Viru KGB Museum, Tallinn
Not so much a museum as such but a guided tour through the somewhat "museum-ized" parts of the Viru Hotel in Tallinn
where the KGB
used to operate its surveillance technology to listen into guests' conversations and so on. The tour is a very tongue-in-cheek, even sarcastic, and certainly entertaining affair that tries to provide an insight into the Soviet
era without making it too gloomy.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The Viru hotel was once the crown jewel of the original “Intourist” agency – the official state tourism agency during Soviet times (founded by Stalin
and partly run by the KGB
), which virtually every foreign tourist wishing to travel to the USSR
had to use.
Intourist's hotel for foreigners in Tallinn was a prestige project. For that reason, a foreign, namely Finnish construction company was commissioned to build the hotel (also using quality foreign materials). Construction started in 1969 and the hotel was opened in 1972 (delayed by a fire – which was of course hushed up).
Once competed, it instantly became a major landmark of Tallinn
, having been the first high-rise building of its type in the Baltics. Postcards from the 1970s and 80s bear testimony to that status of the hotel. It even featured on official tourist brochures' front pages (instead of anything in the Old Town, as invariably would be the case today).
The place also quickly became a mysterious legend. There had always been rumours about spying activities, and after the Soviets left and the hotel was in independent Estonia
's hands, the rumours were proved correct. It wasn't until 1994, though, that the KGB
's spying technology control room was discovered – on the 23rd floor. Officially the hotel had only 22 floors. Signs to stairs leading up and on doors said “there's nothing here”.
In fact the hotel was bugged to excess. Dozens of rooms were not only bugged but were equipped with spy cameras as well. Even tables in the restaurant had microphones built into them.
Nevertheless, it was the most prestigious place to stay in Tallinn
during that time (and still is in the top category) – and moreover it was also a privileged place for Soviet staff to get a job at. Here they could get access to “valuta”, i.e. foreign currency. And many Western goods could only be bought with valuta (see also Soviet Tallinn
). Staff were spied on as well, though, and any behaviour deemed improper by the KGB could be risky.
After a few years into Estonian independence, the Viru was sold to a Finnish hotel chain (ironic, given that Finns had originally built it). It underwent a complete overhaul during which all the typical Soviet interior design extravaganza was ripped out and replaced by contemporary styles and fixtures. In a way that's a great shame, because going by the pictures from Soviet times, it must have been an extraordinary sight to behold and would be still today, if mainly for “Soviet retro chic” reasons. But such nostalgia is definitely not welcome in Estonia
, instead “good riddance” was the general sentiment.
However, the hotel management has slightly undermined that typical Estonian anti-Soviet
sentiment by not only starting guided tours of the former KGB
quarters on the top floor of the hotel, they also (re-)designed one of the hotel bars according to a mildly retro style and called it, again, the “Valuta Baar”, or Foreign Currency Bar, though these days you pay in the local legal tender (i.e. euros).
What there is to see: The tour group meets at the back of the hotel lobby on the ground floor and is then first taken to the 22nd floor, i.e. what is officially the top floor of the hotel. The guide then unlocks the gate to a door that leads to stairs that in turn lead up one more floor.
En route you pass various text-and-photo panels about the hotel's history and how it was run – but there was hardly time to read these, as the tour progressed a little too fast for that. The guide just summarized the main bits and pointed out particular photos, e.g. of celebrity guest Valentina Tereshkova in 1979 – the first woman in space. Funnily enough most people on the tour had guessed it was Margaret Thatcher! (Not sure she would have liked that!)
Upstairs is a corridor connecting both of the huge balconies that run the length of the hotel facade on either side. There are more information panels and display cases with various old photos and items from the hotel's Soviet
You are allowed out onto the balconies where you stand beneath/underneath the huge letters that proclaim “Hotell Viru” to the city below. The views from the northern balcony over the Old Town and the harbour (and Baltic Sea beyond) are superb.
But before you have a chance to let the glorious view make you forget about the dark legacy of this place, the group is led into a little side room. Here a dummy KGB
officer stands in one corner near a desk that has various interesting items on it, including a telephone without a dial (not necessary, because at the other end there would always have been the KGB HQ
) as well as two very similar looking newspapers, or rather their laminated front pages (of the then Estonian SSR's main newspaper). They both feature mainly obituaries to the deceased leaders of the USSR
, Brezhnev (1982) and Andropov (1984), respectively. Apparently they “recycled” the text for the former in almost identical form for the latter – trusting that no Estonians were likely to read this anyway. (I wonder whether they used it again a year later for Chernenko too ...)
