The handful of buildings in the beautiful city of Tallinn reeking of Estonia’s much despised Soviet past have been surprisingly preserved by the locals. This preservation however, does not appear to have been done out of any gesture of love, more out of a desire to ridicule with the greatest of effect. Could the insult of turning these once Communist strongholds into palaces of pure indulgent Capitalism be any more obvious?
As well as being the only skyscraper in Tallinn at the time, the Hotel Viru was also once the only place westerners and expat Estonians were allowed to stay in whilst visiting the then Communist city. It was built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s out of necessity: the necessity to (grudgingly) encourage much needed western money into the country, and the necessity to spy on their rich, western patrons.
It was a luxurious complex, partly as a propaganda tool to the West but also to distract guests from their suspicions that every word they uttered in the hotel was secretly being monitored by the KGB.
But the KGB’s pride in defending the reputation of the Motherland often hampered their spying endeavours, reacting swiftly to the private moans of those they listened in to. On realising at the worst possible moment that there was no toilet paper in his bathroom, an American guest shouted in frustration “So the Commies don’t even have toilet paper hey?!”. Ten minutes later, a nervous looking chambermaid clutching a basket full of toilet rolls came to the guest’s door apologising profusely that she had totally forgotten to put toilet rolls in the guest’s bathroom earlier and had immediately come to his room as soon as she had realised her mistake.
When Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, curious staff no longer fearing the threat of the KGB explored parts of the hotel that until then had been out of bounds to them. What they discovered was like something out of a James Bond movie.
Staff and guests were convinced by the presence of a functioning twenty-third floor at the hotel and wanted to know what was really up there. When the rumours became too widespread to be controlled, the Soviet management came up with yet another almost plausible explanation for it: the hotel was originally going to be twenty-three storeys high, but when the structure was almost finished Soviet representatives felt the stunning view from the twenty-third floor was a security risk as it offered too good a vantage point over the city to allow guests particularly those from the enemy West, to have access to it. It was decided therefore that the floor would not be completed and was closed off to all but security-cleared staff, of which there were only a handful.
Days after the country’s independence in 1991, Estonian staff kicked down the door and ventured up to whatever was above the twenty-second floor.
Both rooms were state-of-the-art KGB operations rooms, manned around the clock to monitor guests on site. When it was clear Estonia was within days of regaining control of its country from the Soviet Union back in 1991, the KGB operators abandoned the hotel and left everything behind. There was no time to strip the rooms, disable the equipment and destroy any evidence of the KGB’s presence there. Everything that was found on the twenty-third floor by the staff over two decades ago has since been preserved and used to turn the whole floor into a museum, where Margrit the tour guide – a local Estonian who grew up in Tallinn under the Soviet occupation – gleefully tells fascinating stories about the KGB’s operations and incompetence within the hotel and the staff’s ingenuity at overcoming Soviet oppression.
The KGB would occasionally use booby-trapped purses to test the honesty of hotel staff who were on strict orders to hand in any found western wallets or purses immediately and to never, ever look inside them. If a member of staff was tempted and opened one of these purses, the ink bomb inside would go off covering the opener with permanent red ink. S/he would literally be caught red handed and duly dealt with.
Usually in museums, one is only allowed to look and not touch, particularly if the items on display are of significant, historical value. But in the Hotel Viru’s KGB museum, Margrit the tour guide actively encourages people to pick up and try out the spying tools on display, a favourite being the spy camera above. She even hands out pieces of scrap paper to those who wish to play with the array of abandoned KGB stamping equipment on the desks, once only used to emboss the most confidential of KGB files. As I queued up eagerly to take my turn on the stamps and take a piece of KGB history home with me, Margrit joked “this is what we call the interactive part of the tour!”.
Close to the end of the tour I asked Margrit the tour guide what was the general feeling today (Spring 2014) in Tallinn with the latest threat of Soviet occupation by President Putin. Margrit shrugged her shoulders and said “of course we are all very frightened, but we have been occupied so many times in our history, we’ll just take this latest threat in our stride”.
Defiant and gutsy to the end.
Tours at the Hotel Viru’s KGB museum are held daily in English (up to two a day), Finnish and Russian only. There are no tours on Mondays during November-April. Places on the tours are limited so prebooking is advisable. Either email (details can be found here at the official hotel website) or call into the hotel and go to the information desk (rather than reception) towards the left of the entrance hall at least twenty-four hours in advance. Tickets are €9 (2014), but slightly cheaper if staying at the hotel.
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Why it’s advisable to carry around a neck-brace whilst sight-seeing around Tallinn
Great romantic walks and Peter the Great’s romantic palace of love in Tallinn’s Kadriorg Park