The Iron Curtain. The Cold War. Those jarring labels divided the world for almost half a century. It was Winston Churchill who coined the term “iron curtain” in a May 5, 1946 speech, beginning the Cold War by naming the divide that separated the Soviet Union from the rest of the world. For many of us what happened during the years of Soviet occupation in today’s European countries remains a mystery. The Iron Curtain made sure of that.
Behind the Iron Curtain people were denied access to anything from the outside and the ability to travel beyond boundaries. Travel into those countries was heavily controlled with tourists forced to stay in designated hotels and groups kept under the watchful eye of a KGB tour guide. Today, however, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are shedding light on that chapter of their history by promoting tourism of their former Soviet sites. Come wander along and experience Iron Curtain tourism in the Baltic countries.
Wandering Estonia’s Iron Curtain Remnants
Upon independence in 1991, Estonia moved quickly to shake off its Soviet hackles. It was the first former Soviet republic to begin the process of becoming part of the European Union, granted in 2004. Its capital city of Tallinn makes it easy to get a sense of the country’s Soviet history with two sites—The Museum of Occupations and the KGB Museum.
The Museum of Occupations
Located in its own uniquely designed building, the Museum of Occupations illustrates the 20th century occupations of Estonia by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
Laid out in chronological order with multi-language translations, artifacts and video footage, beginning a Soviet era tour here provides an important overview of how Estonia was caught in the crossfire of both world wars and a secret treaty that ultimately bequeathed the country to the Soviet Union. You’ll also read about the mass deportations of Estonians to Siberia and the escape of families by boat across the Iron Curtain, events which still impact Estonian families today.
Estonian KGB Museum
The KGB Museum confirms every movie you ever saw about the Soviet security force known as Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti or KGB.
The museum is located on the 23rd floor of Hotel Viru, the only accommodation that foreigners could stay in during Soviet times. Advertised then as a 22-floor accommodation, the KGB occupied the secret 23rd floor. From that vantage point with cameras and listening devices, they were able to secretly monitor foreign guests and communicate information to Moscow.
Before the KGB vacated the building the night of Estonian independence, they destroyed vital records and damaged recording equipment, but left behind much of the remnants of their secret surveillance headquarters, including the architectural schematic of the building’s secrets. The rooms of the KGB headquarters are virtually unchanged from the condition they were left in by the fleeing KGB.
Tours are given regularly in multiple languages including English. Reservations can be made in the lobby of Hotel Viru.
Wandering Behind Latvia’s Former Iron Curtain
Much of Latvia’s Soviet experience can be found in its Art Nouveau capital city of Riga. There, you can tour three Soviet era sites that together tell the graphic story of the country’s occupation. An hour outside the city you can walk through a formerly secret Soviet military town. Today, Russia officially denies much of Latvia’s story claiming the country wanted to join the Soviet Union. In return, Latvia insists on telling and showing the artifacts of its occupation.
The Popular Front Museum
The Popular Front Museum dedicated to Latvia’s Popular Front is in the same building it operated from during Soviet times. Outside, it’s an unassuming multi-story structure. Inside it’s the inspiring archive of television footage, photos, documents, interpretive plaques, interviews and exhibits telling the resistance story of Latvia and the joint resistance movements of all three Baltic countries coordinated as the Baltic Peoples Movement and Assembly.
Organized in October 1988—three years before the fall of the Soviet Union—the Latvian Popular Front became the combined force of artists, writers, poets and students who had been on the dissident front lines for a half century.
They published underground newspapers, distributed pamphlets, raised the banned Latvian flag and organized gatherings, grouping themselves into underground efforts. The Soviet retaliation was swift. Many of the early resisters were arrested and imprisoned or worse. Ultimately, the Popular Front ran candidates for political office helping to usher in the demise of the Soviet Union in the Baltics.
The KGB Building
The KGB Building is the site of some of the worst of the Soviet era atrocities; the place where anyone suspected of undermining Moscow would be taken for interrogation, torture and punishment. An English tour guide will take you through the terrifying basement cells and dank, psychological interrogation rooms left exactly as they were in Soviet times. There, you hear the stories behind the black and white photos of Latvians who were arrested at their homes, schools and worksites and never returned.
