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Hotel Viru and the KGB Museum

  • 2011-02-03
  • www.tallinn2011.ee

CONNECTED: Though the Soviet hospitality may be gone, artifacts from the hotel’s KGB days can still be enjoyed.

TALLINN - Tallinn European Capital of Culture 2011 invites visitors to a hotel – but there’s a lot more to discover than room service.
Skyscrapers are a ubiquitous sight in modern Tallinn, but almost four decades ago there was only one building that dominated the skyline. The Hotel Viru was an architectural jewel for the Soviet Republic of Estonia. Built by the finest Soviet minds (with aid from their Finnish comrades) the Hotel stood as a monument to Soviet ingenuity and to the fact that the USSR could provide the same level of comfort (and decadence) that had become the norm in the Western World. Indeed, any visiting foreigners would be placed in the hotel so they could enjoy the finest restaurants, nightclubs and amenities on offer. The fact that the hotel contained a KGB listening post stationed on a secret floor was a mere coincidence...

One can only imagine the information that was gleaned by the KGB agents in the dull and grey office that has been perfectly preserved in the Hotel Viru and KGB Museum exhibition. With 60 rooms of the hotel wired up with listening devices, there must have been one or two juicy titbits of knowledge that would be let slip by unsuspecting foreign dignitaries. One would also expect there was plenty of stuff with people wondering how to work the trouser press or complaining that they don’t have enough socks: if anyone was expecting the life of an undercover agent to be glamorous, they are probably wrong.

However, the museum is much more than a testament to the machinations of Russia’s secret police. Whilst the listening post is a fascinating room and a grim reminder of some of the lengths that the KGB were prepared to go to make sure that no one stepped out of line, it really works as counterpoint to the story that holds the most interest: that of the hotel’s past.

The displays of the past brochures, souvenirs and other assorted promotional material from the Viru archives tells the story of a society that is attempting to put its best face forward to the world, whilst denying that there could be any problems with, well, anything. Of course, hotels have always been strange beasts as they promise a hermetically sealed atmosphere that will ‘protect’ their visitors from the outside world. Yet it seems amplified here. The hyperbole in the Hotel’s promotional literature speaking of the amenities on offer has an almost desperate tone which seems to say “You see – we can do it as well!” Indeed it shows both how the country and the USSR was defined by contradiction as it loathed the ideals of the Western world, yet seemed so determined to win its approval.

Taken away from the cultural and political context, the exhibition also works well as an example of ’70s and ’80s Soviet kitsch. From tote bags to some truly hideous ’80s brochures, some of the items on display certainly raise a smile amongst the more sombre messages conveyed.

The opening of the museum also showed – and others like it – how Estonian society is increasingly confronting its past. From the fake ‘Soviet Guards’ who searched the visitors on their way in to the museum to the Leonid Brezhnev impersonator who gave a speech for those attending the opening, there was much poking of fun at the former regime and its ways. With a past that is still raw and painful for many Estonians, there seemed a genuine air of relief that at least it could be confined within a museum and consigned firmly within the history books.

On the surface the Hotel Viru and KGB Museum would seem to be quite a slight exhibition. However, underneath the gloss of Hotel logos and swimming pool blueprints, it’s a rich and fascinating account at odds with itself and the rest of the world.
The Hotel Viru and KGB Museum is situated at the Sokos Hotel Viru and runs until December, 2011.

For opening times and ticket prices visit www.tallinn2011.ee