(Photo of the Hotel Viru KGB Museum by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
It’s usually done without thinking. I check into a hotel, unpack, take a photo if the view from the window is a good one, maybe even take a nap or, if there's time, a bubble bath. Then, as I leave for the afternoon or turn in for the night, I slip the Do Not Disturb sign on the door and that’s that. My valuables are locked in the safe. My door is locked. My privacy is secured.
I never gave much thought to that privacy as a luxury but recently, touring Estonia and the beautiful city of Tallinn on the coast of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, I got a glimpse into an altogether different world. I took the one-hour KGB Hotel Museum at the Sokos Viru Hotel.
The Hotel Viru, built in 1972, was Estonia’s first skyscraper and one of the very few luxury hotels in the Soviet Union. With a glitzy Vegas-meets-Moscow interior, complete with showgirls, the Varu was built to bring in much-needed tourism dollars. It was where visiting celebrities and VIPs stayed. But, as was later discovered when Estonia gained independence in 1991, the hotel was riddled with microphones and other surveillance secrets. Hospitality KGB style.
Small unseen rooms were secreted between guest rooms to make it easy for KGB agents to eavesdrop and monitor guest’s activities. And on the 23rd floor (the elevator went only to the 22nd floor) in a cramped space occupied by two men and filled with equipment, private conversations were recorded and monitored 24 hours a day. On each floor, matrons sat in hallways and marked the comings and goings of each guest.
In Tallinn, everybody wanted to work at the hotel. In Soviet Estonia, the next best thing to having some kind of power or prestige was having a friend who worked at the Viru. In a society where black-market trading was the only way to thwart severe and deliberate communist deprivation, who you knew was was like money in the bank. The Viru was a source of foreign currency. Of scarce food supplies, basic toiletries and any number of other desirable things.You could, for instance, if you were lucky enough to make an under-the-table deal, procure a cake baked by one of the hotel pastry chefs. A cake!
The KGB tour starts in the lobby before taking the elevator and a flight of stairs up to the secret room. The hideout’s interior is just as it was found when KGB agents fled. There are still cigarette butts in the ashtray. Our guide obviously relishes her job. She sprinkled her historical comments with "wink wink, nudge nudge"asides about the “micro-concrete” construction and the “special” bread plates which were wired with microphones and placed on the dinner table when KGB agents were particularly interested in what certain guests had to say.
She told us that when Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the Viru, she threw a Movie Star tantrum and ripped open a feather pillow. Unfortunately, Ms. Taylor then tried, unsuccessfully, to flush the feathers down the toilet and caused quite the plumbing headache. Score one for Americans, I guess. (Astronaut Neil Armstrong was also a guest but was apparently less temperamental.)
While the cloak-and-dagger machinations sound almost comic now, it’s worth remembering that life for the residents of Estonia during the Soviet years was anything but funny. There was no abundance of anything. Scarcity was real. So were travel restrictions and lack of personal freedom. The things we take for granted--like privacy--were sometimes unattainable. Think about that the next time you check into a hotel. And if you’re ever in Tallinn, a beautiful city in an independent country, check out the KGB museum at the Hotel Viru. It's worth the trip. And the reminder.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org