5 Ways the KGB Kept Tabs on Hotel Guests

The old city walls, church steeples, narrow cobblestone streets, and pastel colors of Old Town Tallinn in Estonia make it feel like it should be on top of a wedding cake. But there’s more to this town and country than a Medieval vibe—the deep and relatively recent history is what makes this Baltic city incredible.

Estonia regained its independence from Soviet power less than 25 years ago—so men and women in their late 20s and early 30s can share stories of the communistic culture and Soviet occupation they experienced as children, including long lines at food markets, loss of property, and a lack of color in their lives. For example, most Estonians can remember the special occasion of having their first banana. To children, bubble gum was the utmost of treats, and they would often share a single piece amongst themselves for days, leaving the chewed wad on the dresser when they went to sleep at night. When I was ten, I was knee-deep in Ninja Turtles, and Big League Chew was how I pretended to be Lenny Dykstra.

The KGB watched carefully over its country’s occupation of Estonia and kept an office at the Sokos Viru Hotel in Tallinn just outside the old city walls. It always denied its presence at the hotel, but with a team of about ten, the KGB bugged rooms, restaurants, and monitored the activity of tourists and guests. Why? Because Tallinn is Estonia’s capital and the country’s largest city, and it wanted to keep tabs on people, of course.

What would a stay at this hotel have been like 30 years ago? You can see for yourself by visiting the museum that exists there today, but here’s a breakdown of how the KGB liked to run things.

1. The KGB’s lair was on the 23rd floor, but the elevator only went to the 22nd.

Will McGough

An iron-gated staircase kept guests from wandering up to the restricted top floor, which contained several offices and a radio control room where agents would listen in on guest conversations taking place throughout the hotel.

2. The KGB tapped 60 rooms, installed mics in the plates in the dining room, and drilled holes through hotel room walls to take photographs of visiting journalists and other “suspected guests.”

The KGB would keep a close watch on visiting journalists, recording conversations and watching private meetings held in the rooms via peepholes and “channels” that existed between guest rooms.  

Tourists were also viewed as a threat to Russian rule by the KGB, especially Finnish travelers who would go to Tallinn to reunite with their family members (many families were separated when the Soviets occupied Estonia, some fleeing to Finland or Sweden). Because Soviet Law forbade Estonians from hosting guests in their homes, meetings and reunions would be held in the lobby of the Sokos Viru Hotel. This was surely by design, allowing the KGB to do its thing.   

3. Elevator attendants were instructed to keep track of guests’ comings and goings.

We suppose they could have taken the stairs, but people were lazy back then, too.

4. Hotel employees were regularly tested for their honesty.

Will McGough

The KGB took its employees’ honesty very seriously (although most employees were “technically” in the dark regarding the KGB’s existence in the hotel), frequently testing their loyalty through a variety of entrapment-type exercises. For example, one policy the hotel put forth was that its employees were to not so much as even open any personal belongings that were left behind by guests. Instead, they were to immediately turn the item, such as a purse or wallet, over to a manager.

To test this, phony purses designed to shoot pink powder when opened were left in public areas of the hotel. Think of it as the same concept as today’s fire alarms—if you opened the purse, the powder would stain your hands. Managers were able to then determine that an employee had not followed the hotel’s policy and would punish them accordingly, typically through some temporary job assignment that netted them less cash for a few weeks.

5. The KGB was always watching.

One Finnish curator reported that in over 50 visits to the Sokos Viru, he only stayed in three different rooms. Obviously, this person was being placed in the same bugged rooms routinely and was under careful, continuous watch.

Another tale that is told to this day is that a guest was brought toilet paper by a staff member after complaining aloud in his room that there was none in the bathroom. Now that’s some service! 

College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy

One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions


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