Tallinn’s secret history of espionage
He leads us into the museum’s storeroom and shows us the newest arrivals. An innocent-looking metal box folds out into a document photocopier. A pinprick in a false wall has a fish-eye lens on the reverse side, offering a remarkably wide angle view into a neighbouring room. A briefcase, used to carry secret documents, opens up to reveal cardboard compartments, each of which will explosively self-destruct with the turn of a key. It is the stuff of schoolboy imaginations, but the real-life consequences of such fantastical contraptions are made clear by the wooden suitcases on the museum floor. ‘Many families in Tallinn will have one of these suitcases,’ says Heiki. ‘Before prisoners were released from labour camps, they had to make a suitcase to take back any possessions they had left. Everyone knew what a suitcase like this represented.’
For most of Tallinn’s history of espionage, it has been Estonians on the receiving end – blocked from watching and listening freely, kept under constant surveillance and shipped off to labour camps. However, as the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, a small group of ordinary Tallinn residents began to subvert the normal dynamic of surveillance, cleverly using the tools and tactics of the KGB against the Soviets themselves. And, like the secret KGB surveillance rooms in Hotel Viru and the radio and TV signal-jamming tower in St Olaf’s Church, this remarkable chapter of Tallinn’s spy story also reveals an unsuspected side to another of the city’s most famous tourist sites – Toompea Castle.
Today, Toompea is home to the Estonian Parliament. It is a small, dignified building of stone and turret, sitting at the centre of the quiet upper-town administrative district. Yet back in 1991, when Aadu Jögiaas was holed up within its walls alongside a handful of his fellow amateur radio enthusiasts, the castle acted much as it did when it was first built in the 13th century – as Tallinn’s last line of defence. Concrete blocks sat on the streets outside, designed to stop tanks breaking in. Thousands of Molotov cocktails rested against the inside wall: the final throw of a bottle-rocket dice.
I meet Aadu in the lobby of my hotel. A heavy-set man with an easy smile and wearing a peaked Ushanka cap, he is excitedly preparing for the opening of an exhibition telling his story. Aadu had been building homemade radios since the 1970s – ‘we swapped vodka for spare parts from the Russian Army,’ he grins – but it was not until Estonia declared independence in 1991 that he began to use his skills for political ends.
Like thousands of other ordinary Tallinn residents desperate to protect their country from Soviet attempts to retake control, he volunteered for the newly formed Estonian Defence League. His radio experience saw him appointed head of national communications. ‘We knew that hardline Communists in Russia would not let [then-reformist Soviet General Secretary, Mikhail] Gorbachev give up control of the Baltic states easily, so we had to be ready.’ In January 1991, the Soviets had attacked Vilnius, the capital of nearby Lithuania, and a similar assault on Tallinn was expected.