KGB cells museum, Tartu
A relatively small but intense museum in the original basement cell tract of the KGB
building in Tartu, Estonia
. It is more elaborate and retains more original cells than the equivalent
in the capital Tallinn
and more than justifies a day trip from there to Estonia's second city, which is otherwise a very pleasant university town.
More background info:
The building, also known as the Grey House, that houses the museum, was built in 1938 and was taken over by the NVKD, later KGB
, in 1940 during the first occupation of Estonia
by the Soviet Union
, and again from 1944 in the second occupation, which lasted until 1991.
Its grimmest period was the early one, which lasted until the early 1950s, but it remained in operation as the KGB base in Tartu right up until the end of the USSR. The KGB had its offices on the upstairs floors while the cellar functioned as the special prison of the organization.
Not only were political prisoners (and randomly arrested Estonians) detained and interrogated here, executions on the spot took place here too. For the most part, however, those who passed through the Grey House were ultimately deported to the gulags
, especially in Siberia (Norilsk and Vorkuta mostly).
After the KGB left in 1991 the building was returned to the family who had owned it before it was seized by the Soviets. And they offered the basement cell tract to the Tartu City Museum to be turned into a special museum to preserve the memory of what had happened here. This was done, with the help of some funding from the USA
(which is tangible in some of the texts that have a distinct American anti-communist
These “dungeons of the KGB”, as the place is also known, are an almost unique memorial site in Estonia
– nowhere else in this country has a similar site been preserved so well. The former KGB building in Tallinn
has only recently opened its basement
to the public; some doors of the cells that used to be there are still in place but overall it's far less well preserved and commodified. The other Baltic countries' capital cities, however, also have old KGB buildings turned into memorial museums. In Lithuania
's capital Vilnius
this is the substantial Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights
; and in Riga
, the cell tracks and some of the interrogation and administration rooms of the KGB Building
can be visited on guided tours.
What there is to see:
The main attraction of this place to the dark tourist is obviously seeing the original KGB
cells themselves. And you do get that, but only to a degree. Most former cells now contain the exhibition, only a couple of cells have been set up to look like actual prison cells, with bunk beds etc. – one of the punishment isolation cells (tiny dark holes of 0.8 square metres) has a dummy sitting in it that looks suitably dejected.
Otherwise there's only the grim corridors with barred doors that provide a veritably dark prison look. That said, though, at the far end you come to an interrogation, torture and execution cell – and here some pretty scary sound effects are triggered by movement sensors once you get near (it's quite startling first time around!). A dummy stands guard outside who tries hard to look grim but in a certain apish, awkward way that makes him look a bit comical rather than truly scary.
The exhibition, in contrast, is a pretty sober affair consisting of documents, artefacts and textual explanations of a very traditional museum style. There was one interactive screen terminal – but that wasn't working at the time of my visit (late April 2014).
Topically the museum is divided into sections starting from the history of the KGB
and its precursor organizations (esp. the NKVD), the groundwork for Estonian occupation laid by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
, and the first occupation by the USSR
. The intermediate occupation by Nazi Germany
is also covered, but the main focus is on the deportations of Estonians during the two Soviet occupations.
Life, hardship and death in the gulags
is obviously lingered on at some length – and accompanied by some interesting artefacts, including objects of art made by and/or owned by gulag inmates.
Another main focus of the museum is on the resistance movements, in particular the so-called Forest Brothers (partisans who lived in the forest and undertook guerilla-tactics campaigns against the Soviets until they were more or less crushed by the late 1950s).
Amongst the artefacts here is an old familiar item: a Singer sewing machine – you know you're in the former Soviet Union
when you encounter one of them as an obligatory regional museum exhibit (cf. also under Kazakhstan
A special section is devoted to secret underground societies as well as particular dissidents, such Enn Tarto, who was imprisoned in Tartu for “anti-Soviet activity” repeatedly in the 1950s and 1960s and again as late as in 1983-1988.
In a larger room with rows of chairs in the middle (obviously for special events) the walls are lined with a somewhat separate exhibition that again tells the same story of deportations of Estonians, gulags
life (including collectivization of agriculture) in Estonia in a more compact form on a set of documents-photos-and-text panels. This section is bilingual throughout, in Estonian and English (with some translations that are a bit “shaky”).
Otherwise, only labels of exhibits are bilingual in the main exhibition, but some of the larger texts panels are in Estonian only. However there are laminated sheets with English explanations in boxes on the walls in each room that you can borrow. These texts are rather well translated.
The small shop by the ticket counter has a few worthwhile souvenirs, brochures and books, including a couple in English, as well as a guest book that the attendant in charge may urge you to sign.
