Absolute top of the list of things to do in Tallinn is the KGB Museum at the Hotel Viru. Our guide, Jana, was vivacious, animated and bursting with amusing stories about The Hotel Viru and its history.
It was built in 1972, to bring much needed tourist revenue into Estonia. It’s bright and cheerful inside now but originally the decor was dark and gloomy, even a bit scary, with that typically Soviet, austere-but-trying-to-be-grand look about it.
Finland had a job shortage at the time and the Soviets wanted some of their oil so they did a deal and Finnish workers built the hotel which is why it took two years to build, instead of 7 or 8.
There was a three week gap between hotel completion and opening. Very handy. Gave the KGB time to get in there and install their radio equipment and bugging devices on the 23rd floor – the floor that didn’t officially exist. Although every so often, somebody would helpfully write next to the buttons in the lift, ’23rd floor – KGB’ and a cleaner would be sent to scrub it off, pronto.
The public lift stopped at the 22nd floor then a secret stairway went to the non-existent 23rd floor where there was a sign on the door saying ‘Nothing in here.’ One employee did wander into the surveillance room by mistake and found himself looking at the business end of a gun. ‘Oh hi guys, what are you listening to? Anything good?’ probably wouldn’t have been what he said to the men with the head phones.
There were two rooms – an office and a surveillance room.’We’ve left them exactly as they were because we didn’t want to give you Disneyland,’ said Jana.
The two newspapers on the desk had different photographs but identical text. Journalists had to get permission before they could publish anything and it took ages so mostly they kept the same State-approved, eulogizing text and just swapped the photos. Think I’d have been tempted to put a photo of Noddy on there.
The smell of the old lino apparently takes any Eastern European back to Soviet times. It took me straight back to school, actually … but moving swiftly onto the second room where the surveillance was carried out.
The KGB left in 1992. Seems they were in a bit of a hurry. Imagine the panic:
KGB Boss: Right boys, put those cigarettes out, don’t bother to empty the ashtrays. We’ve got to get out of here and fast. Yuri, knacker the radios up. Olaf, throw these papers all over the place. I’m going to wack the phones with this hammer.
Yuri: Aw, you promised I could bash the phones up.
Olaf: No, me, me!
Boss: Nope. I’m the boss. I get the hammer.
(Off they go – bash, bash, rip, stamp. Wheee! ….. this is much fun than listening to hotel guests complaining about the toilet paper ).
Boss: Right, that’s all we’ve got time for. Let’s go. Yuri, put that camp bed down. No, we can’t take it with us. (Wags finger). Don’t give me that look, we’ll get you another.
Olaf: Aww…. just another 5 minutes, pleease?
Boss: Now, Olaf!
I wonder if any of them stopped to think in their time of panic – hmm, this is how life has been for many people for decades. It’s rather horrible, actually. Think I’ll mend my ways from now on and be kind to people. What’s that? You doubt it? So do I.
The tape recorder below needs no explanation. They weren’t dancing to Abba’s Greatest Hits, were they? Recording devices were embedded in bed rooms, vases and even underneath dinner plates. And deary me, the careless waiter who put the plate in the dishwasher before the recording device was removed would have deafened whoever was wearing the headphones at the time.
For all their obsession with secrecy, they weren’t always terribly discreet. For example – and this sounds fairly typical – a Finnish tourist went into the bathroom and shouted through to his friend, ‘Bloody hell, they can put a man on the moon but they can’t put toilet roll in the bathroom!’ (or however you say it in Finnish). Half an hour later, room service knocks on the door: ‘Your toilet paper, sir.’
The little pink purse sitting on the tape recorder was a thief catching device. It contained two capsules of coloured dye which exploded if it was opened and showered the demon purse-snatcher, turning them bright fuscia pink, thus exposing their nefarious activities in the most humiliating way possible.
This radio sums it all up for me. The paranoia, mistrust, fear, uncertainty and danger that people with lived with under the Soviet regime. As our guide put it: ‘It’s all very well saying that it’s in the past and we have to move on. But this was all happening until relatively recently. There could be a knock on the door in the middle of the night and your father, husband or brother would be given 20 minutes to pack a bag. They’d be taken away and you wouldn’t see them again for years.’
And perhaps you never saw them again, ever.