- Mission 1: Roam the grounds of the abandoned Patarei Sea Fortress Prison (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Visit the Soviet statue graveyard and walk amongst the Lenins (DEFERRED);
- Mission 3: Reach the vantage point of the Tallinna teletorn (TV tower) (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: Ascend to the secret top floor of Soviet Hotel Viru to former KGB listening station (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Take the convenient ferry link to Helsinki (ACCOMPLISHED).
Highlight: When I say the best bit was the outbound ferry out of Estonia, I mean absolutely no disrespect. It was just a really pleasant trip on a super fancy ferry.
Lowlight: Not all post-Soviet states are as cheap as chips. Don’t count on doing Estonia on a shoestring.
Feat of Architecture: Linnahall; a concrete concert/sports venue comparable in function to Lithuania’s Palace of Concerts and Sports but this one’s got the harbour as a backdrop and is complete with its very own helipad.
Recce fact: In the Gallup Poll, Estonia took the title as the country whose population view religion of least importance. Having said that, there is no shortage of churches…
Home to the creators of Skype and kiiking (that’s 360° swinging to you and I), cheap alcohol haven of its Finnish brethren and public transport is free in Tallinn for Estonian citizens. It seems that Estonia aren’t doing half-bad for themselves.
As pioneers of the Singing Revolution which led to the reinstating of their independence, they host one of the biggest choral mass gatherings every five years at the Estonian Song Festival.
Although the cost of living is slightly higher than it’s Baltic brothers, Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia is still cheap enough by European standards on the whole. 25% of Estonia’s population today are ethnic Russians, hence you’ll hear the Russian language widely spoken in public places. Having already visited 28 European countries at this point, I was racking my brain to find a point of reference; another country comparable to Estonia. At this point in time, I could not have known that Finland shared many similarities as I would not discover it for several more days. But in hindsight, yeah, it’s not wildly different in feel to Finland, but much more visibly medieval in style.
The Port of Tallinn and Linnahall
The Old Town was absolutely swamped with tourists in late August. After fighting my way through the Town Hall Square, I proceeded to scour the cobbled streets for the former KGB headquarters. It is extremely easy to miss, as a freshly painted building with the lower windows bricked up (to conceal the horrors that once took place within from the outside world) and a plaque which translates to something along the lines of “This building housed the headquarters of the organ of repression of the Soviet occupational power. Here began the road to suffering for thousands of Estonians.” The building has long since been redeveloped into modern real estate. I suppose that is the best thing to do with it really, rather than exploit it as another spectacle and preserve a constant reminder of bitter times.
Eventually, I reached the port and made a beeline for Linnahall, which was conveniently situated directly under a large helium balloon which is permanently tethered. Apparently it takes up to 30 passengers, but is frequently out of operation due to the wind.
I had ogled over Linnahall pictures for years on Instagram and Pinterest. It was like meeting a celebrity for the first time. A modernist ruin of a celebrity. If the Soviet Union and the ancient Mayans teamed up and conceptualised a structure, Linnahall would surely be that brainchild. It seems perfectly conceivable that a grandiose cultural display of the state could be taking place inside, whilst sacrificial heads are rolling down the temple-like steps on the exterior. Originally, it was intended for more of the former and less of the latter, as V.I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport (as it was then known) was opened in 1980 in time for the Moscow Olympics, although was never actually used for sporting events itself. What is quite astonishing is that Linnahall is not officially abandoned and has been used for minor purposes in the recent past, but has fallen into severe disrepair and may no longer be safe. As of 2016, the government have announced a €250m redevelopment plan to take place by 2019, which will hopefully see the doors reopen permanently. The inside is equally intriguing as the outside, but is not accessible at present.
Speaking of the government, Prime Minister Taavi Roivas became the European Union’s youngest head of government in March 2014; merely a youngster in the world of politics. Like many other citizens of Estonia, he is gifted in languages and speaks Estonian, Finnish, English and Russian. You will find all four languages written on many signs and information boards which makes them rather unwieldy, but it certainly covers all the angles. The Finnish and Estonian languages may share similar roots (Finno-Ugric), but they are not mutually intelligible by default.
