Estonia Lost and Found: The Secret Lives of Tallinn Hotels (In Time, Winter 2005)

Interested in Estonian history? One of the best places to discover Tallinn’s fascinating and turbulent history is your hotel.

Case in point: the Sokos Hotel Viru. Built in the early 1970s, when the then Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the crown jewels of the Soviet Empire, the twenty two story, 516 room Viru, Tallinn’s first bona fide skyscraper, then its tallest, was designed as the local flagship hostelry for the Intourist, the much-maligned Soviet tourist organization, reserved for the use of foreign guests, particularly “important” foreign guests, e.g., Western newspaper correspondents, visiting trade delegations, etc., etc.

Enn Palmets, the Viru’s long-time maintenance manager vividly remembers the day it opened, May 5, 1972. “It was quite a day,” Palmets said, with a hint of wistfulness in his voice, as he sipped a cappuccino in the revarnished hostelry’s snazzy Marco Polo lounge. “There was champagne,” he said, “Nittim Roman” – the head of a local branch of Intourist – “was there.” (Ah yes, Nittim Roman…where is he now?)

So, inevitably, was a delegation from the KGB, the Soviet secret service. According to Palmets, not all of Intourist Viru’s rooms were bugged, but a good number were, including most of the rooms on the 14th floor, the one set aside for very very important guests, i.e., the ones that Moscow really wished to keep close tabs on.

Unsurprisingly the KGB agents assigned to what was then perhaps the most luxurious hotel in the USSR kepy largely to themselves, said Palmets. The spooks operated out of a claustrophobic,, equipment-laden room on the hotel’s 23rd floor, which was off-limits to the indigenous Estonian staff. Nevertheless, inevitably, as the resident Mr. Fix It, “somewhere in the 70s,” Palemts recalls, he was asked – ordered – to go to the top floor in order to help if someting that had gone wrong at the Viru spy base. For some reason, however, Palmets recalled with a shudder, one of the agents on duty that night was not forewarned of his visit, “because when I opened the door one of the men pulled a gun on me!”

And you wonder why Estonians (at least most of them) are not especially nostalgic for “the Soviet time?”

“And then one night in the winter of 1989,” – as Estonia’s “Singing Revolution” gained momentum “they” – meaning the Viru’s KGB complement – “suddenly left,” Palmets said.

In point of fact, the night in question was February 11, 1989 – the date of issue of the copy of “Soviet Estonia,” the home grown version of Pravda that the spooked spooks left behind along with various items of late Soviet outerwear, including a lone, forlorn-looking boot, a greatcoat, a wall full of old 1950s vintage-looking surveillance equipment, and, last but not least, an ashtray overflowing with fifteen-year-old cigarette butts that the bored agents went through as they listened to the Viry’s guests perform their daily ablutions.

“We decided to leave it [the room] exactly the way it was,” said Harry Podder, front of the office of the hotel, which was given a thorough facelift – and debugging – and opened it to the general public ten years ago.

Want a reminder of what the USSR was really like, in all its paranoid, security-obsessed glory? Go to the Viru and ask to see the KGB room. “We’d much prefer to show off our state-of-the-art conference facilities, for example,” said Any Soosar, the hotel’s long-time manager. But it’s there, it’s part of the hotel’s and Estonia’s history, and we’re not going to deny it.”

Another top-rated Tallinn hostelry crammed with ghosts of both Soviet and older vintage, is the fashionable, four star St. Petersbourg Hotel, in the heart of the old town. The original structure was built in the 15th century by a wealthy Russian merchant named Proklov who hired renowned local architect August Gabler to build him a stately home. Four centuries later, in 1850, the Proklov house became the first hotel in Reval, as Tallinn used to be called.

Seventy years, and another layer of Estonian history later, after the former Russian province won its independence the hotel served as the private residence of the first Soviet Russian ambassador to Estonia. A quarter of a century on, after Estonia had been redevoured by the Russian bear the St. Petersbourg took on another life as a guesthouse for visiting Soviet elite. When Kosygin and other Soviet leaders had business in Tallinn, they checked into the very private St. Petersbourg. Sitting in the hotel’s fabled breakfast alcove, you can almost see Alexei and Leonid – or maybe just Alexei – sitting opposite, sipping his coffee while poring over the days freshly pressed issue of Pravda or Soviet Estonia. The coffee is better these days, and so are the newspapers, but the cozy dacha-like feeling of the 24-room establishment, which proudly calls itself Tallinn’s longest, continuously serving hotel, remains the same.

Distinguished ectomorphs of various stripes also haunt the halls of St. Petersbourg’s older and even posher, five star sister hotel, the Schlossle. Do you want to know what it felt like to be the richest person in Reval/Tallinn during the city’s Hanseatic heyday? have a drink in the Schlössle’s capacious courtyard one autumn night (weather permitting, of course).

Tell reception that Marquet Bartholt sent you. That’s the name of the Tallinn burgonmaster who first purchased the “Stenhus,” as the elegant medieval building used to be called. Think medieval posh.

Ditto for the Schlössle’s 570-year-old equally lavish, elegantly revarnished sister neighbour, the Three Sisters. The svelte hostelry claims to be able to trace all of the hotel’s owners back to the 14th century, and if you have several hours to spare the management will be pleased to do the honours. Better yet, ask for the comprehensive and descriptive DVD the hotel has made about its storied history, narrated by distinguished Estonian art historian Jüri Kuuskemaa.

Of all Tallinn’s top tier hotels the Hotel Barons is the only one that can claim to have been a bank in its former life. In fact, the landmark hotel, which was designed in neo-classical-cum-Jugendstil style by noted Russian architect Alexsander Jones, has been home to no less than eleven different Estonian banks during its 95-year-old history, from its first occupant, the Tallinn branch of the Riga Commercial Bank (1912-1917), through the turbulent 1940s, when the bank became the home of the Communal Bank of the Estonian SSR, then, during the Nazi years, home to Revalier Stadtbank, before reverting to the Communal Bank of the ESSR again, and beyond, to the period of reindependence, when it was occupied by a number of private commercial banks before finally becoming a hotel in 1999.

The Barons, which opened in 2003, makes an imaginative and inviting use of the building’s former banking features, most notably the bank’s original armoured Panzer vault, which has been converted into a very plush, and very private conference room.

“A lot of people use it for parties,” says manager Siret Sultsing. The comfy, reconfigured vault includes a well-stocked brandy and champagne closet, plus a small browsing library, including a vintage copy of an illustrated books singing the praises of Soviet Tallinn – including the then Communal Bank of the Estonian SSR.

All in all, a good place to deposit yourself, and to end our tour of the secret lives of Tallinn hotels.

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