Tallinn’s secret history of espionage
Tallinnâs beautiful Old Town hides a history rich in betrayal and subterfuge. (Matt Munro)
Hotel Viru stands on the periphery of Tallinn’s Old Town, just outside the city walls. It looks exactly how one might expect a Soviet hotel built in 1972 to look: a huge Modernist box, subjugating the skyline, topped with giant letters spelling out its name. It stands mere metres from the charming cobbled streets of the medieval city, but in architectural and philosophical terms it might as well be on Mars. Or in Moscow.
In Soviet times, any foreign dignitary or journalist arriving in Estonia would be whisked straight from the airport to Hotel Viru. Greeted by the furiously trained doormen and concierge staff, they would be shepherded into elevators and taken up to the top floor – the 22nd – where Tallinn’s finest restaurant resided. From here, the honoured guest could take in the full panorama of the city. They would look out upon the gavelled roofs and stone turrets of the Old Town, weighed down with a thick coat of winter snow; the sharp spires of the Lutheran churches bayoneting the sky; the blue-white ice of the Gulf of Finland locking the land beyond. The hope was that by putting VIPs up here – in a hotel so opulent it had more than 1,000 staff despite having room for just 800 guests – they would send back only the most glowing reports of Tallinn’s wellbeing under the Soviet regime.
Yet, as with most things in the Soviet Union, there was more to Hotel Viru than met the eye. ‘No, foreign visitors did not know about this,’ says Peep Ehasalu, the jovial manager of today’s Hotel Viru. We’re on the famed 22nd floor and he leads me to an anonymous white door at the end of the corridor. ‘There is no 23rd floor button in the elevator, and yet here we are,’ he says. Through the door, a short flight of stairs leads up to the floor that isn’t there, and the two rooms that Peep has spent years trying to convince his bosses to let him convert into a museum. This January, he finally succeeded in his aim. The first room, formerly a broom cupboard, has been converted to a Soviet-style manager’s office, complete with telephones and a TV from the era, as well as what Peep describes as a musty ‘Soviet smell’. It comes from the original, and now rather yellowed, lino flooring. ‘Everyone who was around in Soviet times comments on the smell,’ he says. ‘This is what Communism smelt like.’
The second room has the blinds drawn tight. The walls are lined with bulky green and silver machinery, an array of knobs with buttons and switches covering every metallic surface. This is where four KGB officers would sit each day, intercepting radio waves from Helsinki and sending cables to Moscow. It was also where information from the 60 or so hotel rooms that were routinely bugged would be processed. ‘Certain VIP guests always had certain rooms,’ says Peep, with a knowing smile. ‘Gaps between the walls allowed the rooms to be wired with equipment like this’ – he holds up a long tube that looks like a bicycle pump – ‘and transmitters were attached to the underside of dinner plates and ashtrays.’ The thick, coin-sized microphones don’t exactly scream subtlety, but they were once state of the art. ‘A lot of the staff knew what was going on up here, of course,’ says Peep. ‘It was quite normal. Surveillance was a way of life in this city.’
Tallinn does not feel like a place gripped by subterfuge. The Old Town is so cute that it borders on saccharine. The main square of Raekoja Plats, a cobbled plaza dominated by a Gothic town hall, lies at the epicentre of a web of alleys and lanes leading up to the 13th-century Toompea Castle and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The streets are frozen in white, the iron lamplights jet black against the stonework. Russet rooftops can just be spotted beneath the snow, dripping with exquisite, if murderous-looking, icicles. It is indisputably lovely. However, I am more preoccupied with Peep’s words, and in their wake, the tiny courtyards, cloistered backstreets and narrow lanes to nowhere take on a more sinister edge. They look like good places to run and hide, or to watch and wait.