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KGB Hotel

June 29, 2011

It's been 20 years since Estonia won its independence from the former Soviet Union. In the capital Tallinn, the Cold War is part of history - except at the Viru Hotel, where it's almost as if the KGB never left.

Hotel Viru
Hotel Viru housed KGB operations from 1972-1991Image: DW

Everything appears exactly as it did in August 1999, when the KGB literally disappeared overnight: the full ashtrays on the desks, the technical drawings and electronic equipment too big to be removed unobtrusively.

The room crammed with listening devices and tape machines is the highlight of an exhibition, "The Viru Hotel and the KGB," put together after the city was named a 2011 European Cultural Capital. 

Though it's now open to the public, the space wasn't always so accessible. Museum guide Argo Kasela recalled a time during the Soviet Era when the door was left open by mistake.

"The hotel manager came over and saw four people sitting in front of this wall, with headphones. Nobody knew what they were doing. And he had no time to figure it out. One of them grabbed the gun and promised to shoot him if he didn't disappear quickly," Kasela said.

A secret empire

A smart-looking Estonian with gray hair, Kasela guides visitors through the Hotel Viru, where for nearly two decades, the 23rd floor served as the empire of the Soviet secret service - the KGB.

Forty years ago, Viru was the first skyscraper in Tallinn. The highly sensitive antennae atop what was then the highest building in the city could even pick up signals from taxi dispatchers in Helsinki, some 85 kilometers away. The building was conceived as a flagship of the former Soviet Union for Western tourists, explained Kasela, designed to showcase the best the Soviet Union had to offer.

a red telephone
The exhibition is part of Tallinn's program as this year's European Cultural CapitalImage: DW

A comic effect

The listening room
Viru was one of the most prestigious hotels in the Soviet UnionImage: DW

All the hotel furniture came from the former East Germany - furniture from there was highly coveted in Eastern Europe states. The house was built by Finnish contract workers in what was a record time for the former Eastern Bloc - it took them just three years. Just before the opening, the entire staff was sent away for three days, said Kasela.

"During this period, the KGB secret police built the necessary cables to the house," the tour guide said.

A total of 60 rooms were equipped with listening devices. Microphones were hidden in phones, ashtrays, vases. In addition to spying equipment, there are pamphlets and souvenirs from the 70s and 80s, and lists of seemingly ludicrous rules. The juxtaposition between the Soviet desire to impress Western guests while denying that there were any domestic problems has a comic effect.

That was the goal of the exhibition, said Jana Sampetova, who also works as a guide in the Viru Hotel.

"We try to show how absurd life was, how many senseless rules were there for everything - how difficult and meaningless life was under the Soviet regime," Sampetova said.

A bland economy

Jana Sampetova was ten years old when Estonia became independent. She can still remember the deprivations that marked daily life in the Soviet era, how people had to stand in line for hours for the most basic goods.

a newspaper article shows Breschnew and Andropow
Exhibits bring the Cold War era to lifeImage: DW

The Hotel Viru managed by using an extensive storage system. The storage rooms in the basement were ten times as big as they are now, said Argo Kasela. In the fall, the hotel stockpiled the entire year's supply of potatoes.

The cuisine of the Soviet Union was not especially varied.

"The cook usually had three ingredients. Potatoes, pork and pickles. There was no seafood. There were no spices. There was no white wine. It was a bland economy in the Soviet Union..." Kesala recalled.

Still, the hotel was well-stocked with the best Czech beer, and forbidden western music, brought in by sailors with access to foreign markets, could be heard in the hotel bar.

Author: Matthias von Hein / smh
Editor: Michael Lawton

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