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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tunnel Vision: Did the KGB Spy on Stalin?

Workmen reconstructing the Kremlin's Senate Building have uncovered secret tunnels and false airducts from which the forerunner of the KGB may have monitored Joseph Stalin. Construction workers revamping the 18th-century building where the Soviet dictator lived and worked have found a series of man-sized tunnels underneath his apartment and offices, Kremlin officials said Wednesday. The 40- to 50-centimeter high tunnels were not accessible directly from the rooms, but had listening access through holes in the walls disguised as heating and air grates, according to Valery Gorilov, the Kremlin's deputy commandant. What this secret paraphernalia was used for remains unclear and no electronic listening devices remain in the chambers. Gorilov said they may have been removed at a later date. Top security experts contacted Wednesday agreed that the tunnels probably fell into disuse after only a few years of operation. "If there was something, it lasted just two or three years during the late 1920s," said Pyotr Nikulin, a former KGB colonel who was deputy head of the KGB's research institute. Monitoring Stalin "could not have happened in the 1930s; no one could have even gotten close." General Dmitry Volkogonov, a biographer of Stalin, also said that the late 1920s or early 1930s was the most likely time for such intrigue. But he also said Stalin might have been behind the scheme. "Perhaps Stalin himself wanted to do this in the 1920s or early 1930s to see if he had enemies," Volkogonov said in an interview. "But then he stopped doing it because there was no real danger." On the other hand, could a rogue NKVD -- the KGB's forerunner -- have monitored Stalin? "No one could have listened to Stalin; he was an absolute dictator," said Volkogonov. Stalin gradually seized power in the fledgling Soviet Union after Lenin's death in 1924. He crushed his opposition in the mid-1920s, and by 1929 he had eliminated the last of his great rivals by exiling Leon Trotsky. The Georgian-born dictator took up residence at his offices in the Senate building only in 1932, making it less likely that spies listened in on his more intimate moments. Even after that time, he spent many nights at his dacha in Kuntsevo. The Kremlin's current overseers say the crawl spaces resemble heating ducts, except they are wider and contain stairwells. "Such a construction does not rule out that someone was listening," said deputy Kremlin Commandant Gorilov. A spokesman for the Federal Counterintelligence Service, the descendant of the NKVD and KGB, said he was uninterested in the theme. "There is no evidence of this, so I don't think it's worth talking about," said Vladimir Tomorovsky, a spokesman for the service. "It seems to me that this is an attempt by journalists to create some sensational material." The popular tabloid-style newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets published photos of the tunnels last weekend and suggested that the NKVD was behind their construction. "It was the deepest dream of any intelligent agent in the world!" the newspaper gushed. The Russian news media have frequently run stories of secret tunnels or even cities underneath the Kremlin, Red Square and other areas of Moscow. But unlike these tales which, though tantalizing, are not always convincing, the Stalin tunnels have received official Kremlin confirmation. Other reports have said that during the communist era, spying on the Kremlin bosses was as common as the long-winded political speeches which everyone endured. "Up until 1990, all the leaders were listened to by special people," said Volkogonov. "There's no secret in that; I have documents showing this." Stalin was the last leader to live behind the Kremlin walls. He was following the lead of Lenin, who lived modestly in an apartment a floor above Stalin's living quarters until his death. Nikita Khrushchev, Alexei Kosygin and other top Kremlin functionaries later took over Stalin's rooms as office space. About 2,000 workers are now rebuilding these former offices as part of a major reconstruction of the triangular Senate Building to create a new presidential residence by 1996, Gorilov said. The Kremlin last month evicted the Lenin Apartment Museum, whose once-hallowed rooms will also endure a complete makeover for the first time in 70 years. "For now, the tunnels are unique to the Stalin rooms, but we have not yet done Lenin's apartment," said Gorilov.