Tallinn #3: KGB Museum and the Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom

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February 7th 2019
Published: March 10th 2019
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My final day in Tallinn had arrived. I had been undecided about going to the KGB museum as it was rather expensive and the reviews online weren't too good. However, since it was winter and a lot of the tours that I had wanted to do out of the city weren't running, I felt that I could now justify the cost. The tour has to be booked and paid for in advance online. There are only two daily option in English and I went for the morning one at 11 am. Since I had some time before the tour, I went for a walk up Toompea as we had been there on the walking tour and I wanted to go back by myself. I took the direct route from my hostel and on the way I came across a bust of Johan Pitka at the entrance of a small park. Pitka was a rear admiral and Commander of the Estonian Navy during the Estonian War of Independence. Later in his life, he left Estonia but returned in 1944 to organise the military resistance that would fight for Estonia's independence. He disappeared in 1944 and no one knows his whereabouts. It is speculated that he either died in a battle against a Soviet tank group or perished as he tried to make his way to Sweden on a boat across the Baltic Sea.

Soon Toompea Castle came into view. I loved the turret with the Estonian flag flying from it. I also got some more great views of Alexander Nevsky cathedral. Toompea Castle is the seat of the Estonian, the Riigikogu, and has been for around 800 years. The building is a beautiful pink colour. I really wished that I could have went inside to explore. I wandered the streets some more. Since it was cold, snowy and still quite early, there weren't too many people around. I came to the Bishop's Garden, which I wasn't sure if I had been to on my walking tour a couple of days earlier. The Bishop's Garden is related to the Dome Church and the first incarnation of a church was built in around 1219. I was going to take a walk around the garden, but since everything was covered with a thick coating of snow I felt it was a little pointless as there was nothing to see. I also came across the Short Leg gate on my walk. It was an important junction and fortification. It was intended to be a shortcut for pedestrians between the lower town and Toompea. The gate was governed by the lower town and enabled the magistrate to control the movement of people to and from the area under town law. It also meant the lower part of the town could be defended even if Toompea had fallen into enemy hands. I headed back to the Danish King's Garden to get some more photos of the monks. I thought about going to the fortifications museum (not sure what it is really called), but didn't have enough time to walk around it properly, so I decided to give it a miss.

I headed out of the Old Town passing a small statue of a man dressed in some kind of suit/uniform and a top hat. I didn't see any signs to indicate who he was. I then headed along the main road and though Tammsaare Park. There I came across the Monument to the Revolution of 1905. It was designed and sculpted by Lembit Paluteder and Mart Port. It was built in 1959 and commemorates the 94 people killed (another 200 were injured) when the Russian opened fire on a meeting in a street market in Tallinn. It is known among locals as a woman hailing a cab, due it her stance. I continued on and came to the Hotel Viru, which is where the KGB museum is located. The reception desk pointed me in the direction of the tour desk and I got myself checked in. At first, I thought I was the only one on the tour, but there were two other people there, too. Hotel Viru was opened in 1972 and was owned by Intourist, a Russian travel agency and was the official state travel agency of the Soviet Union. It was the first high-rise building in Tallinn. It was the only place that foreign visitors to Tallinn could stay. We rode the lift with our guide as he explained some of the hotel's history to us.

As we got out of the lift, the guide told us that each floor would have a babushka keeping watch over who was coming and going and they would write it all down in a book. We walked along the corridor and came to a locked door. Once opened, we took another set of stairs to the KGB offices which have now been turned into a museum. Before heading into the main rooms of the museum, we headed out to the balcony to get a view of Tallinn. The KGB had definitely picked a good spot. The views over the city and out across the Baltic Sea were good, even on a cloudy day like it was. I bet the views were very different back then as none of the other tall buildings would have been in existence. We then headed into the first of the museum's room. This looked like the place where the boss would sit and go over paperwork. There were two phones on the desk, one was a regular one and the other one was quite special as it didn't have any dial or buttons. Calls from this phone would only be made and received from one place, the KGB headquarters in town. The second room was filled with communications equipment so that the KGB could spy on the guests. Our guide showed us the blueprints for the hotel and there were lots of unexplained marks on them. This was here the bugging devices went. Apparently the normal construction staff had to leave the hotel for 'a holiday' for a week or two, while a KGB team came and put in the listening devices and then the construction staff returned to finish off the hotel. The hotel's foreign currency bar was also very popular and locals really wanted to get in. They could sometimes fool the Russian staff by speaking in Estonian as it is similar to Finnish, but their clothing would let them down. They needed western clothing to really convince the staff outside that they were foreigners. We were also shown some of the items that used that were bugged or booby-trapped. There was a special bread plate that had a thicker than usual bottom so that it could hold a listening device and a purse that would cover the person who opened it with dye, similar to those money transportation boxes used now. It was weird to see all the things that the KGB had abandoned, but it was cool that everything had been left how it was. the guide remarked how loyal KGB men preferred to smoke American cigarettes. We headed back outside again, but this time to a different balcony, where we got some more great views over the city and the port. Then we were given some free time to read the information boards about the hotel's history and how it compares to now. The tour quite brief and interesting, but I do think 11 euros is a bit too much to pay for it.

