The bustling hotel lobby is innocuous. Armchairs in bright orange and green. American pop music wailing. But hanging on the wall, among other signs directing guests to the luggage room, the fitness room, and the shops, is a sign that says “KGB Museum.”
Welcome to the Hotel Viru in Tallinn, Estonia, where foreign visitors came during the 1970s and ’80s to stay, to see and be seen, and — unwittingly — to be spied on.
During the Cold War, when Estonia was under Soviet rule, the swanky high-rise Hotel Viru was built by Intourist, the official USSR travel agency, to attract foreigners. Elizabeth Taylor stayed here. So did astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the Shah of Iran. The hotel housed a nightclub, a restaurant, a bakery, a spa, a florist, and also a KGB listening post and radio transmission center.
There were hidden microphones and cameras in the walls of certain guest rooms. TVs, electrical outlets, radios, and telephones were bugged. The sauna was bugged. The bar was bugged. Microphones were concealed in bouquets of flowers and in ashtrays. You could hire a driver to take you around the city; he would later report on where you had gone, what questions you had asked, whom you’d met, what pictures you had taken. Receptionists and hairdressers would chat with you, and then report on what you’d said. Did you have a document you needed copied? The hotel would gladly take care of this for you — while also making a surreptitious second copy to send to Moscow.
People knew but didn’t know. Guests couldn’t help noticing the beefy guards who flanked the hotel entrance, and the old women who sat at desks in the corridors and took note of everyone’s comings and goings. One guest spotted a microphone in his room and decided to cover it with a piece of wet toilet paper; minutes later there was a knock on the door, and a man came in, wordlessly removed the toilet paper, and left.
Hotel employees were subject to a mixture of inducement and coercion. The hotel offered better pay and perks than any other job in town. But employees were constantly being monitored and tested for their loyalty and their ability to keep their mouths shut. Waiters were given daily seating charts pinpointing the tables where guests of special interest were to be seated; those place-settings had to include double-bottomed bread plates with wireless microphones inside. Certain parts of the hotel were off limits. Years later, one former employee recalled accidentally opening the wrong door and being met with the muzzle of a gun. He backed out and said nothing.
All of this came fully to light only in 1991, when Estonia declared its independence from the Soviet Union. The transition was so fast and chaotic that the KGB operatives didn’t have time to remove their equipment from the hotel before they fled.
Today this formerly top-secret operation is open to the public. You buy a ticket in the hotel lobby and ride the elevator up to the 22nd floor. That’s as far as the elevator goes. In the old days, if a guest inquired what was on the 23rd floor, the answer was a terse, “Technical rooms.” Or an even more terse, “Nothing.” Today you can climb a flight of stairs and stand in a windowless room filled with radio and recording equipment. You can stand on a balcony and look down on the miraculously preserved Old Town of Tallinn. Next to the medieval church of St. Olav is a large gray building. This was the KGB headquarters, where Estonians were interrogated and tortured, before being deported to Siberia.
Today Estonia is a member of both the European Union and NATO. It’s not a rich country; but it chooses to devote 2 percent of its national budget to its military, as a condition of NATO membership. These facts are not mentioned by the tour guide at the KGB museum. But you can’t help thinking, as you view the grim evidence of past Russian surveillance and interference, about how precious national security can be. And how precarious.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.