Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen
It is dangerous to think that the time of Stalins and Hitlers has passed.
President of the Republic of Estonia Lennart Meri, 1999.
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We are standing in front of a residential Art Nouveau building in the photogenic old town of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. Our guide Risto points out to the sign leading to the small door of the underground cellars: “KGB prison cells”. With his energetic voice, he describes: “my great grandmother was taken here. My great grandfather was an Air Force pilot for the Soviets who deserted. She hid him and was denounced by neighbours, and arrested by the NKVD – the organ that will become the KGB – to confess to where he was hiding. In the first cell, she was interrogated. She did not break. The second cell was a 1.5-meter-wide closet in which she was locked up for a week in her own filth. She did not break. In the third cell, KGB agents tried to break her psychologically, threatening to execute her whole family if she did not speak. She did not break. In the fourth cell, she was beaten up and tortured until she turned blind. She did not break. She was one of the very few who walked out of this building.” I am chilled to the bone as I listen to this life story. For whatever reason, Risto’s American accent makes me expect a happy ending. “She went home and committed suicide two weeks later.” Many, many Estonian families were shattered, as was Risto’s, by the Soviet dictatorship that ruled the Baltic State between 1944 and 1991.
If the regime got a bit milder after the atrocious Stalin years that ended with the death of the blood-thirsty dictator in 1953, the communist terror had continuously targeted intellectuals, Estonian politicians and elite, businessmen, state officials, veterans of war who fought the Russians in previous uprisings… Or simply any Estonian during the ethnic cleansing of 1941 and 1949 during which the Soviets deported more than 30,000 of them – mostly women, children and elderly – to Siberia without any prior trial. Actually, in Soviet Estonia, just like across all of the Soviet Union, not much was needed to become an enemy of the state, and many were simply denounced for no reason by jealous neighbours, and quickly taken to the prison cells.
Being incarcerated in these prison cells meant being tortured and brought before a court to be sentenced to either death or a Siberian prison camp. The secret police surveillance of the Estonian society was run from this same building until 1991. Any non-conformist behaviour would trigger a punishment.
If Estonians were under constant surveillance by the Soviets, it was even more so for foreign visitors. Things were made rather easy as a specific building was erected in 1972 to host western tourists in order to generate an influx of foreign money in USSR. Of course, the KGB was omnipresent even occupying its own secret and forbidden floor, the 23rd floor of the Viru Hotel overlooking Tallinn’s Old Town. After all, any foreigner was a dangerous capitalist and a potential spy, so some rooms were tapped for sensitive guests, a floor guard was reporting every movement in and out of the rooms, KGB agents were always discreetly sitting in the common areas, a few hotel employees hoping for a letter of permission to buy a colour TV or any other out-of-reach consumer goods were also informants for the KGB. Guests were not only constantly followed but also always reminded of the KGB’s presence in order to instil a state of fear similar to the one across the Estonian society.
Today, the Viru Hotel hardy sticks out, but during the Soviet times, it was a symbol of the free western world for Tallinners. “Working here was a privilege!”, Margit Raud explains as she guides us amongst the recording equipment that was left behind by the last KGB agents who fled the Estonian capital in 1991. “You could buy products made for the foreign guests that were otherwise inaccessible, you could meet them, and even get some gifts: plastic bags, cigarettes, chewing gum, pantyhose… It was a dangerous place though as it was not allowed to exchange with foreigners, nor to hold foreign money. A small tip found in a pocket could result in a three-year prison sentence.”
Tallinners were kept away as the Viru Hotel was a world of modernity, luxury and perfection to reflect the projected state of the Soviet regime abroad, far from the struggles of the local population. It was one of the best hotels of the whole Soviet Union and an integral part of the Soviet propaganda tools with no less than 1,080 employees to take care of up to 821 guests, who would have access to the best variety shows and nightlife in town, gastronomy, bars, wellness, shops… all within the hotel. Outside, families were cramped in small apartments often having to house strangers. Risto’s father would stand in line thrice a week for three hours to get some milk and bread to feed his family. One of the most sought-after goods for the few who could travel abroad was to bring back some toilet paper, and this lasted until the 1990’s. Meanwhile, the Soviet propaganda showed well stocked US supermarkets, explaining that Americans were so poor they could not buy anything.
But Estonians were not fooled: Margit had some family members living abroad who escaped during WWII as well as a few Finnish friends who would visit sometimes, and bits by bits, the information was coming in. If back in 1986, it seemed impossible for her to ever live in an independent country, in 1987, the first public protest against the Soviets took place, and in 1989, the longest human chain of 600 kilometres going through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia was a clear statement to the world against the regime of Moscow. At last, in 1991, Estonia became an independent democracy, and today, entrepreneurship is a virtue in this start up nation at the edge of e-technologies where luxury German cars have replaced Ladas.
- The KGB prison cells are a small and good museum in which stories of victims of the Soviet regime are told in different forms in the former cells.
- The KGB Museum at the Viru Hotel offers an excellent guided tour.
- The Maarjamäe Palace is a very rich history museum, and also a place where Soviet statues have been gathered.
- In the modern Kumu Art Museum, see how artists reacted to the Soviet times, and post-Soviet times.
- Tallinn is a compact, cute and very rich city that deserves at least three days to be appreciated fully. To explore Tallinn, stay at the comfortable 4-star Kalev Spa Hotel, at the edge of the old town, and enjoy its excellent saunas, fitness centre and Olympic pool – the only one in Estonia. Make sure to ask for a room with a view: clearly the best in town!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!
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