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Past Echoes in Ex-Soviet Prison : Lubyanka: Old KGB cellblock recalls interrogation and torture of dissidents.

September 07, 1991|ANN IMSE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

MOSCOW — The sinister steel door in Lubyanka prison still has bars over the shoulder-high slot where KGB guards once spoke to political prisoners like Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

But today it leads nowhere.

It is sealed shut, and the famous prison inside the KGB's Lubyanka headquarters has been converted to a staff cafeteria and bookkeeping department. The KGB stopped interrogating prisoners there when dictator Josef Stalin died in 1953, the secret police agency said Friday.

Dissidents' memoirs tell of endless hours of interrogation under piercing bright lights in the Lubyanka cells, screams echoing down long hallways and isolation from everyone but their jailers.

"Everyone who was repressed was brought here for investigation," said KGB spokesman Alexander Karabainov during the first full tour ever given to Westerners--or at least, Westerners who were allowed to leave.

Now that the KGB is run by reformer Vadim V. Bakatin, the spy and police agency cracked the seal of secrecy for Cable News Network and the Associated Press.

Four of the 14 conspirators charged with treason in the failed coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev were KGB generals.

The prison's small cellblock, with its chipped concrete stairs and bars on the door and windows, was the only evidence displayed of the building's evil history, from the torture of purged patriots in the 1930s to the concocting of criminal cases against dissidents in the 1970s and the plotting of last month's coup.

The tunnels and dungeons long rumored to be underneath Lubyanka Square just don't exist, Karabainov insisted. Nor does the world's most infamous spy agency have a communications and command center, he said.

Karabainov said all prisoners are now kept at the heavily fortified Lefortovo Prison, and the archives containing dossiers on dissidents, foreigners and KGB informers are scattered all over town. There wasn't even a nefarious laboratory with scheming scientists devising poison umbrellas.

The two-story cellblock has become the bookkeeping department for the KGB cafeteria--heavily overstaffed like most Soviet offices. Two to three clerks at a time work in each of the 10-by-10-foot former prison cells, now laid with battered oak floors. One woman said she didn't mind working in a former prison because she gained a larger office.

"You know," whispered another, "they say they kept Bukharin here!"

Nikolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik revolutionary and Stalin rival, was falsely charged in 1937 with plotting to kill V. I. Lenin in 1918, and vilified and condemned to death in a show trial.

His last letter spoke of his "helplessness in the face of a hellish machine."

Wallenberg, who is credited with saving thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis, died in Lubyanka in 1947, Soviet authorities maintain.

The second floor of the remaining Lubyanka cellblock now is used for storage, Karabainov said. Broken bits of computer innards litter the corridor, and the metal door of Room 15-A is sealed with a strip of wire and a bit of sealing wax.

As press officers raced down the hallways with television cameras in tow, KGB agents ducked their heads and tried to sneak by. In the office where other spies pore over the Soviet press daily, CNN President Tom Johnson noticed an American-made Hewlett-Packard computer and said he would have to tease company co-founder--and former U.S. deputy defense secretary--David Packard.

"Tell him he works for the KGB!" crowed Karabainov.

Next door, the typing pool worked under a large poster of muscleman actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Downstairs, the old cellblocks have disappeared, replaced by the KGB cafeteria.

Cleaner and cheaper than most Soviet eateries, Friday's luncheon special was the classic Soviet dish, "meat with egg," a bargain at 1.90 rubles, or $3.10, half the going rate. A handwritten plea tacked to the wall asks KGB agents to return cafeteria silverware and glasses.

Bakatin's aide told a Soviet newspaper that the food is better at the KGB than in the Kremlin.

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