At present (August 2016), Tallinn city centre is largely a construction site. It took a considerable amount of work to crop out all the nearby roadworks, construction dust clouds and scaffolds from these photographs. Several skyscraper hotels and tall church spires jut out among the contrasting red-roof traditional style buildings. The tallest spire of St. Olaf’s Church was once fitted with KGB radio surveillance equipment due to its height. Following several fires, it stands today at only 123m; 36m shorter than it was originally in the 1500s; then among the tallest in the world for a period of time. The Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral is quite exceptional, with black domes rather than the customary gold or blue. There isn’t an ugly residential building or estate in sight for miles around. Väike-Õismäe is one such subdistrict on the outskirts, showcasing a curiosity of a layered, circular shaped utopia of social housing- an experimental housing project which has stood the test of time, if not exactly prime real estate these days.
Teletorn- Vantage Point and Symbol of the Revolution
While it is true that the TV Tower is a suitable vantage point, it does feel quite remote from the interesting parts of the city. But as far as TV Towers go, it is evident that Estonia have put more than a little bit of thought into making this a suitable attraction after five years of closure for refurbishment.
While most TV towers one tends to come across consist of nothing more than a lift and an expensive restaurant, this one offers an outdoor “walking on the edge” experience, numerous sci-fi style interactive kiosks and displays (including one featuring toys and cartoons from the Soviet Era- yep, our recurring chum Misha is there) and circular glass floor cutout sections so one can stare directly down to the ground from the 170m observation deck and try not to feel nauseous.
Events here were markedly similar to those which took place at the TV Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania, during the events in 1991 when Soviet troops stormed the tower, attempting to seize control of communication and prevent the announcement of Estonia as an independent state once again. In a brave operation to maintain the freedom of media, operators innovatively jammed the lift doors with a matchbox as the people flocked to the tower in its defence. Meanwhile, Moscow was having its own problems with Boris Yeltsin’s pro-democracy demonstrations.
Estonia famously regained its independence without bloodshed through a Singing Revolution, whereby the people gathered en masse at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak) over a period of four years from 1988, singing “forbidden” nationalistic songs and gathering for Estonian rock concerts disapproved by the Soviet Union. Iceland are honoured by being the first state to officially recognise Estonia’s independence in August 1991 and earned themselves a plaque on the wall of the Foreign Ministry.
Hotel Viru and the KGB’s Secret 23rd Floor
Sokos Hotel Viru; once the pride of the Soviet Union and the embodiment of luxury in Estonia since 1972. Now it is conjoined to a modern shopping centre and feels very dated in the interior. Still, I would have stayed there for at least a night out of curiosity had the rates been a little more attractive. The 23rd floor is accessible only via a guided tour, which gives a much better context anyway. Without the guide’s explanations, it’s not obvious from appearance that the ashtrays and dinnerware on display were bugged with microphones. The 23rd floor wasn’t so much as a guarded secret listening station as simply a level passively generating zero interest, with a clear message to staff that “there is nothing here” when they came up to use the copy room. The lift doesn’t have a 23rd floor button so guests were none the wiser, probably assuming it was used for services/maintenance if they did manage to work out that there was an additional storey from the outside. Here, the KGB monitored foreign guests and people of interests, and obviously selected staff were on board, placing particular guests strategically in one of the 60 rooms which were fitted with listening devices. You would think that staff members should be chosen based on their international experience, number of languages spoken etc. when dealing with foreign guests, but instead they were chosen preferentially on the basis that they spoke and understood only Russian fluently and had no exposure outside of the USSR to avoid cooperation with any espionage activity.
The hotel represented everything the USSR wanted the international community to see; all that is great about the Soviet Union. It was equipped with a very fine restaurant, patisserie and chefs with top reputations, a swimming pool… the whole shebang. The best part about this museum is that it hasn’t been tarted up too much. The KGB vacated the hotel hurriedly as soon as Estonia regained its independence, obviously not stopping to cover their traces and bring the equipment with them for whatever reason. All the equipment here today is more or less in the state in which it was found, although a few items have been added for effect, including mannequins sporting KGB uniforms which were also left in situ, replicas of documents and a few false signs and other related propaganda.
