Pay No Attention to the Spies on the 23rd Floor

For years, the KGB secretly spied on visitors to the Hotel Viru in Estonia. A new museum reveals the fascinating time capsule and all the secrets within

At the height of the cold war, KGB agents spied on visitors to the Estonia Hotel in Viru. Today, the room in which they listened in on hotel guests has become a museum. (Sokos Hotel Viru)

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Foreign journalists were also a target – the KGB wanted to know who they were talking to in Tallinn and what they might write about the USSR when they went home.

The Soviets imported Finnish workers to make sure the building was completed on time and measured up to Western standards. When it opened in 1972, life inside was virtually unrecognizable to everyday Estonians. The restaurant always had food on the menu; there was a racy cabaret and even a recording studio that doubled as a way to pirate cassettes brought in by Finnish sailors and tourists. “The hotel was a propaganda tool,” Jagodin says. “Everything was provided in the hotel so guests wouldn’t have to leave.”

When the hotel installed its first fax machine, in 1989, the operator traveled to Moscow for two weeks of training. Any incoming fax was copied twice – once for the recipient, once for the KGB. Sakari Nupponen, a Finnish journalist who visited Estonia regularly in the 1980s and wrote a book about the hotel, remembers the desk clerk scolding him for buying bus tickets: “’Why are you leaving the hotel so much?’ she wanted to know.”

Behind the scenes, the hotel was a mirror image of a Western business. It was wildly inefficient, with 1080 employees serving 829 guests. Maids were picked for their lack of language skills, so as to prevent unauthorized chit-chat. The kitchen staff tripled: One employee put portions on the plate, and two weighed the meals to make sure nothing had been skimmed off the top. The dark-paneled bar on the second floor was the only place in Estonia that served Western alcohol brands – and only accepted dollars, which were illegal for Soviet citizens to possess.

People in Tallinn still have strong feelings about the Soviet past. “It’s not ancient Rome,” says Ehasalu. “It was 20 years ago.” While teenagers visiting the museum are surprised by tales of life in Tallinn before they were born, their parents have complex, often conflicting memories of their decades as unwilling parts of the USSR.

The museum has to tread carefully to avoid putting too lighthearted a spin on history while acknowledging the dark humor people still find in the Soviet past. “There’s nostalgia, for sure. People were young in those days, and they have good memories. Other people were tortured and suffered under the KGB,” Ehasalu says. “We want to show that people lived two parallel lives. There was life, and on the other hand this over-regulated and absurd world around them.”

About Andrew Curry
Andrew Curry

Andrew Curry is a Berlin-based journalist who writes about science and history for a variety of publications, including National Geographic, Nature, and Wired. He is a contributing editor at Archaeology and has visited archaeological excavations on five continents. (Photo Credit: Jennifer Porto)

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