I had thought about going for lunch, but since I wasn't feeling hungry I decided just to press on with my plan for the afternoon, which was to visit the Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom. The museum was just across the way from my hostel, so it probably would have made sense to go there earlier, but never mind. Outside of the museum there is a section of the Berlin Wall. This section was located along the border on Leipziger Strasse on the corner of Stresemannstrasse at Potsdamer Platz. Having been to the Berlin Wall many, many moons ago, it was nice to be reminded of the many enjoyable times I had spent in Berlin, and also the bigger picture that the wall had come down and that Germany was reunited. There was another thought-provoking art installation outside of the museum: '21 Suitcases' by Marko Maetmamm and Kaido Ole. It is a continuation of the work '100 Suitcases', which they created in 2004. The works serve as a reminder of the tens of thousands of Estonians that had to leave their homes during and after the Second World War against their will and under pressure from the foreign powers that occupied Estonia. I headed into the museum and paid the entrance fee of 11 euros. I have to say this place was more than worth the cost. I picked up an audio guide and headed down to the basement to see the first exhibit.

Before entering the first main exhibition room, there was a smaller exhibition outside consisting of videos of four old people telling their stories. It was very moving and set the tone for the museum. The first exhibition room was done out as the inside of a train car. The floor even moved to simulate what people would have experienced as they left their homes behind. I had recently read a book about Jews being sent to the camps across Europe and it had painted a very bleak image of the people's reality. I don't doubt that the Estonians in these trains probably suffered the same cramped conditions with no access to food, water and sanitation. It's just utterly horrific to even think about. In cases in the walls and hanging from the ceiling were items that people had took with them when they left. How would you know what to take? What would be truly useful? What about keepsakes and family photographs? It was heartening to see what people had decided to take with them. The next room displayed a boat that people had fled Estonia on and the things they had taken with them. There was also a photo exhibition from a man that had left Estonia and it documented his life in the USA. It showed him keeping Estonia as an important part of his life. It was really cool to see. The next room combined the German and Russian occupations and the ideologies behind them. There was a lot of reading in here as you could read about the different aspects of the different occupations of the Nazis and the Soviets. From there, I moved onto the next part, which detailed daily life as a part of the Soviet Union and how people were resisting the control placed on them. I loved the jokes that were meant to undermine the Soviet regime and its leaders. I also liked the mock up of the Soviet flat. I also learnt about the Singing Revolution and listened to people's testimonies about what they encountered and went through as Estonia regained its independence. I must have spent a good three hours in the museum and I would definitely recommend a visit there to learn more about Estonia's more recent history.

After the museum, I headed to the Old Town to look for somewhere to have an early dinner. There were a few places I fancied, but none of them really piqued my interest enough. I think I was being a bit too indecisive. I finally chose a small place in the Town Hall square that did burgers as I kind of had a hankering for one. The place I chose was called 'burger & ribi'. It was really quiet when I walked in and I was able to choose a table where ever I liked. I spent a while looking over the menu. There were a lot of different burger to choose from and there were also quite a few other dishes that sounded good. I opted for the blue cheese and bacon burger as I love blue cheese. The burgers come without any sides so I ordered some chips to go with it. The waitress also encouraged me to move to the window seat, whether it was to make the place look busy or so I could look out over the square, I'm not sure, but it was nice to sit there sipping a glass of rose watching the snow lightly fall and the people pass by. The presentation of my burger and chips was rather nice. They came on a board wrapped in Hawaiian newspaper. I coated my chips with mustard, which made a nice change. They were good, proper thick cut chips. The burger was a bit of a beast and thoroughly delicious. With some space still in my stomach, I decided to have the cheesecake for dessert. It was so good, one of the best cheesecakes I have had. I could have happily eaten the whole cake and not just the slice I was given. I had also decided to try the local liqueur, Vana Tallinn. It is a rum-based liqueur, which was developed in the 1960s. Since they had a cream version I went for that. Since I rarely drink spirits, it packed a bit of a punch for me. It was pretty nice, but not something I could drink a lot of. After dinner I made my way back to the hostel for my final night's sleep. I enjoyed Tallinn and would love to come back and explore more of Estonia. I would love to see what the place is like in summer or autumn.

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