Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

September 28, 2013

Estonia: The Museum

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 5:12 am

This entry on Sex, Drugs and Public Health documents impressions of Estonia from a recent trip.


Can’t travel to some new place without someone suggesting you visit one.  Walk through halls of stagnant air, staring at a series of inanimate displays whose significance is only marginally brought to life by reading a blurb plastered to the wall.  If you’re lucky, it’s in your native language.

But this one sounded different right from the start.

“Is to show, the KGB museum, how ve lived until only tventy years ago,” the guide says in her high school English.

Tiina had described some of that to me several times before.  She returned to Estonia in the early 70’s to see family members left behind when her mother grabbed her as a two year old and fled on foot, through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, into Germany, escaping the invading Russians.

“Other Estonian expatriates warned me not to return – that the Russians would not allow me to leave again,” she’d told me.

This museum is on the top floor of the Viru Hotel in downtown Tallinn.  Our guide is a young woman in her 30’s, whose personal experience with the Russian occupation, given her age, would have been limited.  The Soviets left in 1991.  But a lot of scars remain.

“Ve go to a floor that doesn’t exist,” she twinkles her eyes, pushing the elevator button for the highest floor.

We get out to see just more rows of hotel rooms, standing like soldiers in innocent order.  She leads us to a staircase hidden behind a door, and up another level.

“Everyone is told, there is nah-sing up here.”

On that level, we find an office for the highest ranking Soviet official, the walls bedecked with photos of Gorbachov and Andropov, and with official proclamations.  Two phones are on the desk.  One red; one white.  Neither has a dialing plate.




“Direct to Moscow, this line,” she points to the red.  “Into the spy room this one,” she indicates the other.

Down the hall is another door.  Estonian words on it are translated by the guide.

“Zhere is nah-sing behind zhis door.”

She churckles.  “Ve write zat to make fun of zee Soviets because, they always said zhat.  No sign on door in Soviet times.”

Inside are banks of archaic electronics.  Large radios occupy several of the spaces.  An old reel-to-reel tape recorder occupies one space.  Wires spiderweb the ceiling.  Headphones and ashtrays on a small metal desk were hastily abandoned in 1991.  Half smoked cigars included.  A white phone on the desk twins the one in the officer’s desk.

“If you vanted come to Estonia, you may stay only at zhis hotel.  Fifteen percent of the rooms in hotel were bugged with microphones and cameras.  Certain people are always assigned to one of zhose rooms.  Can you guess who?”




She laughs.  “Yes, I suppose.  If James Bond makes reservation, he gets bugged room.  Who else?”

We shrug.  Even Tiina.

“Journalists,” she tells us.  “Soviets vere very paranoid about reporters.  And also, Estonians who return from other countries.  Is anyone here Estonian from elsewhere?”

Tiina raises her hand.

“Did you ever come back in Soviet times?”

“Oh, yes,” Tiina acknowledged.

“Zhen, you stay in zhis hotel.”  It was not a question.

“Yes.  We did.  This hotel.”

“You get bugged room,” she picks up a set of headphones.

“We assumed that.  My family said that we only talk freely outdoors, in the park.”

“Yes,” the guide smiles.  “Everybody knows zhis KGB is here.  Is – vhat you call?  ‘bad secret’.  Bad kept secret.  Vunce, journalist comes into room, looks around and says to wife, ‘Look.  No sheets on the bed’.”

The guide smiles.  Pauses.  Continues.  “Zhen comes knock on door.  Zhey open.  Is maid wiz sheets.”

We chuckle.  Easy to chuckle now.




“On every floor zhere is grandmother in chair by elevator.  Why, you tink?”

Tiina recalls.  “They marked down every move you make.  How long you’re in the room.  Who’s in room with you.  How long you’re gone.”

“Correct.  Zhey report everyzhing.  But in store, is very little food.  No toilet paper.  Is very hard in Soviet times.  So vhat you tink happens?”

Tiina again.  “We gave the grandmother gum and cigarettes, and then she sees nothing.”

“Correct.  You know zhis very well.  Know vhat else you can give which, like a great gift, is appreciated?  Plastic bags from Finland.  In zhose days, Estonians carry plastic bags like Gucci.”

We chuckle, uneasily.

“You vant taxi, vhat happens?”  She’s still looking at Tiina.

“Black taxi.  We only get the black taxi.”

“Yes.”  And tell group, vhy is zhat?”

“They only wanted outsiders to see certain parts.  Only the good parts, paved streets, clean houses.  So we’d think all of Estonia was like that.”

“Correct.  And never can you leave Tallinn.”

“We did.”

“Ja?!  You did?  In 1970’s?  Tell us how.”

“I came to see my grandmother.  She lived in Tartu.  They told us Tartu was closed.  ‘Closed?’  You can’t ‘close’ a city.”

“Soviets can,” the guide adds, urging Tiina to continue.

“ ‘Bullshit’ I said.  I came to see my grandmother.  She survived Siberia, but she wouldn’t survive old age.  I was going to see her.  One of my family here spoke perfect Russian.  He had us dress up like University students, and never speak.  Not even me.  Because my Estonian was different.  We got on a train and went to Tartu.”

“And?  No problems?”

“Some problems.  A Soviet officer came up to my husband, who was wearing a student’s cap, and began to speak to him.  Raul, our cousin, came running and took over.”

Carried by the emotion of her memories, Tiina lapses into Estonian.  The guide translates:

“Zhen, she says, returning, zee shoes were all muddy because zee streets of Tartu, streets of University city, not paved.  Zhis streets of mud is vhat the Soviets don’t vant you to see.”

“So,” Tiina resumed in English, “we had to take paper and wipe off the mud to get rid of that evidence before we got off the train in Tallinn.”

“But you not use toilet paper,” the guide added.

“No.  There was no toilet paper.  Not anywhere we went.  Except the hotel.”

“And zhis is vhy zhere is no pages in phone book, anyvhere you go, too,” the guide added.  “You have good stories,” she thanked Tiina.  “I use your stories to help ozher people understand how it vhas.”

She picked up a small ladies’ pocket purse.  Held it up.  Snapped it open.  Inside was a small cylinder smeared red.

“Vhat is, you tink?”





We all guessed wrong.

“Soviets vanted all hotel employees to be honest.” She ironied.  “Zhey put purse in room.  If employee opens to take money – because in zhose days rubles are vorth very little – zhis is dye.  Employee is covered in red dye.”

Even James Bond, I think, would find that way too hokey.

“So, the Russians are gone, now?” a Canadian tourist asks.

Our guide shakes her blonde head.  “Not gone.  Soviets are gone, but not Russians.  Twenty-five percent of people in Estonia now are Russian.  During Soviet times, many Russians came to Estonia to take all chobs.  In Soviet apartments, zhey lived.”

I’ve seen these, in every city.  Amid the beautiful old wooden homes and shops of the Estonians are concrete rectangles, built in the 1950’s and 60’s, already crumbling, paint peeling.  It’s easy to find the Soviet housing.

“And, the Russian language you must use in those days.  In schools, in business.  But now, since Independence, Estonian is our language.”

“Your English is very good,” the Canadian compliments her.

“Ja.  Estonian and English ve learn in schools now. At home only, it is different. There I speak Russian.  My mother and father they are from Smolensk.  But outside my home, I speak only Estonian and English. No more Russian we have.”

Just scars.  Healing scars.





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