The Unsavoury Occupation Sandwich
I had hoped that I would finally get to encounter an original Lenin / Statue, as I haven’t been having much luck so far in my other missions to track one down. Alas, yet again it wasn’t to be, as the grounds of the Estonian History Museum/ Maarjemäe Palace were completely off-limits for reconstruction and so was the statue graveyard seemingly. In spite of having read that it was still accessible, there was just no way in. Not to be defeated, it was off to the Museum of Occupation. This is a highly recommended museum situated very close to Tallinn’s Freedom Square, featuring memorabilia from the era of occupation (1939-1991 inclusive), whereby Estonia was under the control of the Soviets, the Nazis and the Soviets once again in an unsavoury sandwich of oppression.
The building itself is intriguing, with concrete suitcases lining the path to the entrance, presumably alluding to the mass deportations that have already been encountered in other missions (e.g. Mission Lithuania) in which 10,000 Estonians were taken away to Siberia and Kazakhstan.
There were considerably less Nazi exhibits (as they were there for only a short time), but managed to do considerable lasting damage, bringing with them the Holocaust and Nazi ideals. When the Estonians welcomed the arrival of the Germans with flowers and celebrations, they weren’t aware that they weren’t to be saviours but harbingers of death. Less Germanic Estonian groups (Jews, Roma people and Russians) were removed and eliminated in their tens of thousands.
Among the exhibits were a collection of Soviet cars (with our friend Misha at the steering wheel- pictured below), KGB prison cell doors, Lenin busts, medals, household items, phoneboxes, a sea mine, spy equipment and an audio-visual room. The current audio-visual exhibit depicted the life of a homosexual whilst it was criminalised during the occupation. It was much too artistic for me though for any meaningful interpretation, as all I picked up from the silent movie was male nudity, the measuring of male genitalia with specialised calipers and someone peeing on another man’s face. Speaking of urinating, the most impressive former Soviet statues of officials who once stood proudly on the streets of Tallinn have been relegated to guardians of the toilets. Keep up the good work, lads. Wouldn’t want any enemies of the state using the facilities.
Memorial Monuments and the Tragic Motorcyclist
The Maarjemäe War Memorial, situated along the coast near Pirita beach, is intriguing enough to make most curious visitors hop off the bus for a closer inspection. It’s got the emblematic obelisk and gravestones (which I later found out belonged to the Russian crewmen of the Avtroil and Spartak destroyer vessels). It is immediately striking that this memorial is practically forsaken, although well maintained. It feels much more modern than a 1960/70s erection. Although it was originally purpose-designed as a memorial for the Soviet troops who perished fighting in 1918, WWII additions were added later. Clearly a unique combination of a rolling landscape and architectural geometry, yet something about the hills put me in mind of Teletubbyland. One feature I didn’t get was the dark creature-like object clinging on in the middle where the pinnacles of the dolomite-clad walls meet. I’m sure I remember encountering something similar while playing Silent Hill. Apparently they were “perishing seagulls”. Who knew?
The North West 200 (NW200- so called as road speeds top 200mph), one of the fastest motorcycle road races in the world, taking place annually to the scenic backdrop of the North Antrim Coast, is the pride of Northern Ireland, as are the local riders. Sadly, another young life was lost at the NW200 again in 2016 while I was spectating by the roadside and the event was cut short. While it’s astounding that this kind of event is allowed to continue year after year with so many deaths occurring, people still gather from far and wide to show respect to these brave/daredevil riders and to share in the thrill as they whizz past at lightning speed. One of the sport’s most admired and record-breaking riders was Joey Dunlop; Northern Ireland’s working class hero who won the Isle of Mann TT races not once but thrice. He tragically perished on a forest road in Tallinn in 2000, in not a 750cc race (which he had already won), but a 125cc race. He lost control of the bike on the wet road surface and crashed into a tree at high impact. His death resulted in a day of national mourning back home and still today, Northern Irish citizens make a sort of holy journey to Tallinn just to pay tribute at his memorial (located by the tree). The road itself has evidently seen more than one tragedy, as another tribute was spotted further along the path for another rider. For me, it was bizarre, yet warming to see very Northern Irish articles such as Ulster flags and football scarves in the middle of an Estonian forest, so far from home. All for “Our Joey” of the famous racing family.
Kalaranna fort, a.k.a. Patarei Prison is open for visitation during the summer season and otherwise by organised tours. One can explore freely throughout the grounds for a mere €3. It would be a complete insult not to. This fortress and gun battery has existed since 1840 and was converted, firstly to barracks, then to a prison in 1920. It’s hard to believe that it still served as an active prison until as recently as 2002. The 2016 documentary, Patarei Comes to Life features accounts by locals and former prisoners on its dark history and potential future redevelopment/restoration.
