There were many things that I wanted to cram into our two-day visit to Tallinn, and one of those things was the KGB Museum. As soon as it popped up when I was researching Tallinn I was intrigued. I love stories about spies and espionage, and am particularly fascinated with the KGB, so there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to see a museum about the Soviet secret police agency in a former-Soviet State. I was going to make it happen no matter what.
Apart from writing down the address, I did no further research into the museum (trying to avoid spoilers, in my defence), which is how we ended up getting lost in one of the smallest capital city in Europe, during a snowstorm.
Getting to the Museum
We arrived in Tallinn from Helsinki mid-afternoon and after a short ten-minute walk through a snowstorm we arrived at our hotel. After resting for just long enough for our toes to defrost, Dave agreed to bundle back up and once again brave the weather so we could take in the KGB Museum. That afternoon was our only opportunity to see the museum and I wasn’t about to miss it.
So, off we went. Back out into the blowing snow and cold. Google Maps said the museum was only eight minutes away, so we could easily make it before getting too cold.
Or so I thought.
Within five minutes we were at Viru väljak Square and standing right in front of the famous Viru Hotel (I love when Google overestimates travel times). I had a vague recollection that the KGB Museum was either in or near the hotel, so needless to say I was incredibly pleased that we’d not only happened upon it so easily, but within minutes we’d be out of the snow. Honestly, I so happy that I was probably doing some sort of happy dance and composing a song praising my navigational skills, as one does.
We crossed the street and started to wander towards the hotel. Remember how I said that I didn’t do any research other than writing down the address and times the museum was open? Well, this is where reading a bit more would have come in handy. I assumed that a museum ranked quite high on Trip Advisor’s list of things to do in Tallinn (#18 of 240) would be easy to find and well-marked, i.e., there would be a giant sign pointing me in the right direction. This was not the case. As we approached the hotel, we saw no signage for the museum, so we just assumed that we were in the wrong place.
Over the next twenty minutes (which felt like an hour), we trudged up and down the block. We went into the mall attached to the hotel to see if there was a sign or any indication that the museum was nearby. We consulted a street map, which had no evidence that the museum existed at all. We crossed the street and carefully examined every address. We even walked down a couple of alleyways to check that the museum wasn’t secretly hidden—I mean, it is the KGB Museum after all.
I was beginning to think that the museum just didn’t want to be found—or, that it was some big secret. So, the more we hunted for it, the more I was reluctant to say KGB too loudly, which was completely irrational but hey, when you’re cold and tired these things seem to make sense. This is why when we finally went into a nearby hotel to ask for help, I made Dave approach the counter and ask for directions. I mean, if the museum was some big taboo secret that we weren’t supposed to find, I wasn’t about to look bad in the eyes of the locals by asking for it (I know, I’m such a great girlfriend).
Turns out, it wasn’t some big secret and it’s not taboo. It’s just a small museum, located in the Viru Hotel. I’d been right all along and we had unnecessarily been circling it for nearly 30-minutes. Note to self: DO MORE RESEARCH!
The KGB Museum can’t be accessed by just anyone; visitors must sign-up for the one-hour guided tour (cost is €10 and spoiler alert, totally worth it!) to gain access. Again, because I hadn’t done enough (any) research we didn’t know this; we thought we could just walk right in. Thankfully, after chatting with the hotel receptionist we learned there were spaces available for the last English tour of the day—phew, we’d made it on time and my Tallinn dream was coming true! We had a bit of time to wait, so we decided to have a drink in the lounge and learn more about this very mysterious and very infamous hotel located in the centre of Tallinn.
About the Viru Hotel
The Viru Hotel was the first foreign owned and operated hotel in Tallinn during Soviet times, and it was rumoured to be completely wired so the KGB could listen in on foreign and local guests’ conversations. For years, the hotel was a source of many rumours and legends, and after the iron curtain fell, many of them were found to be true.
The hotel was built in 1972 and was the first hotel in Tallinn to allow foreigners to visit. International celebrities, dignitaries and members of royal families frequented the elite hotel, all without knowing what was actually going on a few floors above, or even in the room right next door.
During the Soviet era, the secret 23rd floor of the hotel housed a KGB radio centre, which was used to eavesdrop and spy on the hotel guests. In total, some 60 of the hotel rooms had concealed espionage devices, and even some of the tables in the restaurant had microphones (source). Our guide Pasha even showed us some of the ashtrays, plates and other everyday items that held microphones. It was almost unbelievable; like something out of a James Bond movie.
The KGB offices operated out of the Viru Hotel for nearly 20 years, until the fall of the iron curtain in 1991. After the collapse of communism, the offices were abandoned and weren’t discovered again for 3 years. Since then, they have been turned into the KGB Museum: a time-capsule to Soviet-era history.
The KGB Museum is located on the 23rd floor of the Viru Hotel, which can’t be accessed by just anyone. With our hilarious tour guide Pavel (who asked us to call him Pasha, because it was sexier), we hopped in the elevator and rode all the way up to the 22nd floor, which is the last floor accessible by the elevator—that’s right, the museum is located on a secret top floor. The tour hadn’t even started and it was already so good!
We got off the elevator, walked down a small hallway and then into a small locked stairwell. At first, it looked like any regular stairwell, but then you were greeted with walls covered in historical photos and documents giving you a glimpse into the past.
The museum itself is small—it’s only two rooms and a small lobby—but it’s contents and stories are rich. The rooms are filled with furniture, documents and artifacts left over when the KGB abandoned the offices in 1991, including gas masks, bugged plates, partially smoked cigarettes, special documents and more.
The museum also has an incredible terrace which gives you amazing birds eye views of the city. Pavel told us it was used to entertain and showoff to the senior KGB officials when they visited the offices, but I couldn’t help by wonder if it also had something to do with a desire to watch over the citizens below.
Of course, I didn’t step foot onto the terrace; it was cold, windy and slippery, and we were 23 floors up, I wasn’t risking anything–it did have a very large, very thick wall, so there was no risk—but I still stayed inside and Dave went out for the two of us (thankfully he doesn’t share any of my fears!).
I was totally impressed with the museum itself, but I was completely blown away by our guide Pavel. He was amazing! Completely deadpan, at first we couldn’t figure out if he was hilarious and making jokes or just weird. After a few random comments, jokes and short stories we realized he had the most amazing dry wit. I had no idea I would laugh so much during an hour spent learning about KGB history.
But he wasn’t just funny; he knew his stuff. Pavel not only took us around the museum, but shared amazing stories and facts about the hotel, the KGB, Tallinn and so much more. He provided a window into Tallinn in the Soviet-era and even shared many of his own personal experiences of what it was like to live under communist rule. He had an uncanny ability to not only highlight Estonian history but to poke fun at it as well. Honestly, he made the tour.
The KGB Museum is small in size, but rich in history, artifacts and unbelievable stories. It’s hard to believe that less than 30 years ago, Tallinn was behind the iron curtain, and everyday conversations were being monitored by the KGB. It was the perfect way to kick off our time in the Estonian capital, and if you ever have the chance I would highly recommend that you check it out.
The KGB Museum is open every day (except from February to April when it’s closed on Mondays) and offers a few English tours throughout. Cost of the tour is €10/person, and as I said – totally worth it! For more information or to reserve your spot ahead of time, visit: https://www.sokoshotels.fi/en/news/news/hotel-viru-ja-kgb-museum/01965068_392922?previous=542860937.
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