Soviet Hotel Life under the Keen Eye of KGB

21. December 2010

A glimpse on life in the Soviet Republic of Estonia during the explosive sixties, the time of the Cold War. The country’s Soviet-run government, watching the billions made by global tourism establishments passing by, decided to try and bring some of the currency to their own territory. To do so, the government needed to start building hotels suitable for accommodating foreigners. But the hotels suitable for foreigners also had to suit the KGB.

This would be a fitting introduction to the story that is the birth of Hotel Viru, the first skyscraper in Estonia and the creation of the first hotel museum to be opened in January. Hotel Viru, built by Finnish specialists at  a record speed of three years and opened in 1972, has since been a distinctive part of the silhouette of Tallinn and is filled with different stories about the hotel itself, Soviet society, and the development of Estonia.

The first twenty years of the hotel were spent largely under the command of the KGB, followed by the successful launch into a market economy after Estonia regained its independence in 1991. Since the very beginning, the hotel has also had an important part to play in the stories told by the Finns - from builders to owners and lessees to tourists.

The watchful eye of the KGB was a part of the hotel’s everyday life and kept the very last floor, the 23rd, of the hotel closed for the public.  The largest skyscraper balconies overlooking the city, the sea, and the Old Town have remained closed until now as all the efforts so far have been focused on modernising and renovating the lower floors of the hotel. But the stories have never stopped accumulating…

We have decided to make the last floor of the hotel accessible to the public as the first hotel museum in Estonia and open up the KGB room/museum, allowing people to take a look at the major sights of the city with the help of a map from the best possible viewpoint found in the city centre. At the museum, we will tell our guests the stories of the hotel and the KGB’s part in them, introduce the history of the city centre by showing various objects and images that feature the funny seventies, tough eighties, and the cowboy capitalism of the nineties. Although the hotel lives on and new stories are born every day, we need to draw a line somewhere and have decided to conclude our story-telling at 2003, when the hotel was taken over by the Sokos hotel chain.

The KGB room has been preserved as the comrade officers left ii in 1991. We have taken numerous guests from nearer and farther countries to see the room throughout the years and the interest towards it has been immense. We have never managed to stay in the 15-minute time limit of the tour and our guests have always surprised us with uncountable questions, comments, and memories. We have seen people for whom the Soviet era has been only a page in the history book realise, by seeing a robust eavesdropping device and by taking a step back in time, that all of this was reality only a few dozen years ago, and not some ancient relic dating back two thousand years. Back then, tourism was far from an innocent form of entertainment since each foreign guest was greeted with the full force of ideological weaponry.

The museum will also be open for all those citizens of Tallinn who are interested in spending a few nostalgic moments in the past or learning surprising facts about their hometown. Back in Soviet times, the hotel offered the much-desired opportunity to meet people from the West, access difficult-to-obtain goods and hold a fancy position in one of the symbols of the city. The hotel has retained its landmark status to this day and we wish to sustain this status with all the relevant stories we can find.

We also hope that the museum will help people to value tourism as an important branch of the economy and begin to appreciate hotels in general. After all, hotels are often the first points of reference Estonia’s guests use for forming their opinions about the entire country and the city. Therefore, the museum to be opened as part of the Capital of Culture 2011 project should, in the future, exist as a living and breathing museum where colourful history goes hand in hand with modern times. As we all know, each new day will be a part of history the day after. We follow this story by staying true to the facts but also with a clever smile on our faces. Dear reader, if you have something to add to these stories or own any hotel-symbolic objects from Soviet times that you would like others to see as well, please contact us!

The museum will be opened on 13th January 2011 – what could be a better time for opening the museum than in 2011, when Tallinn, the new European Capital of Culture, sets out to tell its tales! Interestingly enough, all of this will happen a year before the 40th anniversary of the hotel!