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Exploring sites that connect Tallinn’s oppressed past with its glimmering, creative future

22nd November 2018

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The mental image evoked by Estonian capital Tallinn is of the winding, fairytale streets of the old town – a medieval wonder straight out of the storybooks. But its story is also one on the fault line of the nation’s turbulent, oppressed past as well as its golden, innovation-led future.


Innovation and culture were at the forefront of my time in the city for Tallinn Music Week, one of the most exciting and diverse cultural showcases in Europe. During my stay, two places embodied the nation’s past, and its future, in profound ways.


Sat just outside the Old Town, the Hotel Viru looks like any other tower-block, any old cosmopolitan hotel - but it holds a dark secret and history. Viru has a secret floor from which Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, ran surveillance operations in the hotel itself and on neighbouring areas, including close Scandinavian countries.


The lift of the hotel goes up to the 22nd  floor, but the hotel itself has 23 floors (largely a secret to the public), from the top of which the KGB did its work. Clearly, under Soviet rule any hotel suitable for foreign visitors also had to be suitable for the KGB.

KGB Museum // Credit: James Thornhill


Today, this hidden floor is a museum which can be accessed via organised tours lasting one hour. The knowledgeable guides, in my case a stereotypically austere Eastern European lady with a dry sense of humour, direct you through the history of Soviet surveillance in Estonia. The stories from within the hotel itself are astounding.


Tales of every room being wired for surveillance, of foreign dignitaries being placed in certain rooms for better snooping, and of prostitute honey traps laid for blackmail purposes. Staff were monitored, visitors were monitored, and the whole fabric of the hotel was a machine of control.


The museum also acts as a monument to the wider nature of the regime. In amongst the artefacts sit two newspapers about two separate dead officials - two different newspapers, with the exact same story. Such was the control in Soviet Estonia that it was deemed easier to simply replicate an accepted story and change the names than bother trying to get the go-ahead on a new one.

Credit: James Thornhill


No accidents were ever recorded by the Communists, to maintain the veneer of perfection. Stood by an image of the hotel on fire during construction, our guide, completely deadpan said, “Of course there were never any accidents on Soviet places, so this did not happen!”


As you stand in the untouched room, left in exactly the same condition as the day the KGB suddenly left, you get a sense of strange unease. The tense nature of the room is somewhat offset the sign, which translates, apparently, to “There is nothing behind this door.”


The KGB Museum is a fascinating window into an oppressive past and is well worth an hour of your trip to Tallinn. The lofty balcony views across the city are worth it alone, giving an eerie sense of the KGB’s watchful eye.

Credit: James Thornhill


But the place doesn’t represent the Estonia, or the Tallinn, of today. This is a nation at the forefront of technological advancement, a place where all public transport is free and Wi-Fi is freely available wherever you go.


Few places in the city show this fact better than the Telliskivi Creative City. Built on the site of a secretive, former industrial complex bordering the Old Town and Pelgulinna and Kalamaja districts, it embodies the burst of free-thought and creativity that has blossomed since independence 30 years ago.


A wander round the complex introduces you to independent stores, restaurants, cool bars, galleries and exceptional street art. On Tuesdays the area welcomes a dance night, and Saturdays a brilliant flea-market.

Credit: James Thornhill


Unlike other areas being ‘gentrified’ by creative communities, Telliskivi comes with a commendable ethos. CEO and Founder Jaanus Juss explains how, despite interest and a waiting list, they have eschewed offers from big business in favour of those that fit their creative and forward-thinking identity. The creative companies that call the area their home, right down to the eateries, are all selected specifically for what they will bring to the area.


The complex is rough and ready, but the air of optimism as the crumbling industrial past gives way to creativity is infectious. During Tallinn Music Week, Telliskivi buzzed with some of the best live performances of the festival - just a small fraction of the complex’s 600 cultural events each year.

Telliskivi Street Food Festival // Credit: Visit Estonia

Whatever you are looking for Telliskivi will undoubtedly provide it. And after the buzz have a drink and some Nordic cuisine under a shimmering tree at Kärbes Kitchen & Bar - it’s a wonderful, relaxed spot.

On a visit to Tallinn make sure you leave the Old Town and embrace the wonders of its recent history - and its brilliant future.


And something else worth checking out in Estonia...


Off the back of the brilliant Tallinn Music Week, this September saw the launch of Station Narva, a new festival in Narva, north eastern Estonia, on the border between the EU and Russia.

The main venue, occupying what was once the world’s largest cotton spinning mill, Kreenholm, places the festival at the fault line between East and West: industrial-past and creative-future.

The incredible first line-up placed indie-legends Echo and the Bunnymen alongside electronic-mavericks Actress and Gazelle Twin, and a fine array of Estonian and Russian acts including odd-ball pop auteur Mart Avi.

It’s one to watch for future festival trips.

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This article was originally published in our Freshers 2018 print magazine. You can read the magazine here.


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