KGB Cells Tallinn
, the KGB requisitioned a grand Art Nouveau building right in the Old Town. Originally constructed as a residential apartment building, it became the seat of the provisional government of the newly established Republic of Estonia
. The 1918-20 War of Independence (cf. Estonian War Museum
) was co-ordinated from here. And after that the building served as the seat of the Ministry of War.
Then in 1940 the first Soviet
occupation of Estonia began and shortly after the building was made the headquarters of the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor. Interrupted by the Nazi German
occupation (when the building was used by a local auxiliary police force but not as a prison), the HQ was re-established after the Soviets’ return in 1944. This time the Soviets’ presence was to last for another 47 years.
From the start, the basement of the building was used as a prison and interrogation centre. The windows were bricked up – allegedly to muffle the sounds of screams of people being tortured. The main interrogation rooms, however, were upstairs. Many a dissident, opposition member, partisan, intellectual or any other kind of “enemy of the state” went through an ordeal here in the basement and many were then sent to the gulags
The operation of the basement KGB prison ceased as early as 1950, but the dark memory of those days lingered on.
After the re-establishment of Estonia
’s independence in 1991 and the subsequent departure of the Soviets
, the former KGB building briefly housed a police station again. Later it was lavishly renovated and the storeys above the infamous basement were turned into luxury flats. When I was first in Tallinn in 2014, the “Soviet Tallinn” walking tour I was on included a stop at the ex-KGB building, but without the guide I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at. There was no reference to the history of those bricked-up windows and the prison cells behind them other than a simple plaque in Estonian only whose text translates as “This building housed the headquarters of the organ of repression of the Soviet occupational power. Here began the road to suffering for thousands of Estonians.”
Otherwise, the site was in no way commodified
for visitors and most tourists without a guide to fill them in would have walked straight past it without any clue as to what a dark history these pretty walls were hiding.
More recently, however, from 2017, the Museum of Occupations
took over part of the basement and turned it into a proper memorial site.
What there is to see:
The entrance to the former KGB
prison is now clearly marked and once through the door you descend a few steps to the ticket counter. You then turn to the left and enter a fairly narrow corridor with a number of former cells branching off to the left.
Along the corridor wall is a timeline with photos of the building from its early days, its various roles before and after that of KGB headquarters to the present day.
Labelling and all texts in the museum are trilingual, in Estonian, English and Russian (the website claims it’s also in Finnish, but I didn’t spot any Finnish on the panels; the website itself does offer Finnish and additionally Latvian and Lithuanian). The English is largely OK, though some, well, let’s say idiosyncratic ways of expression can be found in the texts.
Inside the cells only a few original elements survive other than the cell doors and the bricked-up but still also barred windows. A couple of cells have been equipped with wooden beds like they would have featured back in the 1940s, but photos show that the cells used to be much more crammed full of such bunks.
Larger text panels, again trilingual, provide information about the different phases of the KGB
terror. In addition there are laminated text pages lying around for perusal, and a particularly chilling artefact is a replica of a brochure on “How to behave in interrogation – guideline for dissidents” dated 1977.
In one cell there is a projection on to a wall, in another a set of three old prison cell doors have been fitted with little video screens playing eyewitness testimonies. Written testimonies are also woven into the text panels. Another cell features a physically interactive element: here visitors are invited to leave little sheets of paper with their answers to the museum’s question: “Which freedom is the most important to you?”
At the end of the main corridor another one branches off to the right. Here there is an exhibition of some drawings on the wall that are replicas of originals made by a Russian noblewoman who was arrested and sent to a gulag
in Norilsk. And at the blocked end of this second corridor is a floor plan of the entire basement of the building (of which less than half is accessible through this museum).
The grimmest artefact to be seen here is one of those “cupboard” standing cells – upright wooden boxes with a door behind which prisoners had to stand in the dark and with little air to breathe and no space to sit or lie down. Not quite so bad, but still a sinister thing to behold, is the preserved solitary confinement cell.
Also in this part is a guest book, which was interesting to peruse, as quite opposing views were being expressed. Standing out was also an entry that had a big swipe at China
, demanding “Free Hong Kong. Free Uighurs in Chinese concentration camps
. Free Tibet. Keep Taiwan
An unexpected funny element (at least I found this funny) is the fact that even the toilet is behind a former cell door!
All in all
, there isn’t that much to see here (far less than at the counterparts in Riga
), but it’s still an important addition to Tallinn
’s dark-tourism portfolio. Well worth popping in to see when exploring the Old Town.
The official address is Pagari 1, which is on the corner of the main drag through the northern half of Tallinn
’s Old Town with the charming name Pikk, and the entrance to the basement is also on Pikk, No. 59.
Access and costs: easy to get to on foot; not cheap for what you get, but OK
To get there you just have to walk up or down the main street leading through the northern part of Tallinn
’s Old Town, called Pikk, from the Margareta Gate to the north it’s just 250 yards or so, from the main Old Town square to the south-west ca. 400 yards.
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: 5 EUR for a regular adult ticket (concession 4 EUR), which I found a tad steep for what little you get. A combination ticket with the main branch of the Occupations Museum costs 14 EUR, saving you 2 EUR of the cost for the individual single tickets. Still, not the cheapest, but more acceptable.
Time required: not a lot. I spent about only 25 minutes in the basement, but I didn’t read everything there was on site. So if you want to do that allocate maybe rather something like 40-45 minutes
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The KGB Cells are run as a branch of the Occupations Museum
located just beyond the southern end of Tallinn’s Old Town, so that would be the most obvious combination.
A related but even grimmer place of incarceration can be found at the old Patarei Sea Fortress
which was also used by the Soviets
as a prison. Part of this has now been turned into a very dark memorial site.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The location could hardly be more touristy – right off the main road through the northern half of Tallinn’s fabulous Old Town. So this is the most obvious combination, be it e.g. the Maritime Museum just a few steps to the north in one of the Old Town’s gatehouses and a fortified tower, or the main Old Town square a short distance to the south.
- KGB cells 01 - former Tallinn KGB HQ building
- KGB cells 02 - on the corner of Pagari and Pikk
- KGB cells 03 - entrance
- KGB cells 04 - cell door
- KGB cells 05 - barred basement window
- KGB cells 06 - cell
- KGB cells 07 - rough
- KGB cells 08 - projection
- KGB cells 09 - portarits
- KGB cells 10 - cell doors with video screens
- KGB cells 11 - standing cell
- KGB cells 12 - isolation cell
- KGB cells 13 - interactive element
- KGB cells 14 - guest book
- KGB cells 15 - even the toilet is behind a cell door