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Thursday, 14 March 2013 12:55

Estonia's Capital Tallinn Is Rich In Art, Music, And Soviet History

Written by  Marian Goldberg

It was a quiet, early spring day - about 50 degrees and slightly overcast -- in medieval Old Town, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My companions and I were enjoying a stroll along the cobblestone streets, checking out art galleries and craft and vintage shops. On Pikk Street, we slipped into Cafe Maiasmokk (, a historic Viennese-like coffee house, the oldest in the city, dating back to 1864. We found a seat in the back against the precisely carved Art Nouveau wood paneling, where we could easily gaze up at the magnificent hand-painted glass ceiling. We ordered coffee and the signature marzipan cake, and to our surprise were soon also greeted by a town violinist, who serenaded us with Gershwin tunes.


With our sweet tooth and art senses satisfied, we returned outside, and began to take photos of the flowery, flowing exterior of the building, when all of a sudden the cultural serenity came to a halt! We were grabbed by a uniformed police officer, who with a heavy Russian accent, demanded we “Stop taking photos!” He pulled us aside and ordered us to present our passports and papers! My companion and I looked at each other wondering what could possibly be wrong. He then pulled out hand cuffs, and began hand-cuffing my friend; only the hand-cuffs were wrapped in pink velvet! We realized we were in the middle of some inside joke. 

In fact, what we had not noticed because we were so shaken, was that to the left of us was an old, rickety, Soviet-era military vehicle. Comrade sternly motioned for us to get on. We could see there were other Americans (tourists) already sitting aboard in school bus-like rows. We hopped on and joined them. Comrade jumped on after us, sat in the driver’s seat and shut the door. Then he turned around, and announced, “Now we go to the prison, but first we have a drink: Russian vodka!” He then passed around little plastic cups and a bottle of Stolichnaya. And next, he whipped out a guitar and broke into song - in Russian of course! Fortunately, he was not drinking
and driving. 

Such was our surprise experience on a Blue Drum Tour ( of Tallinn under USSR rule. We did end up at Patarei Prison (www.pata
). Built in 1840, it housed inmates until 2002. Today, it is a culture park and a reminder of the
Soviet occupation. 


SPY Hotel

Remnants of Estonia’s USSR controlled past still exist in other tourist attractions around the city. The Hotel Viru, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and offering special commemorative packages (, was built with Finnish investment funds and became famous for offering the best service in all of the Soviet Union. It naturally became the address for most foreigners visiting Tallinn, albeit most guests received even more attention than they asked for. 

In a hidden room on the off-limits 23rd floor of the hotel, the KGB maintained a secret monitoring center. Here, in 1989 after the collapse of Soviet control, hotel staff discovered the space. They found walls lined with antiquated radio equipment and signal amplifiers, as well as a telephone with a direct link to the Soviet embassy in Helsinki. This was apparently installed for Brezhnev’s visit there in 1975. This command center apparently even controlled the reception desk, telling staff in which rooms to place guests, so that the KGB could listen-in more efficiently. As of January 13, 2011, the room is now the KGB Museum, and up to 25 guests can visit at once for seven Euros each. 

Back on the street we again strolled through modern Tallinn, but as we passed PIKK 59, our guide stopped. This, in fact, was the actual location of the KGB headquarters building. A little run-down since the Soviets fled, you can still see the bricked-up basement windows where those even suspected of non-cooperation were interrogated and tortured. 

Nearby, the 600 year-old St. Olaf’s Church, with its more than 403 ft. tall spire, provided the ideal location for a Cold War monitoring antennae. Today, tourists can just enjoy the viewing gallery at the top with its panoramic scenes of Tallinn, a vantage point from which the city’s old, Soviet, and contemporary charms can all appreciated at once. 

Information on travel to Tallinn can be found at: General information on travel to Estonia can be sourced at the Estonian Tourist Board’s website at: Also contact the Estonian American Chamber of Commerce in New York at:

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