actually began his espionage career in New York in the late ’50s, pursuing various clandestine activities while employing the cover of a Columbia student, studying journalism on a Fulbright. (James Franco, are you listening?)
He’s now a U.S. citizen, so it’s all good.
Speaking of political murder, Mr. Kalugin played a role in one of the most sensational rub-outs of the Cold War, the killing of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, a journalist for the BBC Radio and Voice of America. Mr. Markov was felled by a ricin-coated micropellet fired from an umbrella gun on London’s Waterloo Bridge. While admitting he’d been privy to the planning of the assassination, Mr. Kalugin was careful to note that the Soviets did not have any operational involvement in the hit but merely provided the Bulgarians “technical advice”—including, of course, the poison and the umbrella itself, which is now on display in the exhibition.
The weapon is part of the voluminous trove of spy memorabilia collected by the show’s organizer, H. Keith Melton. Among his other treasures on view are Robert Hanssen’s Palm Pilot, Aldrich Ames’s coffee cup, and cuckoo-clock camera of the sort that the Stasi placed in hotel rooms throughout East Germany.
Mr. Melton also managed to wrangle the cooperation of the CIA, which lent dozens of items, including a pigeon camera, an “Insectohopter” miniature spy drone shaped like a dragonfly, and the last flag to wave over Checkpoint Charlie.
Mr. Melton said the goal of the exhibit was to educate the public about the vital role played by our intelligence services and encourage young people to consider careers as spooks. “It begins with the kids,” he said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the enthusiastic involvement of the Company, the exhibition delivers an appealingly romantic view of tradecraft. There’s no “yellowcake” on display. None of that cocaine trafficked by the Nicaraguan Contras with an assist by Langley. No mention of Curveball, or Valerie Plame or aluminum tubes. No Bay of Pigs. No waterboards.
Perhaps the most precious item is the ice axe that was used to assassinate Leon Trotsky by Stalinist agent Ramón Mercader. Mr. Melton obtained it for a princely sum. “Modesty prevents me from discussing it,” he said.
Though he wore a shiny CIA lapel pin at the luncheon, Mr. Melton was never a spy himself. He made his fortune as a McDonald’s owner-operator in South Florida, ultimately amassing 36 restaurants before cashing out a few years ago after a contract dispute with McDonald’s corporate. In a legal complaint filed in that case, Micky D’s accused him of wiretapping a negotiation.
The Observer couldn’t help wondering if Mr. Melton had been putting his gadget collection to personal use.
“I’m too smart to do things like that,” he said, explaining that the court threw out the charge, which had been based on a misunderstanding. “We said we had a ‘record’ of a conversation and they thought that meant we’d taped it, although we made it clear we just took handwritten notes.”
The suit was settled “very amicably,” he added. “I retired as the most successful McDonald’s operator in history.”
SPY: The Secret World of Espionage is now on view at Discovery Times Square.