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Hotel Viru: A Finnish Trojan horse in Soviet Tallinn

Modern-day visitors to Tallinn may know the Hotel Viru as a focus of Finnish revelry in the heart of tourist Tallinn, but the building once provided Estonians with a rare glimpse of the western world. A new documentary showing some of that history comes to cinemas at the beginning of March.

Viru-hotellin rakennustyömaa 1969.
Hotel Viru under construction in 1969. Image: Yle

President Kekkonen himself had pushed for the project, and in 1969 the Soviet travel agency Inturist decided to build a large hotel in Tallinn in co-operation with Finns.

The architects were Estonian, but the structure was actually built by a firm from Savonlinna. Even in the construction phase, builders from across the Gulf of Finland brought something of another world to Tallinn.

Once guests started to check in, each suitcase brought more information about western clothes, products, books and magazines.

Microphones in the ashtrays

A new film aims to chart the history of one of Tallinn’s most recognisable landmarks. Co-director Taru Mäkelä believes the hotel brought Finnish culture into the heart of Tallinn.

"In a way the Viru hotel became a kind of Trojan horse," says Mäkelä. "All of a sudden it was there in the middle of Tallinn and Finns and Estonians were dealing with each other."

The KGB soon tightened security and started operating inside the building. The 23rd floor of the hotel housed a secret listening post which now functions as a museum.

Mäkelä says she was interested in the building and its stories, and the Viru hotel has enough tales to be told.

Changing money under the table

As Estonia opened up a little, Finns suddenly became money changers and traders. Deals were conducted in a spirit of friendship.

"The suitcases were of course full of everything Estonians needed," points out Mäkelä.

While useful, even vital to Estonians, the trade also reminded them of their reduced circumstances.

"Yes, it burdened the Estonians," remembers Eva Lille, who led tours to Estonia in Soviet times. "It exhausted them, the load of gratitude that came from it."

Prices on shoes

All of a sudden, many Finns felt rich and western for the first time in their lives. They had money, and as there was nothing to buy in Tallinn’s shops, it was blown on eating and drinking and other leisure pursuits.

"That has been a by-product, yes," says Mäkelä. "I think that Tallinn has been one of the only places where Finns have been able to let their hair down and be themselves."

Viru was, in addition to the centre of tourism in Tallinn, local prostitutes’ most visible parade. They came from all over the Soviet Union, and many learned passable Finnish, as it was the main language used with customers.

Sofi Oksanen, a Finnish-Estonian author, tells in the film of a flight of stairs behind the sofas in the lobby. It allowed prostitutes to flash the soles of their shoes—on which they had written a price—to those sitting on the sofas without raising suspicion.

The hotel was also a surprise hit with the Moscow elite. Mäkelä says that one reason may have been the easy availability of Finnish television.

"Moscow boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984," explains the director. "The games were not televised in the Soviet Union. Then the whole of the Moscow elite travelled to the Viru hotel to watch the Olympics on Finnish television."

Popular employer

Although thoughts of Viru can also cause pangs of conscience and shame among Finns, it should be remembered that Estonians were keen to work there. That way they could make contact with foreigners and get closer to acquiring many necessary goods.

Operating in the hotel taught many the beginnings of a life in business. The cabaret raised the standard of local entertainment and offered extra cash for, among others, dancers from the Estonian ballet. The hotel restaurant hired the best waiters, and the patisserie the best pastry chef.

By the time the Soviet Union began to fall apart at the seams, there was a continuous stream of visitors to Tallinn. And although the Soviet Union did collapse, Viru will never be just an ordinary hotel.

"The cultural exchanges that got a nudge from the joint hotel project could even have given an added push to Estonian independence," ponders Mäkelä. "You can’t buy history. It remains afterwards and will always be part of that building."

The documentary was directed together with the Estonian film-maker Margit Kilumets, who has produced her own Estonian-language version to be released in April.

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