Thursday, 8 June 2017

KGB Museum at Viru Hotel - the floor that does not exist

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KGB Museum in Tallinn at Hotel Viru's secret 23rd floor makes for a surprisingly  interesting and entertaining visit!

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Hotel Viru in Tallinn was the first tower-like building in the country. The completion of this 22-storey hotel in 1972 was truly something spectacular. 

Back then the country was firmly under the Soviet rule and it was a widely known secret that in reality there was a 23rd one, too.

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As you step into the lift today, there are still no signs of this. The buttons finish at 22.

Next to lifts in the 22th floor there's an inconspicuous door, behind which stairs await, taking you to the secret floor.

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Should anyone ask about the floor, it was vaguely dismissed as "something to do with maintenance".

Though as surely as the locals knew about the existence of the secret floor, they could guess what it was actually used for.

Yep, you got it: KGB.

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During the Communist era people here (like everywhere on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain) lived and died under the Big Brother's watchful eye.

The hotel was no exception: walls had ears and eyes and the espionage extended to the guests and staff alike. 

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The hotel was commissioned by Inturist, Soviet's official travel agent. This entity was run by KGB and NKVD and charged with monitoring the foreigners' visits to and in the country.

Inturist hotels were the only ones foreigners were permitted to stay in - locals on the other hand had no business entering here.

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Designed by two Estonian architects the actual building work was given to a Finnish company.

The story doesn't tell whether they ever questioned why the blueprints required the walls to have so many openings for "cables" and "wiring".

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Estonians themselves laugh, how whereas elsewhere in the word concrete was used as a building material, in Estonia the preferred choice was micro concrete.

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Microphones and cameras were everywhere; even hidden inside the restaurant's bread plates set in the special tables marked in the seeating chart with an "X" where particularly interesting guests were ushered.

They helped make sure that no harmful information would be leaked into the country, potentially shaking the foundations of the bizarre parallel universe the party elite had so carefully crafted.

Members of the foreign press were among the groups subject to particular care. They were among the individuals who were always accommodated in one of the 60 special rooms tapped with listening devices.

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The views from up here are spectacular.

As I stare at the chair I can't help but wonder how it was for the KGB officials; sitting here and looking at all this - at least suspecting that somewhere someone is keeping tabs on them, too?

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To the delusional eyes of someone alarmingly detached from the reality Communism might seem like a very noble idea. 

In reality it never was, anywhere they tried it. 

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Here, like everywhere else, the Communist era was an era of supervision, paranoia and lies. 

Suspicion, betrayal and persecution. 

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You couldn't trust anyone; everybody was a potential informant. 

Answers given to the questions posed to the foreign guests under the guise of "considerate customer service" were all reported back here.

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This is the room where the whole operation was overseen. The white phone was bugged, too, and the red one only had one line: hotline directly to KGB's Tallinn headquarters.

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Tour of this tiny museum is as informative as it is entertaining (surprisingly so, actually). I found myself thinking about the world I never got to see and an ideology I will never understand. 

Was it all just a scam or did people genuinely believe in all this? 

At the end of the day, did the ideology actually ever serve to make anyone's life better? 

In case it really was so superior, why was there need to enforce it with such extreme measures; resulting in the deaths of millions and millions of people?

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Though, if there's one thing I've learnt from travelling in Post-Soviet countries struggling with the aftermath of the fall of Communism (such as Bulgaria), it is this: people truly are nowhere near as susceptible and stupid as the ruling class would like to tell themselves. 

That, and the fact that sufficiently black sense of humour will get you through just about anything. 

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During the Cold War people were fed horror stories of America's corruptness, evil nature and somewhat imminent danger of a nuclear war. So, every citizen was required to own a gas mask to save them when the shit would hit the fan.

The survival strategy as told by the people was this: that's when you should pull on the mask and run to the nearest cemetery.

(A rubber hoodie like that would obviously not be able to do much and they knew it, too.)

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After the fall of Soviet KGB, too, had to face the music (and with it, urgent need to vacate the premises). Overnight they destroyed the evidence, got rid of the devices and closed the shop.

And so, as the dawn broke one spring morning in 1991, all the operatives and officials had disappeared as if they were never here to begin with.

The room itself, however,  remained undiscovered for another 3 years. Later it was converted into one of most fascinating museums in Tallinn. 

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While small, the museum makes for a very interesting visit - not least because of its dedicated and engaging guide.

Guided tours are available daily (also in English), admission is €11 / €9 (hotel residents).

Owing to its popularity you do need to book your place on the tour in advance  as the number is limited to 20 people. 

You can do this either at the Hotel Viru's reception or by contacting them using the details given below. 

For more information please see here

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Has any of you had the chance to visit KGB museum in Hotel Viru? Or have you familiarized yourself with the agency's work somewhere else in the Balkans? What did you make of the visit?

PS. In case you're interested in this kind of tours, you might also like blog's tour of KGB's headquarters in Riga!

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Hotel Viru & KGB museum
Viru väljak 4
10111 Tallinn

tel. +372 6 809 300

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