Saturday, 18 April 2015

KGB museum in Tallinn: A short review

Looking out to the port from the balcony of the Viru hotel
The Viru Hotel - a conspicuous high rise overlooking Tallinn's old town, just outside the city walls - has a secret.

The Viru hotel - how many floors does it have?
It has a hidden 23rd floor. 

The lifts in the hotel only go up to floor 22, from where, behind a locked door, you'll find a staircase taking you up to the 23rd floor. This was where in the 1970s and 80s, KGB officers listened in to the conversations in the bedrooms, bars and restaurants below.

A bit of history ...
After the ferry crossing between Helskinki and Tallinn was re-opened in the 1960s, the city started receiving more that 15,000 tourists a year - mostly Finns and exiled Estonians.

Worried about the influence these Western tourists - and particularly the returning Estonians - might have on the local population, the Soviets built a new hotel, where foreigners were required to stay during their visit.

The new hotel came complete with bugging devices in around a third of the bedrooms, as well listening devices concealed in bread plates and ashtrays, so conversations throughout the hotel could be monitored.

In late 1991, shortly before the Soviet Union was dissolved, the KGB agents vanished and the rooms of the 23rd floor were left almost untouched, until 2011, when it was opened up for tours.

One of the offices
The tour
The KGB offices themselves are actually pretty small and there's not a massive amount to see on the tour; a 1970s typewriter, some smashed up electronic equipment, some newspaper extracts and examples of different listening devices.

However, the stories told by the guide on the hour long visit are what brings the place to life. We heard stories of how staff were recruited to the hotel and what might help or hinder their application. We were shown how your conversation might be listened in on while in the bar or restaurant areas and were given insights into Estonian life in the Soviet era.

Our guide showing us the listening devices
We particularly enjoyed the story of how a guest who had run out of toilet paper managed to get some delivered to his bugged room, by walking around complaining loudly about how there was none left.

Panoramic view from the Viru hotel
As well as looking around the KGB offices, the 23rd floor also has two balconies, which give a great view over Tallinn - a panorama of the more modern parts of the city on one side and the pretty old town on the other.

The old town and St Olaf's Church
There are 6 tours a day and two of these are in English. When we were in Tallinn, the English tours were at 11.30am and 2.30pm. 

Selfie alert

You need to book ahead in person, by email ( or by phone (+372 680 9300). It costs €10. For more details, click here.

To get there from the Town Hall Square, head straight down the street that comes off the square on the tower side of the town hall. Head straight down Viru Street, through the Viru Gates and you'll see the building straight ahead of you.

Verdict: Although not an absolute Tallinn must-see, the short tour does gives an interesting insight into Soviet Estonia and is worth a visit. We'd give it a 7/10. For a more thorough run down of recent Estonian history, we're told you need to try the the Estonian Museum of Occupation (we didn't manage to get there this time). 

Vanna Tallinn
I should also mention that the ticket for the museum also gives you a discount on a glass of Vanna Tallinn - a herby local liquor - from one of the hotel bars. A pleasantly warming way to finish the tour.

Sign at the end of the tour

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