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Cold War Hotels: Vacations with intrigue




Hotel Viru in Estonia’s capital has a spy museum.


The Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, but there are opportunities to appreciate this West versus East era which dominated our lives between 1945 and 1990. Tourists can stay in the hotels that were frequented by CIA and KGB agents.

The Atlanta Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, was founded by Max Henn who had fled Nazi Germany in 1936. In Bangkok, Henn established a facility which extracted venom from poisonous snakes, which he then sold to pharmaceutical companies. Early in the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited Henn as an agent. Aware there might be conflicts with Communists in Southeast Asia, the CIA asked Henn to convert his building into a place where “cartographers” could stay. The hotel opened in 1952, and the snake pit became the hotel’s swimming pool. Strategists in the American war effort in Vietnam, including Gen. William Westmoreland, commander from 1964 until 1968, met in the Atlanta’s dining area.

On the opposite side of the Cold War, Hotel Viru in Tallinn, Estonia, provides insights into KGB operations. Tallinn is capital of Estonia, which from 1940 until 1991 was part of the Soviet Union. For the first few decades of Soviet occupation, Estonia was out of bounds to most foreigners. Then in 1964, Finnish president Urho Kekkonen persuaded Soviet authorities to permit ferry service between Tallinn and the Finish capital, Helsinki, on the opposite shore of the Gulf of Finland. Thousands of Finns started to visit Estonia, but they lacked a place to stay. In 1969, construction of the 23-storey Hotel Viru began. Completed in 1972, the Viru attracted the Shan and Queen of Iran among its first visitors.

There was elevator service only as far as the 22nd floor. The 23rd storey, accessible only by a stairwell, was reserved for the KGB, and nobody else went there.

When Estonia regained its independence and Estonians entered the hitherto forbidden space, they decided to leave everything as it was, even cigarette butts in the ashtrays. Conversations with former employees and hotel guests provide additional information. The discoveries were revealing. Listening devices enabled the KGB to hear what was happening in 60 rooms on the 13th, 14th, and 18th floors. VIPs who made repeated visits received different rooms but always on one of those floors.

The KGB also bugged saunas, where important conversations took place, as well as ashtrays, flower pots, pencils, and bread trays. Foreigners who had complained about the Soviet Union often did not receive visas when they next applied. A KGB officer stood in one spot pretending to read a newspaper, but he never turned the page. There were holes so that he could see through the newspaper.

Unlike the Atlanta, the Viru is not a budget hotel, but tourists who stay elsewhere can purchase a ticket for one of the tours, some of which operate in English.

Kerli, our guide, had many stories. One woman’s job was to record all comings and goings. All day every day she sat at a desk and noted every guest’s time of arrival and time of departure. In order to minimize contact between tourists and Estonians, Intourist—the Soviet agency which dealt with tourists—tried to make the hotel self-sufficient. The KGB did not want hotel staff to communicate with tourists, and one requirement for a position other than receptionist was an inability to communicate in a foreign language. The KGB scrutinized the background of hotel employees, and about 10 KGB officers pretended to be hotel employees. Yet, employees did manage to establish contacts with guests who made repeated visits. Such guests would bring jeans, bananas, and other Western “luxuries,” which hotel employees would then have for their own use or sell to others.

Under the circumstances, employment at the Hotel Viru was highly coveted, but punishments awaited employees caught violating the rules. Dealing with currencies other than Soviet rubles was illegal, and one bartender caught with foreign money went to jail for two years.

Moscow’s control was total. A red telephone, without a dial, provided a direct link to KGB headquarters in Moscow. From the Hotel Viru, the KGB beamed messages to the steeple of the nearby Church of St. Olaf, the highest point in Tallinn. From there, messages would proceed to Moscow. Intourist managed the Hotel Viru, and apart from salaries, money paid by the guests went to Moscow. By 1989 the hotel had a fax machine, wired so the KGB received a copy of every message sent.

Tourists complained of the “grumpy old men” who worked in the second floor bar. According to Kerli, they were retired KGB officers.

After Estonia regained its independence, a Finn became hotel manager. Over the next three years, he wondered what work his employees actually did, and he found hundreds of them redundant. Some spent their days hiding from management, trying to conceal the fact that they were doing next to nothing. By the time of our visit in June 2012, the Hotel Viru had only 250 employees. The hotel management gave severance packages to those being terminated, but accustomed as they were to Soviet ways, some thought that they were receiving bonuses and continued to report for work.

Except in Korea, the Cold War has ended. Millions of lives were lost, and it could have been much, much worse. We owe it to ourselves to see what was happening and to understand what might have been.




The Cold War at the movies


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Based on the novel by John Le Carre, Richard Burton plays as a dispirited British secret agent. He comes in from “the cold” (meaning he is pulled out of field operations) to act as a undercover man behind the Iron Curtain. To make his staged defection seem genuine, Burton goes on an alcoholic toot and is imprisoned and publicly humiliated. Once he has been accepted into East German espionage circles, Burton discovers he’s been set up as a pawn for an entirely different operation.


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Set in 1973, Gary Oldman stars at George Smiley in this movie based on 1974 novel by John le Carré. about the hunt for a double agent in the British secret service.


The Third Man (1949)

In this Cold War spy classic, written by Graham Green, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a third-rate American pulp novelist, arrives in postwar Vienna, where he has been promised a job by his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Upon his arrival, Martins discovers that Lime has been killed in a traffic accident but soon learns Lime is still very much alive with a reason to be in hiding.


Thirteen Days (2000)

Those Thirteen Days in October of 1962 will forever live in history as the height of the cold war, and a landmark of a situation never to get into again. White House aid Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) is the “focus” of the story, that is, its through his eyes primarily the story is told.


The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming (1966)

The Russians invade New England in this comedy with Carl Reiner and Jonathan Winters as well as Alan Arkin, Brian Keith and Eva Marie Saint.




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