FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Traces of Soviet Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

Estonia has a complex history which has seen it occupied and invaded by many forces over the past centuries, with just a short lived spell of independence between 1918 and 1940. It was not until August 1991 that independence returned with the restoration of the Republic of Estonia.

In common with the other Baltic states Estonia has removed many of the more obvious monuments of Soviet domination, but I was curious to see how much remained.

Architectural survivors

In the preparations for our trip I got the impression that Tallinn had acted faster than other places to remove the symbols of its communist past, so I was slightly surprised to see the familiar communist star in place on a number of apartment buildings and freshly re-painted atop the MyCity Hotel. The neo-classical Russian Cultural Centre (formerly the Naval Officers’ House) from 1954 sports a hammer and sickle high up.

Apartment block (1954) on the Tartu Highway

Symbols or no symbols, nothing could disguise the surviving works of stalinist architecture in the city such as the Soprus cinema (designed 1951, built 1955) and some of the crumbling residential apartment blocks on the Tartu Highway.

In a similar fashion the concrete structures of Linnahall (formerly the V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sports), the heavily planned apartment blocks of Väike-Õismäe (which we accidentally visited after catching the wrong bus) and the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds are other examples that will be very familiar to anyone who has traveled in the former Soviet republics and their neighbouring eastern bloc countries.

The Bronze Soldier

The statue of the Bronze Soldier, officially unveiled in 1947 as the Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn, was originally located in a prominent city centre location. In 2007 the authorities undertook what has to be one of the most contentious removals in the Baltic region, with the overnight move triggering a two day long riot and a diplomatic rift with Russia.

The Bronze Soldier at the Defence Forces Cemetery of Tallinn

Today, you would be hard pressed to guess at the violent upheaval that surrounded the move. The Bronze soldier occupies a quiet and leafy spot in the Defence Forces Cemetery of Tallinn, alongside the graves of fallen soldiers from other nations. The only clue to the sensitivity of the spot is a surveillance camera on the approach.

The cemetery includes a memorial to the submariners who died on the M-103 in 1941; a monument to the fallen soldiers of the Estonian War of Independence; a monument to the 52 victims of the explosion of the Männiku ammunition stores in 1936; the graves of the recipients of the Estonian Cross of Liberty; and the burial place of the aviators of the Estonian Air Force.

To my surprise I found a small Commonwealth War Graves Commission plot containing the graves of British Naval Officers killed in Estonian waters during the War of Independence from 1918 to 1920, with wreaths from the recent visit by Princess Anne).

The fifteen British Naval graves were bravely protected during the Soviet occupation by Linda Soomre, who turned their burial place into a maintenance area overnight to prevent their remains from being desecrated. The graves were restored in 1994.

Statues and sculptures

A display of impressive Soviet-era statues can be found on a grassy area behind the Maarjamäe Palace, framed by the chilling words of Estonian President Lennart Meri in 1999: “It is dangerous to think that the time of Stalins and Hitlers has passed.” Appropriately enough, there is one statue of Stalin (1950) here which is thought to have been removed from its pedestal in the 1960s and stored out of sight for 30 years.

Soviet era statues at the back of Maarjamäe Palace

The most impressive of the statues on display (illustrated in the photograph above) would have to be the group of 4.5 metre tall figures depicting armed workers and revolutionary fighters, originally part of a monument to the attempted communist coup of 1st December 1924. The figures were installed in 1975 in a prominent spot opposite the Baltic station in July 1975 and removed in February 1993.

There are four statues and busts of Lenin, including one in white marble which was completed just as Estonia gained independence. As it was now surplus to requirements it languished in the studio courtyard until it was donated to the Estonian History Museum in 2008.

Summer Hall at Maarjamäe Palace

Maarjamäe Palace was originally constructed as the summer house of Count Anatoly Orlov-Davidov in 1874, but the property was sold by the family after the collapse of their fortunes following the revolution. The palace has seen use as a hotel, restaurant, army aviation school, communal apartments and finally as a museum.

The mural in the Summer Hall at Maarjamäe Palace

After restoration the palace was re-opened in 1987 as the History and Revolution Museum of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The only trace of this can be seen in a mural by Evald Okas in the former summer hall. It is a marvelous piece filled with agricultural workers, astronauts, factory workers and red army soldiers alongside the inevitable communist flags and symbols. Lenin is in there somewhere too.

Today, the Summer Hall can be visited before climbing the stairs to the highly recommended and thoroughly engaging exhibition “My Free Country” which takes visitors through the complex history of the country over the past century.

Memorials

The crumbling Soviet era Maarjamäe Memorial now sits alongside a new Memorial to the victims of communism. A 35 metre tall obelisk stands at the centre of the Soviet monument which was constructed in 1960 to remember those who had fallen defending the Soviet Union. Today, parts of it are closed off with a warning stating ‘No passage – danger of collapsing’.

Maarjamäe Memorial

The neighbouring Memorial to the victims of communism was officially opened on 23rd August 2018. It is simple in design – a long black walled corridor depicting ‘the journey’ and which symbolises the mercilessness power of the totalitarian system. The walls are lined with the names of 22,000 individuals known to have lost their lives under the communist regime and with a call to remember all those whose names we do not know.

The statistics are sobering – on another panel an explanation reminds us that at the current count there are 141,145 victims who are known to have been deported, imprisoned and murdered between 1940 and 1991.

Patarei Sea Fortress

The Patarei Sea Fortress, built between 1827 and 1840, was turned into a fearsome prison under the Nazi and Soviet regimes. This year an exhibition ‘Communism is a Prison’ opened in two storeys of Patarei’s eastern wing and in the walking enclosures in the inner courtyard. No-one would expect it to be a cheerful place, but it was far grimmer than anything I could have imagined.

One of two entrances to the exhibition at the Patarei Prison

Most of the individuals who passed through the gates of Patarei wound up in distant forced labour camps, or died in the prison. The terrible stories of some of the individuals who passed through these fates are told in the former cells. The fiction of the Soviet judicial system is never clearer than in the story of one poor soul whose execution was carried out before the verdict in his case was given.

The grim interior of the Patarei Prison

There are other sites in Tallinn associated with the brutality of the Soviet regime, including the KGB Dungeons and the Hotel Viru and KGB Museum, but we didn’t seek these out during our three day stay.

Gallery

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