Soviet Estonia: The Good, The Bad and The Miserable

No stopping and no photos. Those were my strict instructions before crossing into Russia without a visa.

The road is remote with only a few villagers passing through each day. I could just make out the barbed wire fence through the trees as I approached. There were signs forbidding pedestrians to enter and hand painted posts marked the border.

I continued on, driving through the Russian woods on an Estonian road in the Setomaa region.

Two kilometres later I came out the other side, back in Estonia. My drive through Russia was over. A travel experience I’ll always remember as an overhyped non-event!

Pechory, the capital of Setomaa in the distance in Russia.

Setomaa is the land of the Seto people which spans both sides of the Estonian/Russian border. The Setos are neither Estonian nor Russian yet share an ethnic history with the former and the Orthodox religion with the latter.

The Seto have their own language, culture and history. If you’re lucky you’ll get see the locals in their traditional folk dress but if not you can spot them in the faux village in Varska. Unfortunately, the capital of Setomaa (Pechory) and its famous 15th century monastery is across the border in Russia. You’ll need a visa to visit.

The community became divided during Soviet times when the Russians took the opportunity to move the border. At the same time it created the odd situation where an Estonian road cuts through what is now Russian territory.

There are still tensions with Estonia’s former occupiers, not helped by having a couple of Russians (spies?) living in town who refuse to speak both Seto and Estonian.

Things are friendlier on the northern border at Narva which is predominantly home to ethnic Russians. You can see Russians crossing over to Estonia to go shopping and both nationals water ski along the river border.

Ivangorod Fortress Russia

The only noticeable opposition is between Hermann Castle and Ivangorod Fortress which face each other on the banks of the Narva River.

Hermann Castle Estonia

There’s also some crazy architecture around town.

Love this crazy looking building in Narva.

Not far from Narva is Stalinist town Sillamae. In the past the town was home to Nazi concentration camps, mining, heaving industry and uranium enrichment. At one point, radioactive materials were leaking into the Baltic Sea.

Stalinist Architecture in Sillamae

These days Sillamae is in decline and it felt like a ghost town as I walked around the imposing Stalinist architecture.

Soviet Statue in Sillamae

Back in Tallinn there are four main sights related to the Soviet occupation; Linnahall, Patarei Prison, the Museum of Occupations and the KGB Museum.

Linnahall Abandoned Building

Linnahall is a mostly abandoned, crumbling, concrete structure built for the boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics. I can’t imagine why they renamed it from the Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport.

Looking over to Kalamaja District

The building is sometimes used as a concert hall, ice skating rink and helipad for helicopter flights to Helsinki. Climbing to the top gives you unobstructed views over to the abandoned Patarei Prison.

From Linnahall to the Old Town

In contrast to Tallinn’s postcard perfect Old Town is the damp, dark concrete cells and death chamber found in Patarei Prison.

Patarei Prison Death Chamber

For €3 you can walk freely around the grounds and cell blocks, read left behind books and magazines, enter the prison hospital or climb one of the guard watchtowers.

Patarei Living Conditions

Damp and Dark Patarei Prison

Abandoned Soviet Era Prison in Estonia

Abandoned Patarei Prison Estonia

It’s a creepy and depressing place where political prisoners lived in squalor, were tortured and sometimes hanged. It’s hard to believe people were living in these horrific conditions until 2004.

Patarei Prison Walls in Tallinn

Tallinn Prison Hospital

Patarei Prison Museum

Patarei Prison Grounds

Being face to face with Lenin was a little off-putting but worse was seeing the “cupboards” where the secret service tortured political prisoners. These narrow concrete rooms were designed so prisoners couldn’t sit or lie down. Solitary confinement, no light and little food for weeks or months at a time. The Soviet’s sure knew how to make people’s lives miserable.

Lenin at the Museum of Occupations

I spent hours in the Museum of Occupations reading the stories of day-to-day life in Soviet Estonia and the resistance. It’s easily one of the best museums in Tallinn. Plus it’s home to this adorable car.

Cute Soviet Era Car

I love a good spy museum, especially from Cold War times with their miniature cameras, bugs and stacks of secret files. Tallinn’s KGB Museum is inside the Viru Hotel, the prime spot for spying on foreign visitors during Communism. I wasn’t able to visit on this trip but it gets good reviews.

Ethnic Russians in Estonia

Many of the Estonians I spoke with said their relationship with Russia was fine but they are nervous about the future. Russian spy planes often approach or violate Estonian and Baltic air space, more so in recent months.

Another prominent issue in Estonia is with the status of the ethnic Russian minority. After the end of the Soviet occupation, the occupying Russians had the choice of obtaining Estonian or other citizenship (Russian/Ukrainian etc). Those that didn’t or couldn’t get Estonian citizenship have a “grey passport”, a document for resident “aliens” with no citizenship in any country. They have the right to live and work in Estonia but can’t vote in national elections or live elsewhere in the EU. They face discrimination but without the Estonian language they can’t get citizenship.

