In the center of the Estonian city of Tartu stands an unassuming building that once held a dark secret. During the first Soviet occupation of the country between 1940 and 1954, the basement was home to the KGB.
Operating covertly from inside Estonia, the infamous Soviet secret police force demonstrated their innate ability for brutality and terror, against citizens accused of political subversiveness.
Any unfortunate local suspected of such a “crime” was more often than not sent off to the gulag.
However, their fate would first be sealed in the subterranean cellar of Tartu’s “Grey House”. Used as a holding cell, torture and interrogation would take place to ascertain the full nature of the misdemeanor and whoever else might be involved.
Information extracted, summary executions could follow.
Those that escaped that would fair only marginally better, in the form of a prolonged death sentence inside a Siberian work camp.
Today, the KGB Cells Museum functions out of the very same location. A dark but fitting tribute to the atrocities that once took place against innocent Estonian peoples.
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History of the Tartu KGB Cells
One of the most chilling aspects of the “grey house” was how the exterior was designed to look completely ordinary so that it didn’t raise any suspicions
Built in 1938 and was taken over by the NKVD (later renamed to the KGB) just 2 years later, the Soviets made very few alterations to the building.
The upper floors were used as office space for what looked like a drab, nondescript government department, (but was in fact the secret police); the cellar was used for the trial, torture, and execution.
Fitting in seamlessly with other such buildings on the street, locals had no incline of what was taking place under their very noses.
The darkest, busiest period of the KGB in the grey house was throughout the 1950s. Thousands of innocent Estonians passed through its doors, with many never seeing their family or friends again.
The brutality eased during the latter stages of Soviet rule, however, the KGB still ran an office there right up until the end of the USSR.
In 1991 the building was returned to the descendants of its original Estonian owners (can you imagine occupying such a place with the knowledge of the murders that took place there?).
10 years later in 2001, the basement was opened as a museum and memorial.
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Where is the Tartu KGB Cells Museum?
- Address: Riia 15b, 51010 Tartu, Estonia
- Phone: +372 746 1717
Visiting Tartu KGB Cells Today
The basement cells have been restored to demonstrate the original conditions for the prisoners. Visitors can walk inside and imagine the terror of being held against your will for a crime you very often didn’t do.
Some cells display information about the Estonian resistance to their Soviet overlords. One such band was a secret society called the “forest brothers” who acted against the communist rule in any way they could covertly get away with.
The punishment chambers have also been restored. These were used to force prisoners into excruciating positions where they would be held for days without being able to sit or lay down.
Artifacts made by Estonian prisoners sent to the Gulags are on display, along with fliers that were once distributed by the anti-Communist resistance.
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There are also a number of exhibits with details of the KGB, including plans that were prepared for the mass deportation of Estonia’s educated classes (politicians, skilled workers, clergy, educators, farmers entrepreneurs, and managers).
The aim was to render the country defenseless against the occupying power. Total subjugation was the goal.
The museum also contains photos and documents illustrating Estonia’s history under communist oppression.
In keeping with the way the basement was during the time of the KGB, the museum is one of the few sites in Estonia that reflects its dark purpose during Soviet occupation.
Featured Image: Flickr/Adam Jones
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I have an insatiable wanderlust for the extraordinary. Born with an adventurous spirit, I have spent over the past decade exploring the far reaches of our planet, seeking out the strange and mysterious.