TALLINN - With shopping malls and office towers popping up like weeds in downtown Tallinn, old buildings being refurbished and trendy cafes filling the cracks at an almost mind-boggling pace, I was happy to find that at least one small, curious piece of Tallinn's Soviet past has been left almost untouched.
I encountered this dingy reminder of socialist times in a concrete-lined maintenance area on the 23rd floor of the Sokos Hotel Viru. This is the so-called "KGB room," a once-secret listening post, abandoned since the late 1980s, which the hotel has decided to keep for posterity.
My guide was Ahti Nigol, sales manager for Sokos Hotels, the Finnish group that now runs the Viru. With a set of keys in hand, he escorted me from the hotel's pristine lobby up through a series of stairways and corridors and finally to an unmarked, gray door. Stepping through it was a bewildering, time-travel experience. Suddenly I was, please excuse me, back in the U.S.S.R.
The lights didn't work. The floor was covered in papers and debris. Incomprehensible racks of old radio equipment stood to one side. Next to them, a desk with a plastic telephone, a soldier's cap and a copy of "Sovietskaya Estonia" dated Friday, Aug. 18, 1989. Behind this was a narrow bed, which, Nigol explained, was probably used by the night shift, since the room would have been manned at all times.
This was in fact a radio room, designed for receiving coded messages from Soviet embassies in Scandinavia and sending them on to Moscow. Judging by the condition it's in, it has been left pretty much untouched since its occupants hurriedly packed up and moved out in 1989. That was the year the building was privatized and sold to the Finnish development company SRV International.
The room's existence was a well-guarded secret. It was only rediscovered several months later when engineers from SRV noticed a mysterious door inexplicably unmarked on the floor plans. The men from the KGB were long gone but had left this interesting souvenir of their tenure.
Of course, radio reception was far from the only KGB activity going on in the hotel during the Soviet period. When it opened in 1972, the Viru was Tallinn's main Intourist hotel, meaning it was designed specifically to accommodate - and spy on - foreign travelers. According to Nigol, the office responsible for spying on guests was on the third floor. When the KGB wanted someone in particular watched, they would simply instruct the reception to put them in one of 20 specially bugged rooms, then post an officer in a room next door to listen in.
Standing here among the dusty tables, I recalled my own experience with the Soviet-era Viru. It was during my first trip to Tallinn in 1990, when I arrived here with a student group. For the privilege of suffering a standard room filled with cheerless utilitarian furniture, reception wanted to charge us $115. Luckily we were able to put the hotel in the name of a Russian tag-along, and so were charged the somewhat more reasonable sum of 15 roubles, equivalent to exactly 100 ice creams, or at the black market rate, roughly $1.
Hot water was scarce, the sheets over-starched and each floor was equipped with dezhurnaya, a nosy granny who lorded over the room keys and watched the guests like a hawk. Also, as Nigol reminded me, Estonians were not allowed inside to sample the restaurant, unless of course they slipped a few roubles to the doorman, who was probably one of the richest people in town.
It's easy to forget how different this hotel - and this town - was just 13 years ago, unless of course you're standing here in this trash-filled radio room. It's not open to the public - the Viru's management shows it as part of the historic tour they give their Western partners, who find this something highly exotic.
"For people from abroad it's quite interesting to see this because it's the real thing, real history," said Nigol, explaining why they'll keep the room as-is for the foreseeable future.
It was heartening to see that, despite all the changes happening here, at least some small bit of the reality I remember from my first trip to Tallinn is being preserved.
As interesting as it was to travel down memory lane however, part of me was glad that it is kept safely locked away in an obscure attic room, where it clearly belongs.