Tallinn’s secret history of espionage
The Russians again invaded Estonia on 20 August 1991. By the time they reached the outskirts of Tallinn, Aadu and his team, holed up in Toompea Castle, had picked up their military radio communications. ‘I remember calling home that evening,’ says Aadu. ‘In my mind, I was saying goodbye to my wife and daughter – I didn’t say it in words, but they understood. I knew the army was coming, and I knew what would happen to us if they found out what we were doing.’ On 21 August at 4.30am, Aadu heard the Soviet army announce that they had forcibly entered Tallinn’s TV tower, and were awaiting instructions – presumably to take over all of the strategically important buildings in the city. This was the moment that Aadu and his team had been waiting for. As the military commander started to issue his orders, the radio amateurs, barricaded in Toompea, jammed the frequency – just as the Soviet jammers had blocked Finnish TV signals from St Olaf’s spire for years. He plays me some of the recordings that he made that day. Over a crackly signal, a Russian commander says, ‘Hello, hello, can you hear me?’, before attempting to give the instructions – but these are drowned out by a high-pitched squeal. It sounds as if he is profusely swearing on television and being bleeped out by censors. He tries again, but to no avail. ‘We jammed them for three hours, so successfully that they could not receive any reports,’ says Aadu. ‘Eventually they gave up.’ By now, there were news reports that a conjoining coup in Moscow itself had failed. A short while later, the army withdrew from Tallinn’s TV tower (‘we let that order through,’ laughs Aadu), and Estonian independence was secured – without a single death.
Tallinn’s spy story does not end here. In 2009, Herman Simm, head of security at the Estonian Defence Ministry, was convicted of leaking NATO secrets to a foreign government: no prizes for guessing which country. And Tallinn is now home to the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, which aims to build up NATO’s defences against cyber attacks. Yet all of this seems very far away as I walk through St Catherine’s Passage, its archways, snow-covered cobbles and artisan workshops making it the loveliest street in a city where loveliness is the bare minimum. A yellow light from the lampposts heats the medieval stonework and a winning burst of warmth and laughter emerges through a crack in the door of a bar. Yet as I again head into the central square, the crunch of my footsteps on the snow rebounding upon the walls, I look up. To my left is the pinprick spire of St Olaf’s Church, straight ahead, the electric glow of Hotel Viru irradiates the sky, and behind me, Toompea Castle looms impassively. The three pillars of Tallinn’s strangled history are, happily, returned to benign landmarks: totemic symbols of a city no longer permanently looking over its shoulder.