It’s a chilling tour, not for the faint of heart. However, to fully understand what happened on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the physical act of walking through the rooms and cells of the KGB’s terror and enforcement operation will help you understand why Latvia refuses to allow Russia to deny its occupation history.
The Occupation Museum
The Occupation Museum of Latvia was formerly located in the middle of old town Riga in a stern gray building currently undergoing renovation. However, a temporary exhibit is located in one of Riga’s Art Nouveau mansions. Don’t let “temporary exhibit” deter you from going. Like the museum in Tallinn, this one tells the breadth of the Soviet occupation story in informative English and Latvian displays that complement the information you get in the Popular Front Museum and KGB Building.
Skrunda- 1: Secret Soviet Military Town
There is an admission charge, map and entry gate, but finding this abandoned secret Soviet town is difficult and will require a rental car. It’s not on Latvian tourist maps, though the Russian tourists we met there said it’s in all the Russian guidebooks. Located five miles outside of the Latvian village of Skrunda, Skrunda-1 is the 100-acre site of an abandoned Soviet military town built to monitor the skies for nuclear missile heads during the Cold War.
There are ten Soviet-era concrete apartment buildings, most that you can fully explore as you navigate broken glass, torn up floors and swinging doors.
In its day, it was an intact Soviet city complete with schools, nursery schools, factories, a dance hall, hospital, saunas and hotel, all now in ruins but still mostly open to the public. The site was abandoned in 1995 but the Soviets still claimed it as theirs until 1998. Many of the buildings have been stripped of valuable items and colorful graffiti is everywhere.
The Latvian Army occasionally uses the site for military practice and there are plans to eventually convert the decaying city into something useful. Until then, Skrunda-1 is a look inside the secretive Soviet military defense system.
Exploring Lithuania’s Iron Curtain Tourism Scene
Lithuania’s unique boundaries make it a strategically vital country for today’s Russia. It shares its southwestern boundary with an isolated enclave of Russia called Kaliningrad, Russia’s only Atlantic port. That boundary oddity played a role in Lithuania’s Soviet history as Moscow’s tactics in the final days of the Soviet occupation were particularly harsh to retain access to Kaliningrad. You can explore the story of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in its capital city of Vilnius.
The Museum of Genocide Victims
The Museum of Genocide Victims is located in the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius, Lithuania. The prison cells, interrogation rooms, eavesdropping rooms and execution chambers of the are left as they were when the KGB fled in 1991 after Lithuanian independence.
You can viscerally experience them on an English guided tour. On the first floor are displays about Lithuania’s resistance groups. They spent the half century of occupation trying to regain the country’s freedom and artifacts and stories about the thousands of Lithuanians deported to Siberia.
The Radio and Television Committee Building
In 1991, as the Soviet Union was crumbling and the Baltic countries declared independence, Moscow made one more attempt to stop them from escaping its sphere with Lithuania taking the initial brunt of its anger. In January 1991, Soviet troops invaded Vilnius and captured the critical radio and television station.
About 400 Lithuanians were injured and 14 died in a battle to deter the Soviet troops. More than 100,000 Lithuanians answered the call to build barricades to protect their government buildings. The Radio and Television Committee Building still operates as a communication center and a memorial is in front of the building honoring the 14 ethnic Lithuanians who died for freedom that day. They are buried at Antakalnio Cemetery, also in Vilnius.
Iron Curtain Tourism
Visiting the Soviet sites in the three capital cities will feel incongruous. You step foot through the door of the very buildings that housed a half century of Soviet occupation tactics and experience life under Soviet rule which ended only 26 years ago.
Then, you walk out onto the street of a cosmopolitan European city complete with hip coffee shops, craft brewpubs and stylish boutiques that belies what you just experienced inside. The Baltic countries have managed to jettison themselves out of their dark Soviet past while retaining that history for all to see. They want you to not forget what was hidden behind the Iron Curtain.