Touring the Secret Spy Museum in Estonia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Tallinn was the front line of the Soviet Union.
The coin purse was a trap. A little bag with a snap clasp left behind in Tallin’s Hotel Viru might have seemed like a windfall to workers trying to survive in Soviet-controlled Estonia. But anyone trying to make off with the purse rather than dropping it off with hotel security would find that opening it triggered a small explosion, leaving the culprit’s face burned — and easily identifiable — for weeks.
This is the kind of thing one learns at the Hotel Viru’s KGB Museum, which comprises four rooms of the functioning hotel’s once mysterious 23rd floor. On that top floor, with its stunning views of the city, KGB agents crouched next to listening devices and schemed to install hidden cameras throughout the hotel and microphones into room phones.
And there were microphones everywhere: The hotel — which was built as a propaganda device, to show foreigners visiting Tallinn that life under communism was just as sumptuous as life under capitalism — operated with an entirely separate ecosystem from the rest of the city, with its own dentists, cabaret and a fleet of cars and drivers (who were listening to their passengers’ every word and reporting back).
KGB agents had people disappeared to prisons in Leningrad and Murmansk and even to cells at their Tallinn headquarters.
The 23rd floor, swiftly vacated in 1991 when it became clear Estonia was going to gain its independence, is a kitsch paradise, with labels in four languages on every artifact, mannequins dressed in Soviet uniforms, phones with their wires hastily ripped out and a cheerful Estonian guide conducting tours in multiple languages.
“You have to remember, you had to be there,” explains guide Rene, who was born in Tallinn. “It’s hard to explain if you weren’t there.” Having lived under Soviet rule is key to guiding people around the museum, he explains, though he maintains more of a sense of humor about Estonia’s relationship with Russia than some on the tour who ask him in hushed tones if he fears an imminent Russian invasion. Rene laughs the question off in a manner recognizable to anyone who’s ever seen a Californian asked “Aren’t you afraid of earthquakes?”
But in the Hotel Viru in the 1980s, that fear was real: KGB agents had people disappeared to prisons in Leningrad and Murmansk and even to cells at their Tallinn headquarters — now a museum also, though, Rene cautions, much less fun than the KGB Museum. When the KGB fled the hotel that night in 1991, he says, hotel staff waited two full months to unlock the rooms the agents had occupied. What if they were still in there? Or worse, what if they were coming back?