Finally you get to see the highlight of the tour: the KGB
listening room. Here you can see racks of Soviet-era electronics, tape recorders, uniforms, telephones, gas masks, and other Cold-War
-era paraphernalia. The best part, however, are the stories the guide tells relating to certain individual artefacts. I don't want to give too much away, but included is a stunning spy camera/observation lens that can give you a wide angle image of an entire room through a mere 1 mm hole! You are actually allowed to hold this contraption and see for yourself! Cool!
You can also hear stories about how staff were tested for correct behaviour and loyalty, how even non-smokers were given ashtrays (because of the microphone built into its base), and more titbits of KGB
After the tour (or any other time, of course), you can add on a visit of the Viru hotel's “Valuta Baar”, or 'currency bar', modelled on its Soviet-era predecessor but now enhanced by a big flat-screen telly on the wall that plays documentary footage from those bygone days of Soviet grandeur and paranoia … while you sip cocktails with names that fit the Soviet
Outside the bar is a glass case with a dummy spy in a trench coat and hat, wearing a very (very, very!) fake beard and holding a paper with the classic two holes in it for “observation” … in short: the full-on sledge-hammer cliché straight out of cheap spy movies. A bit too much really, but mildly amusing.
All in all, the Viru KGB Museum tour is a highlight of any dark-tourism trip to Estonia
, even though it is clearly on the lighter side of dark. Illuminating, interesting, entertaining and good fun too (unless you are a serious adherent to old-school communism
, of course).
in the hotel of the same name, and the square of, again, the same name (the shopping centre next door uses the name as well): Viru. It is located just to the east of Tallinn
's Old Town.
Access and costs: Restricted, only by pre-booked guided tour; not too expensive.
Tours run daily (except Mondays between November and April) in English at 11:30 a.m., in addition at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. they run in Finnish (must be the prime clientele for this too, not just the booze!), at 2:30 p.m. in Russian or English and at 4 p.m. in Estonian or Russian.
Cost: the regular ticket is 9 EUR (as of May 2014), and 7 EUR for hotel guests.
The meeting point for the tour is at the back of the ground floor hotel lobby near the stairs, at a little stall that is clearly marked. Be there at least 10 minutes before the tour starts for registration (and payment).
The hotel's address is Viru väljak 4, 10111 Tallinn
. You can hardly miss it – it is one of the tallest and most prominent buildings in the city and it says “Hotell Viru” in huge letter at the top, which are visible from far away.
The tour lasts about one hour (the one I was on overran a little bit); but you may also add a bit of extra time for popping into the "Valuta Baar" on the first floor for an extra dose of Soviet
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Tallinn
- Viru KGB museum 01 - the 22-storey Hotel Viru
- Viru KGB museum 02 - access to the stairs to the 23rd floor
- Viru KGB museum 03 - on the 23rd of 22 floors
- Viru KGB museum 04 - displays of relics from the past
- Viru KGB museum 05 - on the balcony
- Viru KGB museum 06 - looking out over Tallinn
- Viru KGB museum 07 - dummy KGB officer
- Viru KGB museum 08 - Brezhnev and Andropov obituaries and KGB telephone
- Viru KGB museum 09 - once the crown jewel of Intourist
- Viru KGB museum 10 - they had their own china
- Viru KGB museum 11 - listening room
- Viru KGB museum 12 - bugging gear
- Viru KGB museum 13 - more KGB stuff
- Viru KGB museum 14 - including original fag ends
- Viru KGB museum 15 - they had to kip too
- Viru KGB museum 16 - more KGB material
- Viru KGB museum 17 - table marker
- Viru KGB museum 18 - spying lens with attached camera
- Viru KGB museum 19 - now the cables of the past are severed
- Viru KGB museum 20 - only the Valuta Bar has been refurbished in period style
- Viru KGB museum 21 - a cheesy spy dummy outside the Valuta Bar
- Viru KGB museum 22 - 1980 Olympics monument outside