Estonia & Lithuania: Past, Tense
By Marc Kristal
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. A dependable pleasure of the Eternal City was not as eternal as I’d assumed.
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. 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 everydayness 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 – despite Estonia’s being, according to my guide, the second least religious country on the continent – the very handsome churches St. Nicholas, St. Olav’s (at 129 metres the city’s man-made high point and, from 1549 to 1625, the tallest structure in the world), and the onion-domed Alexander Nevsky cathedral.
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, in 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; and Rotermann Quarter, a former industrial district near the waterfront that 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. (Tallinn also has an active alternative music scene and, like Estonia overall – the birthplace of Skype – light-speed, ubiquitous, free wifi.)
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, and nowhere more transparently than at the KGB Museum, atop the Viru Hotel, a 23-story modernist pile, resembling a flat-footed version of New York’s Lever House, which was built by the USSR’s Intourist agency to attract foreign customers (and currency) and opened in 1972.
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. Located in the former headquarters of the KGB in Tallinn, it occupies the hotel’s top floor, which 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, that was abandoned so abruptly in 1991 that there are still rotting fag butts in the ashtrays. Yet 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, black-suited, bushy-browed buffoons (the Austrian actor Oscar Homolka made a specialty of such men), booming out party platitudes but all too susceptible to Jack Daniel’s, Chiclets, Jayne Mansfield, 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.
Jana vividly describes the strange inner world of the place, which had the schizophrenic mission of being attractive to foreign tourists but to also serve as a subtle prison for them, as the Soviets didn’t want free-world aliens to be out exploring Tallinn (and polluting the minds of the locals). And so the Viru was designed to be completely self-contained, ‘like a small nation,’ she says: the hotel maintained, not only the usual in-plant necessities like kitchens, but also its own medical team and radio station, as well as a staff of 1080 to look after a maximum capacity of 829, ‘which came to 1.3 workers per guest,’ Jana notes.
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 incriminated 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.
Owing perhaps to my own family’s Lithuanian Jewish roots and the folkloric fantasies they’ve engendered, my expectations of Vilnius are out of Chagall, bearded men in black robes and skull caps leading blue cows beneath trees filled with fiddle-playing elves. The reality is a graceful capital of considerable architectural interest – ‘a Baroque city built on late Gothic foundations,’ my guide calls it – enjoying surprisingly broad-scaled public spaces (the triangular Town Hall Square with its multiple sidewalk cafés, overlooked, at one end, by the Art Nouveau-inflected Hotel Astorija, conveys a sense of the gracious, companionable elegance of Mittel-European society before a century of war and totalitarianism tore it to shreds), and hills – some wooded, others capped by centuries-old fortifications – to rival those of Rome. First recorded as Lithuania’s capital in 1323, and in the 16th century one of the largest cities in Europe, Vilnius is redolent of history, some of which plays out in diminishing numbers: in 1903, there were 105 synagogues, today there is one; of the original gates along the fortification wall that once ringed the historic heart of the city, only the Gate of Dawn, above which is a chapel containing a 17th-century ‘black Madonna,’ one of the best known, and most visited, religious icons in the Baltics, still remains. Vilnius also has a district, Uzupis, which declared itself an independent republic in 1997 (with its own idiosyncratic constitution – ‘A dog has the right to be a dog,’ is one of its 39 articles), and remains home to artists and squatters, who inhabit its collapsing buildings – which, in a world of escalating land values and relentless urban gentrification, seems to belong to a rapidly vanishing zeitgeist.
Though Lithuania was in fact the first republic to declare its independence from the USSR (in 1990), its half-century of Soviet domination seems both more present, and less available for lighthearted reinterpretation, than Estonia’s. The may have to do with Ona, my guide, who, being older than Jana, has a longer memory of the period and whose manner seems faintly infused with melancholy. Ona also makes the micro-concrete joke (a Baltic staple, apparently). But she observes as well that ‘the experience of Communism was different in every period and every country,’ adding that ‘we were born into Communism, like animals in captivity.’ As our tour bus takes us into the pine forests beyond Vilnius, Ona relates a story about a Lithuanian farmer who, with his family, worked a small unpromisingly piece of land, barely surviving on the yield. The Soviets had marked the man for deportation for the crime of being a ‘landowner,’ and when the KGB showed up to arrest him, he threw a piece of paper in the face of one of the officers. It was a wartime form letter from Moscow, offering condolences for the man’s son, who’d been drafted into the Russian army and killed fighting the Nazis. (After reading the letter, the KGB man canceled the deportation.) And Ona tells us, too, with nostalgic laughter, of queuing, as a child, with different local women on lines to buy flour, as it was strictly rationed based on the number of people in one’s family.
That it can be difficult to transition from captivity to freedom becomes bizarrely evident when our bus arrives at Grutas Park, some ninety minutes from the capital. Developed by a successful entrepreneur named Jkuresas Malinauskas, who made his post-1990 pile in the mushroom and snail trades, the 20-hectare, heavily forested destination, on the edge of Grutas Lake (in the town of Grutas, just to make things extra easy) is essentially a theme park filled with Soviet-era Lithuanian artifacts – mostly statuary and sculpture, but also a multitude of cultural objects – that despite (or perhaps because of) the incongruously peaceful setting, convey a powerful sense of what life was like in the east prior to the USSR’s dissolution. Part of this derives from the way in which Malinauskas has chosen to frame the experience: to preserve, not only the bric-a-brac of Lithuanian Communism (most ubiquitously numerous representations of Lenin), but also the experience of living under Soviet domination, he enclosed the park with barbed wire – and added guard towers fitted with loudspeakers that play ‘patriotic’ Soviet-era songs.
Grutas Park contains multiple curiosities: weaponry, Soviet-era playground equipment (to amuse visiting children, Malinauskas thoughtfully included recreation areas and a small zoo), an old vodka still, a truck from which mandatory lottery tickets were sold (the proceeds supported the Russian army), and a library housing multiple propaganda elements. But the most interesting are the kitschy statues, each of which has a telling tale attached to it. My favorite is a peculiarly proportioned pairing of Lenin and Vincas Mickevicius-Kapsukas, head of the Lithuanian Communist party. In real life, Mickevicius was considerably taller than Lenin, and the two statues were originally completed to scale. The bosses in Moscow, however, were having none of it – and so Lenin was fitted with a new, much longer, pair of legs that leave him looking faintly like a Soviet Jiminy Cricket.
Both Estonia and Lithuania belong, to be sure, to the moment, and can be enjoyed entirely as 21st-century examples of European tourism at its most lively and entertaining. Yet the tincture of history offered by the KGB Museum and Grutas Park enriches the experience of both countries – adding perspective, complexity, and a greater awareness and appreciation of the quotidian joy of freedom.
Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart. He lives in New York.