Tallinn … true tales of espionage, real Bond style gadgets and the exposure of Russian spies at the Hotel Viru’s fascinating KGB museum

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?

Estonia's oldest cinema the Sõprus in the heart of Tallinn, the last remaining Stalinist building in the capital

Estonia’s oldest cinema the Sõprus in the heart of Tallinn, the last remaining Stalinist building in the capital

A Russian revolutionary star on the front of the building ...

A Russian revolutionary star on the front of the building …

... and other celebratory Communist symbols around the exterior of the cinema

… and other celebratory Communist symbols around the exterior of the cinema

Tallinn KGB history cinema detail hammer

On the outside the Sõprus may look like a surviving bastion of Communism but on the inside it now houses the most Capitalist of past-times: a casino and an arthouse cinema showing movies like the romantic 'Blue is the Warmest Colour' that even today's Russian leaders would endeavour to ban if they still held authority over Estonia

On the outside the Sõprus may look like a surviving bastion of Communism but on the inside it now houses the most Capitalist of past-times: a casino and an arthouse cinema showing movies like the romantic ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ that even today’s Russian leaders would endeavour to ban if they still held authority over Estonia

This beautifully restored building on the historical Old Town street of Pikk was once the headquarters of the KGB during the Cold War

This beautifully restored building on the historical Old Town street of Pikk was once the headquarters of the KGB during the Cold War

The windows to the basement of Pikk 59 were bricked up by the KGB in the 1960s so the screams and protests of those they were interrogating could not be heard from the street above

The windows to the basement of Pikk 59 were bricked up by the KGB in the 1960s so the screams and protests of those they were interrogating could not be heard from the street above

A plaque on the front of Pikk 59 reads "This building housed the headquarters of the organ of repression of the Soviet occupation power. Here began the road to suffering for thousands of Estonians"

A plaque on the front of Pikk 59 reads “This building housed the headquarters of the organ of repression of the Soviet occupation power. Here began the road to suffering for thousands of Estonians”

Yet on the same wall only a few metres away from the memorial plaque, another plaque advertises the newly converted luxury apartments available to buy in the building. Whether any locals would be comfortable enough to want to live here knowing the building's past is yet to be seen, but this is certainly another example of Tallinn defiantly sticking two capitalist fingers up at its Soviet occupied past

Yet on the same wall only a few metres away from the memorial plaque, another plaque advertises the newly converted luxury apartments available to buy in the building. Whether any locals would be comfortable enough to want to live here knowing the building’s past is yet to be seen, but this is certainly another example of Tallinn defiantly sticking two capitalist fingers up at its Soviet occupied past

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.

Tallinn's famous Hotel Viru, now under new (western) management. When built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, guests and local staff were initially told by the Soviet management that the hotel was twenty-two storeys high. But a simple count from street level revealed there were twenty-three ...

Tallinn’s famous Hotel Viru, now under new (western) management. When built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, guests and local staff were initially told by the Soviet management that the hotel was twenty-two storeys high. But a simple count from street level revealed there were twenty-three …

When rumours started to circulate, the Soviet management published informative brochures about the hotel, revealing the apparent twenty-third floor as merely an area housing the mechanisms of the lift shaft and not really a floor at all

When rumours started to circulate, the Soviet management published informative brochures about the hotel, revealing the apparent twenty-third floor as merely an area housing the mechanisms of the lift shaft and not really a floor at all

But guests and local staff could see from the windows on the twenty-second floor (where this photo was taken) that there clearly was another floor above them with apparent rooms

But guests and local staff could see from the windows on the twenty-second floor (where this photo was taken) that there clearly was another floor above them with apparent rooms

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.

The view over Tallinn from the mysterious twenty-third floor of the Hotel Viru was indeed stunning as Estonian staff found out when they finally gained access to the floor shortly after regaining independence ...

The view over Tallinn from the mysterious twenty-third floor of the Hotel Viru was indeed stunning as Estonian staff found out when they finally gained access to the floor shortly after regaining independence …

...

...

