The Museum Dungeons of the KGB

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The Museum Dungeons of the KGB is situated in the former regional KGB headquarters, also notoriously known as the Grey House. Some cells have been restored and some give an overview of the crimes of communist regime.
  1. #EE11
  2. The Museum Dungeons of the KGB Riia 15b, Tartu, Estonia
  3. +3727461914
  4. Working hours*:
    Tuesday - Saturday
    11:00 - 16:00
  5. Prices*:
    Adult - 4€
    Reduce - 2€
    Guided tour in English - 20€
  6. * - opening and closing times as well as entrance prices, are subject to alterations without notice. Visitors are advised to check before visiting.
  7. 58.3732530, 26.7199720 Copy to clipboard Copy
    #Museums

The building, also known as the Grey House, that houses the museum, was built in 1938 and was taken over by the NVKD, later KGB, in 1940 during the first occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union, and again from 1944 in the second occupation, which lasted until 1991.

Its grimmest period was the early one, which lasted until the early 1950s, but it remained in operation as the KGB base in Tartu right up until the end of the USSR. The KGB had its offices on the upstairs floors while the cellar functioned as the special prison of the organization.

Not only were political prisoners (and randomly arrested Estonians) detained and interrogated here, executions on the spot took place here too. For the most part, however, those who passed through the Grey House were ultimately deported to the gulags, especially in Siberia (Norilsk and Vorkuta mostly).

After the KGB left in 1991 the building was returned to the family who had owned it before it was seized by the Soviets. And they offered the basement cell tract to the Tartu City Museum to be turned into a special museum to preserve the memory of what had happened here. This was done, with the help of some funding from the USA (which is tangible in some of the texts that have a distinct American anti-communist handwriting).

These “dungeons of the KGB”, as the place is also known, are a unique memorial site in Estonia – nowhere else has a similar site been preserved. The former KGB building in Tallinn could have been a prime location for something similar but the chance was missed – see under Soviet Tallinn. The only other place in the Baltics that also offers a chance to see old KGB cells is the basement part of the Genocide Victims Museum in Lithuania's capital Vilnius.

What there is to see: The main attraction of this place to the dark tourist is obviously seeing the original KGB cells themselves. And you do get that, but only to a degree. Most former cells now contain the exhibition, only a couple of cells have been set up to look like actual prison cells, with bunk beds etc. – one of the punishment isolation cells (tiny dark holes of 0.8 square metres) has a dummy sitting in it that looks suitably dejected.

Otherwise there's only the grim corridors with barred doors that provide a veritably dark prison look. That said, though, at the far end you come to an interrogation, torture and execution cell – and here some pretty scary sound effects are triggered by movement sensors once you get near (it's quite startling first time around!). A dummy stands guard outside who tries hard to look grim but in a certain apish, awkward way that makes him look a bit comical rather than truly scary.

The exhibition, in contrast, is a pretty sober affair consisting of documents, artefacts and textual explanations of a very traditional museum style. There was one interactive screen terminal – but that wasn't working at the time of my visit (late April 2014).

Topically the museum is divided into sections starting from the history of the KGB and its precursor organizations (esp. the NKVD), the groundwork for Estonian occupation laid by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the first occupation by the USSR. The intermediate occupation by Nazi Germany in WWII is also covered, but the main focus is on the deportations of Estonians during the two Soviet occupations.

Life, hardship and death in the gulags is obviously lingered on at some length – and accompanied by some interesting artefacts, including objects of art made by and/or owned by gulag inmates.

Another main focus of the museum is on the resistance movements, in particular the so-called Forest Brothers (partisans who lived in the forest and undertook guerilla-tactics campaigns against the Soviets until they were more or less crushed by the late 1950s).

Amongst the artefacts here is an old familiar item: a Singer sewing machine – you know you're in the former Soviet Union when you encounter one of them as an obligatory regional museum exhibit (cf. also under Kazakhstan).

A special section is devoted to secret underground societies as well as particular dissidents, such Enn Tarto, who was imprisoned in Tartu for “anti-Soviet activity” repeatedly in the 1950s and 1960s and again as late as in 1983-1988.

Less obvious in the Estonian context is the inclusion of one section about the Russian “star” dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (cf. Ekibastuz regional museum in Kazakhstan).

In a larger room with rows of chairs in the middle (obviously for special events) the walls are lined with a somewhat separate exhibition that again tells the same story of deportations of Estonians, gulags and Soviet life (including collectivization of agriculture) in Estonia in a more compact form on a set of documents-photos-and-text panels. This section is bilingual throughout, in Estonian and English (with some translations that are a bit “shaky”).

Otherwise, only labels of exhibits are bilingual in the main exhibition, but some of the larger texts panels are in Estonian only. However there are laminated sheets with English explanations in boxes on the walls in each room that you can borrow. These texts are rather well translated.

The small shop by the ticket counter has a few worthwhile souvenirs, brochures and books, including a couple in English, as well as a guest book that the attendant in charge may urge you to sign.

All in all: this may not be the most overwhelming dark museum in the world, though the cells as such are quite dark (and offer authenticity of place in good doses) – but it is certainly good enough to make for an incentive to travel to Tartu.

Last Updated: 11 September, 2019
Information sources: © dark-tourism.com