Every summer, Montreal Rampage team members travel far and wide. This is a short series of articles by team members on where they’ve gone.
It is almost impossible for the average Westerner to even begin to understand what life under the Soviet Regime (1922 – 1991) was like. The world was absurd in a way that defied all American logic, run by a Party that was just as unpredictable and irrational as it was oppressive. An omnipresent sense of terror and distrust imbued all human interactions, marked by a particularly dark sense of humor that occasionally pierced through the bitterness of day-to-day life. Unfortunately, a huge portion of the Communist Party’s power over its people stemmed from an incredibly ruthless and corrupt secret police: the KGB.
For an outsider, one of the most alarmingly accurate ways with which one can piece together what the USSR must have been like beyond the history books is a visit to old KGB headquarters. The KGB Museum in Hotel Viru (Tallinn, Estonia) gives engrossingly frightening insight on the matter, a result of Estonia’s subjection to the Soviet rule between 1940 and 1991.
Opened in 1972, Hotel Viru was one of the few places in Estonia where tourists were allowed to stay – due to it being infiltrated by the KGB to keep a watchful eye on whatever mischief evil foreigners could possibly be up to. First skyscraper built in all of Estonia, Hotel Viru took only three years to build (1969 – 1972) – as opposed to the 8 to 11 years of construction necessary for any subsequent Estonian skyscrapers. This can be explained by the fact that the Soviets were wise enough to hire Finnish construction workers for the project. The official reason for this choice was that Finland needed aid to deal with its steep unemployment rates. However, under the Soviet regime, every decision was justified by a second, unofficial reason. In the latter case, the government was apprehensive to use a local workforce that knew nothing on skyscrapers and had quite a questionable work ethic (under a regime where everyone was assigned a mandatory job under identical salaries, workers tended to be unreliable and heavy drinkers). Officially 22 floors high, Viru’s unofficial 23rd floor – none too cleverly disguised since you could count 23 rows of windows from the outside – is where the KGB established their elaborate headquarters.
Today, Viru still houses many tourists annually and its legendary 23rd floor has been transformed into a KGB Museum – recommended for its fascinating guided tours and beautiful panoramic views of the old city of Tallinn. Assuming that you can decipher your guide’s broken English (which sounds closer to Estonian than to your native tongue), you are in for some darkly humorous trivia. As the Finnish joke goes, Hotel Viru was constructed from a revolutionary new material called micro-concrete: 50% microphones and 50% concrete. Indeed, the Hotel only opened three weeks after its completion to give the KGB enough time to wire the whole place up. At least all of this spying provided tourists with uncannily rapid service – two minutes after a client complained about lacking toilet or wanting water, a loud knock on their door would reveal a maid carrying their desired commodity. In fact, tourists who caught on fast enough would start loudly talking to their room’s walls whenever they needed a service.
Another particularity of the Soviet Union was that sex didn’t exist – indeed, sex was something American and everything American was bad. Yes, people still had children and the hotel was crawling in Russian prostitutes (working for the KGB, naturally) but the beds in rooms for two were always kept separate. If a couple dared move their beds together (which would block the sound quality of the KGB’s meticulously placed microphones) or started copulating, a loud knock would rapidly be heard upon their door.
The “dangerous tourists” (i.e. journalists, intellectuals, politicians) were accommodated in the center of the hotel and special “floor ladies” – always old and married since a young lady could charm a foreigner into wedding her (marriage was the only way out of the country) – kept scrupulous tabs on the tourists’ entries and exits. Also, despite the advertisements showing beautiful panoramas, the windows on the top floors were always blocked with a screen to prevent foreign “spies” from seeing the urban geography of Tallinn, its factories and riches. Since theft was part of everyday Estonian life (honesty equated starvation), the staff tried to keep tourists inside so that no foreigners could see how poor and empty the local stores were.
Life for the Hotel Viru staff was an entirely different story. Although they were not paid more to work there, they had access to luxuries such as chewing gum, jeans and interactions with the Western world. Yes, even chewing gum was seen as lavish since such “disgustingly American” products were banned from the country. As a child, our tour guide once got access to one piece of gum and it lasted her no less than three weeks! The KGB would also plant wallets containing color bombs to test the locals’ honesty. Although only the dishonest were able to survive, people were expected to bring unknown objects directly to the KGB instead of peeking into the treasures inside. If curiosity took the best of you and you opened the wallet, the color bomb would explode, dying your skin a bright color for several weeks on end, showing the world how dishonest you were.
The 2016 tour of the KGB headquarters ends inside their radio room – hidden behind two doors, one of which holds a ridiculously conspicuous “There is nothing in here” sign. Ultimately, as a 21st century tourist, you leave the hotel slightly more amused (and definitely a lot less afraid) than your peers would have been 40 years ago. A deep rooted sense of gratitude overwhelms you as you realize how lucky you are to be living in an era where all the Soviet horrors can be seen as some perverse (yet by no means less relevant) satire from a distant past.