There is some very interesting graffiti on the prison doors and walls with some running themes; namely: the Soviets/KGB were never trialed and brought to justice for all their crimes, profanities against the USSR and profanities against the USA. Most of the graffiti is written in English and some is in Russian, albeit it’s hard to distinguish what (if any) is original, as most of it is recent. Another frequent find are posters of females (celebrity and non-celebrity alike) that had been affixed to cell walls and tables; but not from nudey magazines, no. They wouldn’t have been accessible. It seems that fully clothed lassies from 90s pop magazine cutouts (or maybe even from the Estonian equivalent of a Littlewoods catalogue) plus a vivid imagination was enough inspiration for the dwellers.
Most of the cells were in darkness, with minimal natural light shining through. Several corridors were sealed off with locks and chains for whatever reason, but the majority of the prison was completely open for exploration. Accessible areas even included the guard’s watchtower which overlooked the facility and exercise yards (if you could call them that as there was barely room to swing a Soviet sickle in the cages). Warped wooden staircases creaked and bowed underfoot on the ascent, threatening to yield at any moment. At this point I was beginning to wonder if allowing Joe-public the freedom to roam was wise or not at this stage with all the rotten floorboards, crumbling ceilings, dark coves and barbed wire all around. The most sinister room was not even the hanging chamber (pictured with chair), but the medical unit and operating theatre. It could serve very adequately as the set for a horror movie without any additional props or dramatic staging. Original medical equipment, tubing, bed pans, typewriters, scales etc. are all still in place and astoundingly haven’t been looted.
If you go, don’t forget to visit the tiny shop of Soviet memorabilia and the Beach Cafe and Bar on the way out. Fantastic little oddities.
Food of Estonia
Estonian cuisine is a bit Russian, a bit Scandinavian, a bit Eastern European and maybe something else original but I wasn’t able to find out what that was. Breakfast offerings included omelettes and my arch enemy- buckwheat porridge (I’m still trying to acquire a taste for it after a 9th or 10th attempt). There is a plethora of Russian restaurants around serving the usual pelmeni, shashlik, solyanka etc. but this time I opted for an Azerbaijani restaurant (Šeš-Beš); a less common find at home.
While it’s possible to have a (far fetched) Estonian culinery experience in one of the expensive tourist spots around the Old Town which serve lavish feasts including everything from elk soup to wild boar or bear meat, in my opinion the best place to sample local style dishes is Lido. Although it’s a Latvian chain, you will find most typical dishes of the region here in a buffet style for a reasonable cost. It’s got salad bars, a charcoal BBQ, a dumpling/pelmeni section, desserts, the whole heap, not to mention the extravagant, themed decor.
Hesburger, the Finnish answer to McDonalds is scattered around Tallinn in abundance. Burgers come with their very own cardboard circular collar to keep them intact and to give the impression that you are receiving a jumbo sized meal. Like many things in life, unwrapping the packaging leaves something to be desired in what’s revealed, but it was actually a very nice burger. Kid’s meals came with Moomin merchandise as the free toy. How very Finnish.
Sounds of Estonia
Check out my selected Sounds of Estonia at the new Euro Jukebox page, featuring Estonian (Lady Gaga-esque) popstar Kerli and the punk anthem of the Estonian Singing Revolution. Here is a clip of the Estonian Festival of Song and Dance where you can get an idea of the sheer amount of people present in the stadium- up to 30,000 singers singing in perfect unison to an audience of 80,000.
Mission Estonia Summary
I’m concluding this mission with a boat. A big one. Not the one that would shortly sail onwards to Helsinki, but it was impressive as well. Cruiseliners and ferries come and go in and out of Tallinn’s port, delivering a constant stream of regular and new visitors all day long. In my humble opinion, Estonia is the most accommodating of all the Baltic states based on my brief encounters, and Tallinn has the most to offer visitors. For some reason, I’m still more attached to Riga, Latvia. I suppose Tallinn lacks that certain grim factor which has an appeal of its own. Tallinn and Helsinki pair very well for a 2-in-1 city break owed to the frequent ferry link. And that’s exactly where the next mission begins… Mission Finland.