The KGB headquarters (and two photo tips!)

This large Neo-Baroque building with a facade of yellow brick, illuminated by a still warm autumn sun would probably bring a smile to the lips of the unaware tourist. Its very sight or even the sound of its name, Lubyanka, used to instil terror in the soul of every Soviet citizen.

It was originally built in 1898 as the headquarters of the All-Russia Insurance Company and it used to be much smaller than it is today, even if the exterior style remains relatively unchanged.

The Lubyanka building, as it appeared before 1917. Public Domain,

Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the structure was seized by the government for the headquarters of the secret police, then called the Cheka. In Soviet Russian jokes, it was referred to as the tallest building in Moscow, since Siberia (a euphemism for the Gulag labour camp system) could be seen from its basement…

During Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936-38, the offices became increasingly cramped due to staff numbers. In 1940, Aleksey Shchusev was commissioned to enlarge the building. His new design doubled the Lubyanka’s size horizontally, with the original structure taking up the left half of the facade (as viewed from the street). In addition he added another storey and extended the structure by incorporating backstreet buildings. Shchusev’s design accentuated Neo-Renaissance detailing, but only the right part of the facade was constructed under his direction in the 1940s, due to the war and other hindrances. This asymmetric facade survived intact until 1983, when the original structure was reconstructed to match the new build, at the urging of Communist Party General Secretary and former KGB Director Yuri Andropov in accordance with Shchusev’s plans.

Although the Soviet secret police changed its name many times, its headquarters remained in this building. Secret police chiefs from Lavrenty Beria to the aforementioned Yuri Andropov used the same office on the third floor, which looked down on the statue of Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. The Lubyanka square, where the building is located, was even renamed Dzerzhinsky Square for many years (1926–1990) in honor of the founder of the Soviet security service.

A prison at the ground floor of the building figures prominently in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s classic study of the Soviet police state, The Gulag Archipelago.

During the war Solzhenitsyn served as the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Red Armywas involved in major action at the front, and twice decorated. He was awarded the Order of the Red Star on 8 July 1944. Not even eight months later, though, in February 1945, he was arrested by SMERSH for writing derogatory comments in private letters to a friend about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called “Khozyain” (“the boss”), and “Balabos” (Yiddish rendering of Hebrew baal ha-bayit for “master of the house”). He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under the infamous Article 58 paragraph 10 of the Soviet criminal code. Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison, where he was interrogated. On 9 May 1945, it was announced that Germany had surrendered and all of Moscow broke out in celebrations with fireworks and searchlights illuminating the sky to celebrate the victory in the Great Patriotic War as Russians call the war with Germany. From his cell in the Lubyanka, Solzhenitsyn remembered: “Above the muzzle of our window, and from all the other cells of the Lubyanka, and from all the windows of the Moscow prisons, we too, former prisoners of war and former front-line soldiers, watched the Moscow heavens, patterned with fireworks and crisscrossed with beams of searchlights. There was no rejoicing in our cells and no hugs and no kisses for us. That victory was not ours”. On 7 July 1945, he was sentenced in his absence by Special Council of the NKVD to an eight-year term in a labour camp. This was the normal sentence for most crimes under Article 58 at the time.

After the dissolution of the KGB, Lubyanka became the headquarters of the Border Guard Service of Russia, and houses the Lubyanka prison and one directorate of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), which is the de-facto successor of the KGB, minus the terror which it used to instil in every single person. A testament to this much more “relaxed” approach to the secret police and the justice system is the fact that up to a couple of years ago, before they were shut down for completely unrelated reasons, the kiosks in the Lubyanka metro station, just a few meters away from the Lubyanka building, used to sell copies of KGB memorabilia.

On October 30, 1990, the Memorial organization erected the Solovetsky Stone, a monument to the victims of the Gulag, a simple stone from the Solovki prison camp in the White Sea. In 1991 the statue of Dzerzhinsky was removed by liberal protesters following the failure of the coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, and the square’s original name was officially restored.


And now, the Photo Tips!

  1. I almost always find that I like a picture best, and travel picture most of all, if it tells a story, or if there is a story to be told about it. That’s why I find that it always pays to do a bit of research (Google is your friend) about the history and traditions of a place you are going to visit. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the “classic” history: it might be related to any subject you are interested in and passionate about. Then you will invariably find a place that reminds you of something you have read, that is noteworthy for you, if not for anyone else, and you can take a picture of that place and have an interesting story to go with it.
  2. There is a fun way to look for a new perspective on a place you want to photograph. A great source of elevated “platforms” from which to take pictures are restaurants and cafes or bars. For instance I shot the feature picture of this post from the terrace of really nice pub slash pizza place on Lubyanka square (Jawsspot MSK), overlooking the Lubyanka building with a great unobstructed view, while sipping a delicious beer. Sometimes the restaurateurs might not be thrilled if you walk in, take your picture(s) and leave, especially if you want to take your time. This gives you a most excellent excuse to enjoy a cold beer (or a hot cocoa, depending on the season)!



Would you like to take part in a photowalk or a photo tour of Moscow or any other Russian destination with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking photographer (me) showing you the sights, the best time and viewpoint(s) to capture them in your images and helping you improve your photo technique with practical tips? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!




One thought on “The KGB headquarters (and two photo tips!)

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: