With the Iron Curtain solidly drawn around it, Estonia was struggling to make tourism ends meet in the decades after World War II. That is, until both its Soviet overlords and sightseeing industry found the perfect solution: They would outfit the increasingly accessible nation with a luxury hotel that unwittingly brought together a vacationing crowd and the U.S.S.R.’s most vigilant gatekeepers.
At the classy Hotel Viru in the city of Tallinn, well-heeled travelers arranged business transactions, gossiped, and traded information about what lay beyond the Soviet bloc. Between 1972 and 1991, the imposing hotel in Estonia’s capital was filled with foreign travelers and Estonians visiting from abroad. Boasting a foreign currency exchange, Western alcohol and goods, and a bustling restaurant, the hotel entrapped visitors into occupying themselves within its premises rather than seeking entertainment outside.
This was all in line with the plan of the KGB agents who listened in to every syllable and watched every step taken from their listening room hidden on the secret top floor of Hotel Viru. Unsuspecting guests were oblivious to the fact that their ashtrays and dinner plates came with electronic bugs, the sauna taped each conversation, and, of course, their hotel rooms were outfitted with secret microphones and cameras.
In the years following World War II, Estonia sank into the shadows of the U.S.S.R., struggling with a failing tourism industry. But when a new ferry line opened in the early ’70s and connected the country to neighboring Finland, thousands of visitors began arriving annually.
To accommodate them, a two-tower building with an extended, “L”-shaped ground floor was constructed by Finnish architects and swiftly modified and outfitted by Soviet spies. What was now Estonia’s largest hotel was hardly inconspicuous: It was a Soviet-style high-rise towering over the quaint, red-roofed buildings of Tallinn.
Hotel Viru quickly became the pride of Intourist, a Soviet travel agency that was founded in the 1920s by Joseph Stalin. Later, it was more or less run by the KGB, which controlled all aspects of visitors’ trips in order to best display U.S.S.R. propaganda. Soon after Viru was built, a 1975 Intourist guide lauded the high-rise as “Tallinn’s new pride, a beautiful creation of glass and concrete.” Conveniently, all foreigners were required to stay in the hotel during their visit.
These guests would have read about the marvels of a 22-floor hotel, blissfully unaware that it was, in fact, 23 floors tall. The top floor was kept strictly off limits, purportedly for technical equipment. A sign currently posted in front of the door clearly states “There’s nothing here” in homage to the answer given to anyone asking about the upstairs operation.
The hotel below was riddled with listening devices. Any hotel room could be outfitted with a KGB microphone, but 60 rooms were pre-wired with listening equipment, in addition to bugged phones and flowerpots, and a hollowed space between the walls for microphones. Next door was often not another guest but a KGB agent with an ear to the mic. In the restaurant, the ceiling was outfitted with receivers.
The true nature of the management’s mission was an open secret with the more than 1,000 hotel employees—often orders would come from their in-the-know overseers to place certain guests in particular rooms.
This open secrecy served its purpose, says Peep Ehasalu, communications manager for the hotel. The message it sent was clear: “Don’t even think about going somewhere and meeting somebody and we won’t know.” An atmosphere of fear and paranoia quickly followed. Guests and employees alike, he says, began “self-censoring.”
In April 1991, just before the U.S.S.R. crumbled, the KGB suddenly abandoned its post at Viru. Agents packed what they could in one night but left most of the floor’s equipment in place. Curious Estonian employees at the hotel were not altogether surprised to find that the room on the 23rd floor was chock-full of listening devices. They left it untouched.
The secret room wasn’t rediscovered until 1994, when Viru was bought by a Finnish company. Again, the new manager decided to leave the 23rd floor in the state it was found in. At that point, Ehasalu says, it was too painful to imagine creating a museum for the spies who had made life hell for Estonians under their watch.
In January 2011, the floor was finally opened to the public with a museum. After 15 years of being sealed off, Ehasalu says, the decision was made when a European TV crew visited and asked: “Why did hotel management allow the KGB to be here?”
“For us it was such a stupid question,” Ehasalu says. “We realized we must open it, we must explain what life was like under KGB control.”
Today, tours take visitors up to the once-hidden floor of the still-bustling hotel. On a nearby balcony, they can stand directly under the massive letters of “HOTEL VIRU,” which grace the top of the building, to check out the cityscape before being led into a small room with a dial-less telephone that connected to the Moscow KGB headquarters.
From there, the secret listening room is filled with the blocky gray electronics of the ’70s, papers, and relics hastily left behind. On the desk, an ashtray is filled with 23-year-old cigarette butts and a gas mask. Blueprints for floors and dining room tables mark off which spots were tapped. A small cot in the corner even provided a rest area for KGB agents when the listening sessions stretched through the night.
“It’s not to tell about some kinds of James Bond stories,” Ehasalu says of the museum. “But what was everyday life in the hotel—what it meant that the KGB was in the house.”