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Friday, June 7, 2013
Tallinn You About Estonia
Prior to the big adventure on the Trans-Siberian Express, I ducked into Estonia for a few days. You can hear my radio review of the trip at www.aroundtheworldradio.com this Saturday at 10:50 AM EDT. If you miss it, the segment will be hanging in the site's archives It's the last segment of the June 6th show. Also, you can discover more at www.visitestonia.com.
Meantime, a colleague who traveled with me wrote a terrific piece of poetic prose at http://www.everettpotter.com/2013/06/estonia-lithuania-past-tense/. I have excerpted part of the story here, and added my own pictures and links. Marc Kristal echoes precisely my feelings about traveling back to places after they have changed from a former state of being. Not only that, his coverage of Tallinn is spot-on; his words painting a far greater masterpiece than I could ever expect to fashion.
In addition to the sites Marc mentions below, I highly recommend a visit to the Museum for Puppet Arts. It illustrates the rich history of puppet theater in Estonia, which, ironically, was especially prolific when the Baltic nation was a puppet of the Soviet Union.
A few months ago, I visited Rome, a beloved city in which I have long followed, like many tourists, a particular, equally beloved routine. One of the high points is a first-day visit to the Forum – where I was very surprised to discover that admission to this fascinating monument, one of the essential archaeological sites in the west, was no longer free.
I was, of course, shocked, shocked by this change of policy – but, really, why should I have been? As the history of Rome itself so eloquently demonstrates, everything is a moment in time, and even the things that seem immutable are fugitive. Still, I was struck by my own reaction, my feeling that this small transformation – the installation of a ticket kiosk – had drawn a line in history: suddenly the ‘old’ Rome, the Rome in which you could stroll down the steep stairs behind the Piazza del Campidoglio and into the seat of ancient empire, was gone. This led me, in turn, to consider how particular and personal experience can be, how the absence or presence of knowledge or context can powerfully influence one’s perceptions. To wit: If your first Roman holiday came after the installation of the turnstile – AT, as it were – Weltschmerz for Rome BT is inexplicable, even absurd: So they’re charging admission. What’s the big deal?
What’s interesting is that this disconnect can exist even if the line in the sand of time is epoch-making – for example, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent independence of its vassal states. In Prague, Warsaw, or anywhere else behind the Iron Curtain, the difference between Then and Now is quantum(LAURA's note--Berlin is the prime example of this phenomenon, IMHO) .Yet if you have no memory of what life was like in the Eastern Bloc prior to 1991, then freedom there is your reality, and you can be as mystified by those haunted by the ghosts of the Soviet years as someone who’d never known a Forum without turnstiles. Thus it can be invaluable, when visiting places where, to paraphrase Faulkner, the past isn’t past, to be made aware of significant recent history: the better to understand what shaped the seemingly eternal everyday-ness of the place you’re experiencing, and to perceive that you are in fact in a kind of chrysalis, a city or country emerging from a previous state of being into a new condition traced by, but separate from (hopefully, someday), the dark past.
A recent visit to Estonia and Lithuania brought this home to me sharply, the former especially, as Tallinn, Estonia’s enchanting capital, is in many ways a typically ‘modern’ European city – which is to say that it can comfortably put forward both the historic and contemporary. Tallinn’s Old Town, comprised of upper and lower districts, began life in the early 13th century and is today a picturesque mélange of Danish, German and (to a lesser degree) Russian influences; from my base at the Hotel Telegraaf, a chic hostelry installed in the city’s old telegraph building, it was a pleasurable stroll to the district’s greatest hits: the best-preserved medieval town hall (dating from 1404) in Europe; on Town Hall Square, the oldest continuously-operating pharmacy (dating from 1422) in Europe (be sure to check the expiration date on your prescription of Eye of Newt); and handsome churches.
Seaplane Harbour Museum
At the same time, contemporary Tallinn is palpably present, in cultural attractions such as the design-forward Kumu Art Museum (in Peter the Great’s Kadriorg Park) and the superlative fun-for-all-ages Seaplane Harbour maritime museum. It is contained within what is surely one of the great interior spaces to be found in the Baltics, a three-domed concrete-shell airplane hangar dating from the early 20th century. The Rotermann Quarter, a former industrial district near the waterfront, has been reinvented via the alchemy of that ubiquitous urban revitalization model, an interleaving of historical and contemporary architecture, as a hip business, residential and leisure-time destination.
