The old city walls, church steeples, narrow cobblestone streets, and pastel colors of Old Town Tallinn in Estonia make it feel like it should be on top of a wedding cake. But there’s more to this town and country than a Medieval vibe—the deep and relatively recent history is what makes this Baltic city incredible.
Estonia regained its independence from Soviet power less than 25 years ago—so men and women in their late 20s and early 30s can share stories of the communistic culture and Soviet occupation they experienced as children, including long lines at food markets, loss of property, and a lack of color in their lives. For example, most Estonians can remember the special occasion of having their first banana. To children, bubble gum was the utmost of treats, and they would often share a single piece amongst themselves for days, leaving the chewed wad on the dresser when they went to sleep at night. When I was ten, I was knee-deep in Ninja Turtles, and Big League Chew was how I pretended to be Lenny Dykstra.
The KGB watched carefully over its country’s occupation of Estonia and kept an office at the Sokos Viru Hotel in Tallinn just outside the old city walls. It always denied its presence at the hotel, but with a team of about ten, the KGB bugged rooms, restaurants, and monitored the activity of tourists and guests. Why? Because Tallinn is Estonia’s capital and the country’s largest city, and it wanted to keep tabs on people, of course.
What would a stay at this hotel have been like 30 years ago? You can see for yourself by visiting the museum that exists there today, but here’s a breakdown of how the KGB liked to run things.
1. The KGB’s lair was on the 23rd floor, but the elevator only went to the 22nd.
An iron-gated staircase kept guests from wandering up to the restricted top floor, which contained several offices and a radio control room where agents would listen in on guest conversations taking place throughout the hotel.
2. The KGB tapped 60 rooms, installed mics in the plates in the dining room, and drilled holes through hotel room walls to take photographs of visiting journalists and other “suspected guests.”
The KGB would keep a close watch on visiting journalists, recording conversations and watching private meetings held in the rooms via peepholes and “channels” that existed between guest rooms.
Tourists were also viewed as a threat to Russian rule by the KGB, especially Finnish travelers who would go to Tallinn to reunite with their family members (many families were separated when the Soviets occupied Estonia, some fleeing to Finland or Sweden). Because Soviet Law forbade Estonians from hosting guests in their homes, meetings and reunions would be held in the lobby of the Sokos Viru Hotel. This was surely by design, allowing the KGB to do its thing.
3. Elevator attendants were instructed to keep track of guests’ comings and goings.
We suppose they could have taken the stairs, but people were lazy back then, too.
4. Hotel employees were regularly tested for their honesty.
The KGB took its employees’ honesty very seriously (although most employees were “technically” in the dark regarding the KGB’s existence in the hotel), frequently testing their loyalty through a variety of entrapment-type exercises. For example, one policy the hotel put forth was that its employees were to not so much as even open any personal belongings that were left behind by guests. Instead, they were to immediately turn the item, such as a purse or wallet, over to a manager.
To test this, phony purses designed to shoot pink powder when opened were left in public areas of the hotel. Think of it as the same concept as today’s fire alarms—if you opened the purse, the powder would stain your hands. Managers were able to then determine that an employee had not followed the hotel’s policy and would punish them accordingly, typically through some temporary job assignment that netted them less cash for a few weeks.
5. The KGB was always watching.
One Finnish curator reported that in over 50 visits to the Sokos Viru, he only stayed in three different rooms. Obviously, this person was being placed in the same bugged rooms routinely and was under careful, continuous watch.
Another tale that is told to this day is that a guest was brought toilet paper by a staff member after complaining aloud in his room that there was none in the bathroom. Now that’s some service!