... but contrary to what the previous Soviet management had said, the floor had been completed and furnished with at least two rooms that, until a few days before Estonia's regained independence, had most definitely been in use

… but contrary to what the previous Soviet management had said, the floor had been completed and furnished with at least two rooms that, until a few days before Estonia’s regained independence, had most definitely been in use

The Estonian and Russian message on this door found on the mysterious twenty-third floor translates as "There is nothing here". This is a rare example of KGB humour because when this door was eventually broken down shortly after Estonia regained its independence in 1991 (it still shows signs of where the hotel staff forced it open), there was most definitely something behind it

The Estonian and Russian message on this door found on the mysterious twenty-third floor translates as “There is nothing here”. This is a rare example of KGB humour because when this door was eventually broken down shortly after Estonia regained its independence in 1991 (it still shows signs of where the hotel staff forced it open), there was most definitely something behind it

Behind that door was a functioning KGB operations room with listening and recording equipment wired up to several rooms in the hotel

Behind that door was a functioning KGB operations room with listening and recording equipment wired up to several rooms in the hotel

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.

Authentic KGB uniforms in addition to the actual furnishings and equipment found in the now defunct KGB operations room

Authentic KGB uniforms in addition to the actual furnishings and equipment found in the now defunct KGB operations room

...

The equipment and documents are genuine and are just as they were left by the KGB (give or take a few minor restaging adjustments) when they abandoned this operation over twenty years ago. Even the ashtray has not been emptied and really does contain the butts of cigarettes smoked by the Hotel Viru's Soviet spies

The equipment and documents are genuine and are just as they were left by the KGB (give or take a few minor restaging adjustments) when they abandoned this operation over twenty years ago. Even the ashtray has not been emptied and really does contain the butts of cigarettes smoked by the Hotel Viru’s Soviet spies

Tallinn KGB museum hidden spy room instructions book

State of the art recording equipment, Cold War style

State of the art recording equipment, Cold War style

Inside the second KGB room

Inside the second KGB room

A snug fit in the second room with Margrit, the brilliant tour guide telling yet another captivating tale about the worst kept secret in the Baltics

A snug fit in the second room with Margrit, the brilliant tour guide telling yet another captivating tale about the worst kept secret in the Baltics

The (Communist) red phone was a direct hotline back to Moscow, hence the lack of a dial ...

The (Communist) red phone was a direct hotline back to Moscow, hence the lack of a dial …

... which explained the telegraph line that ran from the top of the hotel to the spire of St Olaf's church (seen out of the window here) during the city's Soviet occupation. One couldn't miss it, but no one dared at the time to question its existence

… which explained the telegraph line that ran from the top of the hotel to the spire of St Olaf’s church (seen out of the window here) during the city’s Soviet occupation. One couldn’t miss it, but no one dared at the time to question its existence

Items that would make even 'Q' salivate with excitement: on display in the museum are items that were found within the hotel during a complete sweep of the complex after independence, revealing how the KGB listened-in on guests. In this display case are actual listening 'bugs', one disguised and worn as cufflinks (top right)

Items that would make even ‘Q’ salivate with excitement: on display in the museum are items that were found within the hotel during a complete sweep of the complex after independence, revealing how the KGB listened-in on guests. In this display case are actual listening ‘bugs’, one disguised and worn as cufflinks (top right)

From left the right: a purse with an ink bomb contained within it, an antennae found in one of the air conditioning ducts to improve the listening range of the KGB's bugs, a KGB telescope with a camera attached, and an ashtray commonly used by the KGB to conceal underneath it small listening devices at tables in the hotel's restaurants and bars

From left the right: a purse with an ink bomb contained within it, an antennae found in one of the air conditioning ducts to improve the listening range of the KGB’s bugs, a KGB telescope with a camera attached, and an ashtray commonly used by the KGB to conceal underneath it small listening devices at tables in the hotel’s restaurants and bars

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.

It's certainly not a compact camera (nor a well exposed photo)

It’s certainly not a compact camera (nor a well exposed photo)

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!”.

Anything can be used to collect an authentic KGB stamp from the Hotel Viru's KGB museum, but it's probably best not to use your passport, especially if you are planning a trip to America in the not too distant future. I used my museum ticket (top in purple ink, and embossed bottom right)

Anything can be used to collect an authentic KGB stamp from the Hotel Viru’s KGB museum, but it’s probably best not to use your passport, especially if you are planning a trip to America in the not too distant future. I used my museum ticket (top in purple ink, and embossed bottom right)

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.

Russian dolls for sale in a Tallinn souvenir shop close to the Hotel Viru, including some familiar faces on the top shelf ...

Russian dolls for sale in a Tallinn souvenir shop close to the Hotel Viru, including some familiar faces on the top shelf …

Hopefully this will be as far as Russia gets to occupying Estonia again

Hopefully this will be as far as Russia gets to occupying Estonia again

Useful information

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.

TLT x


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