All in all: this may not be the most overwhelming dark museum in the world, though the cells as such are quite dark (and offer authenticity of place in good doses) – but it is certainly good enough to make for an incentive to travel to Tartu.
on the corner of Riia and Pepleri streets (entrance on the latter) just a good half a mile or so from Tartu's old town centre. Tartu itself is ca. 120 miles (185 km) south-east of Tallinn
Access and costs: just a fairly short walk from the city centre or bus/train stations; not expensive.
If you first have to make your way to Tartu from Tallinn
to begin with, this is fortunately quite easy. The usual mode of longer-distance public transport in Estonia
, by bus, is naturally an option. But since 2014, a new modern train connection run by the company ELRON has been offering a much better alternative (check elron.ee/en/). You can now hop on a train in Tallinn's central station (which – unlike the bus station – is just steps from the Old Town core of the city!) and pay for your ticket on board (ca. 10 EUR each way, there are no return ticket savings, and you can use your credit card on board as well). The express connections (ca. four a day) whizz you over to Tartu in just two hours, and that much more comfortably than by bus (provided you can grab a seat – the trains can get very full at peak times – so don't be late for departure).
Once in Tartu, the KGB cells museum is a walkable distance from the train station or bus station and city centre. When arriving by train, turn right after exiting the station and walk down Voksali street until you come to the main thoroughfare of Tartu, called Riia. Turn left and walk up Riia for approximately 600 yards (three blocks). In total it's a ca. 10-15 minutes' walk. Coming from the bus station first head west until you come to Riia and then walk all the way down to the corner of Pepleri.
The entrance to the museum is on Pepleri street (number 15B) and is marked by a rather small sign. But it's not too difficult to find. The museum is downstairs in the basement (obviously enough).
Opening times: Tuesdays to Saturdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: 4 EUR (concession 2 EUR), guided tour in English: 20 EUR.
about an hour – but also allow some time for exploring Tartu's city centre as well. For me it was a perfect day-return trip from Tallinn
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Not much within Tartu itself, but Estonia
's capital Tallinn
with all its attractions, dark and otherwise, is only a two-to-three hour train or bus ride away.
Right next to the Grey House on Pepleri street is a small park with a metal monument called the “cornflower memorial”, it has the words “memento mori” in it and is to commemorate all the victims of the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Apparently it was already erected in June 1990, i.e. before Estonia
regained its independence from the USSR
In the hilly, park-like university quarter you can find a marvellous cathedral ruin. Parts of this are just bare brick Gothic arches soaring high into the sky, but a refurbished tract now holds the university library – what a location!
Nearby two foot bridges connecting the hills bear the evocative names of Devil's and Angel's Bridge! I presume the former must lead to the pub while the latter would have to led to the library ...
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Tartu has a lot going for it aside the KGB cells museum. It is Estonia
's second largest city (after the capital Tallinn
) but it is the country's principal academic hub, one of northern Europe's oldest university towns. About a third of the population is made up of students, so it is a very “young” in atmosphere.
It is also quite a pretty place, especially around the university campus, with its parks and grand buildings. The parks lining the river are also a pretty place to hang around in. The old town centre isn't very big but again has a lovely atmosphere. Well worth at least a few hours of exploring.
Somewhat more unusual than the old town is the area just north-west of the city's core, a low-lying area with many original wooden buildings informally referred to as “soup town” (in allusion to the flood-prone location).
A unique attraction can be found in a former powder storage inside a hillside near the university: the world's highest pub, according to the Guinness Book of Records. “High” in this case does obviously not mean in elevation above sea level (how could it in such a lowland coastal country), nor is it a reference to the potency of what is served here, but it means quite simply: sporting the highest ceiling (at over 30 feet, nearly 11m). It is indeed quite a sight to behold.
- Tartu KGB cells 1 - the grey house
- Tartu KGB cells 2 - sign
- Tartu KGB cells 3 - basement
- Tartu KGB cells 4 - welcome to your interrogation
- Tartu KGB cells 5 - exhibition
- Tartu KGB cells 6 - gulag history
- Tartu KGB cells 7 - English sheets provided
- Tartu KGB cells 8 - artefacts
- Tartu KGB cells 9 - obligatory Singer sewing machine
- Tartu town centre 01 - main square
- Tartu town centre 02 - university main building
- Tartu town centre 03 - observatory
- Tartu town centre 04 - Devil Bridge
- Tartu town centre 05 - Angel Bridge
- Tartu town centre 06 - cathedral ruins
- Tartu town centre 07 - high arches
- Tartu town centre 08 - old powder storage
- Tartu town centre 09 - now a pub with record high ceiling
- Tartu town centre 10 - modern bridge
- Tartu town centre 11 - river
- Tartu town centre 12 - old wooden building
- Tartu town centre 13 - modern architecture