Yet the years between the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1944 and 20 August 1991, when the nation declared its independence, make themselves felt in large ways and small. Nowhere is this more transparent than at the KGB Museum atop the Hotel Viru, a 23-story modernist pile built by the USSR’s Intourist agency to attract foreign customers (and currency). It opened in 1972.
Former KGB Headquarters
Radio Room in Hotel Viru
The museum, which debuted in January of 2011 and has drawn some 75,000 visitors to its relatively cramped quarters, is difficult to characterize, in large measure because there’s not much to it. Overlooking the former headquarters of the KGB in Tallinn, the outpost occupies the hotel’s top floor. It remains unreachable by elevator, as was the case during the Soviet years, when it officially didn’t exist (nosy questioners were told floor 23 held ‘technical rooms’. There are displays of vintage photographs and documents, an office with telephones and technology that, though only four decades old, own a primitiveness worthy of the Flintstones, and a KGB ‘radio room,’ used for sending messages and eavesdropping on guests. The place exerts a weird fascination, which derives (for me at any rate) from its almost perfect conformity to a 1950s Hollywood-style laff riot vision of utter Commie incompetence – the kind of comedy in which the Red agents are depicted as bumbling, bushy-browed buffoons booming out party platitudes but all too susceptible to Jack Daniel’s, Chiclets, and other classy American blandishments.
The mirthful mood is abetted by my group’s tour guide, Jana, a fast-talking, high-energy gamine in a red warm-up jacket with the museum’s logo emblazoned on its back, who calls to mind a blond, pixie-cut version of the impish Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, and sustains a non-stop monologue that is at once richly informative, deeply sad, and laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Jana is the KGB Museum, as she animatedly fills its dreary rooms and corridors with the bizarre up-is-down world of Estonia under the pathetic, vicious Soviet thumb.
What do we learn? That the Viru, Tallinn’s first skyscraper and most prestigious hotel, required a mere three years to construct (using Finnish labor), as opposed to the decade or more it typically took the unmotivated local talent to finish a comparable job. That, out of 460 rooms, 60 were bugged – the joke was that the Viru was built from “micro-concrete – 50 percent concrete, 50 percent microphones.” That only the best rooms, the ones with views, were wired, and that guests such as journalists, who were most likely to divulge useful information, received the same bugged accommodations over and over again. That the KGB went so far as to insert microphones into butter plates in the dining room (while cautioning the waiters never to put them in the dishwasher).
We learn as well that the spy agency’s omnipresence, which it took great pains to conceal, was an open secret to one and all. Mischievous guests would often write ‘KGB’ in the elevators where the button for the 23rd floor would have been, and a museum visitor who’d been at the Viru pre-1991 told of standing in his wiretapped bathroom and loudly complaining of a lack of toilet paper – after which a bellman immediately showed up with a fresh roll.
Despite the promise of the risqué floorshows, in which scantily clad Eastern Bloc Amazons posed provocatively (though with the high-minded froideur of magistrates), the Viru was a tough place to relax and have fun. The bar didn’t stock bourbon – too American. Local people, even if they were blood relatives, were not allowed above the ground floor. Prostitutes were prohibited – the museum displays a list of banned scarlet women, their names chivalrously blocked out – and those who managed to get in the door had to write the price of their services on their shoe soles, which they’d display discreetly by crossing their legs. And, showing us a vintage photo of a matron armed with a pencil and a stern, eagle-eyed glare, Jana tells us about the Viru’s 68 ‘guardians of the floors,’ whose job it was to write down the activities of the guests (one night, to induce writer’s cramp in these unfortunate old ladies, a visiting dance troupe spent hours scampering back and forth between each other’s rooms).
As this story suggests, to work in such a place was to be more than a prisoner in name. Jana shows us a trick purse that, when opened, set off a paint bomb: the idea was that a hotel employee who might find a lost wallet and try to secure some foreign currency would be busted by the colorful splatter. That this was no laughing matter is evident from the story Jana tells of two waiters. One who was caught drunk on the job was sent to work in the hotel’s storeroom for three months. Another, found with a pocket full of Finnish money, was sent to jail.
Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J,The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, and numerous other publications. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011). Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart. He lives in New York.