Abandoned Estonia

Along with the abandoned Patarei Prison in Tallinn, Estonia has a few other abandoned sites which might be of interest to urban adventurists and Soviet enthusiasts. All are within easy reach of Tallinn.

  • Paldiski – Abandoned light houses, military buildings and the Soviet nuclear submarine training centre. Ghost Fun Fair has some cool photos of the area.
  • Hara Submarine Base – A decommissioned and abandoned former Russian submarine base.
  • A Rough Guide to Tallinn – This fantastic post describes the more run down side of Tallinn. The post and comments suggest visiting Kopli and the Russian enclave of Lasnamae in Tallinn as well as Maardu and the abandoned chemical factory in Kallavere.

Where to Stay

On this trip to Tallinn I stayed at the L’Ermitage Hotel courtesy of Visit Tallinn. The hotel is just down the hill from the Toompea area of the Old Town and not far from the Museum of Occupations. It’s a great base for discovering both Soviet and Medieval Tallinn and for day tripping around the rest of Estonia.

If road tripping around the country, I’d recommend spending two or three nights in Tartu and one night in Narva with stops in Varska to explore Setomaa and Tiheda to get a glimpse of the Russian Old Believers.

About Andrea

Andrea Anastasakis is the founder and author of road trip blog Rear View Mirror. She is currently driving her Fiat 500 around Europe. Follow her travel adventures on Instagram.


Comments

  1. Fascinating! I need to learn more about this dark period in history. I’ve visited Riga’s KGB museum, but need to dig deeper.

    • I’m hoping to return to Latvia and Lithuania next year to compare how things were in those countries. I know Vilnius has a similar prison, right in the Old Town, which is still in operation. I’ll definitely be checking out the KGB Museum in Riga too.

  2. ‘A travel experience I’ll always remember as an overhyped non-event!’ – how dare you! Crossing the Russian border without a visa is always profoundly exciting, even if you aren’t shot at, arrested, tortured or imprisoned.
    Otherwise thanks for this. Cannot wait to go back to Estonia after our too-brief first visit.

  3. love this post. ive been to estonia twice (both times with rookie travelers) and havent really explored much outside of the old town in tallinn and the bar scene in tartu. realllllllllly need to get back there on my own terms and see some of this!

  4. Nice post, a couple of places I haven’t managed to get to yet – for some reason the list just gets longer and longer. I first came to Estonia in 2012 and fell in love with the place. I visited about 1/2 a dozen times more before moving out here a year ago. If you haven’t done so yet some of the Islands are well worth a visit and there is plenty to choose from: Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Muhu, Prangli and others all have there own charms from spas to meteor craters, castles to lighthouses and even “ice roads” in the winter. It’s also worth heading out to the forests and bogs to see bears, wolves, lynx, moose, and wild boars etc… too many places, not enough time!!

    • I fell in love with Estonia too! I spent three weeks there this summer but I know I missed out on so much. I went to Saaremaa and Muhu and plan to see the other islands next time. I didn’t spend too much time in the bogs because there were these huge flies with with a vicious bite which I couldn’t handle!! I really want to see the ice roads too. How cool that you’re living there. 🙂

  5. Fantastic photos, Andrea! However, now you have gotten Michael intrigued with this prison stuff and we’ll HAVE to go there :/

  6. Two comments.
    About Setos. They are still part of ethnic Estonian. Right, they are Ortodoxes, majority of Estonians are Lutherans. They have dialect what differs from Estonians but other Estonians can understand it without translation. Discussion are Setos Estonians or separate ethnic group started 1990-ies when Russia needed for political reasons an argument why Seto area should not be part of Estonia like it was before 1945. Setos have their own identity but it is general opinion among Setos that Seto area belongs to Estonia but not Russia.
    Now about citizenship. Estonian citizenship does not base on ethnic backround. Estonia did not established as successor of the USSR and new country in August 1991 but thru restitution. It means that everyone who had Estonian citizenship before Sovien occupation and their descendants we automatically recognized as Estonian citizens, also ca 90 000 ethnic Russian who lived in Estonia pre-war time. People who immigrated to Estonia during Soviet occupation had no Estonia citizenship but Soviet citizenship. They we not only ethnic Russiand but from different groups. Also those ethnic Estonians who repatriated during Soviet period had no Estonian citizenhip. All foreign citizens had apply Esonian citizenship thru naturalisation like it is in every country.

  7. Uno Raamat says:

    The only Russians who feel discriminated against in Estonia are the ones who have no intention of getting Estonian citizenship in the first place.

  8. this is a very enjoyable and interesting piece, but I do think it is unfair to say “discrimination” — that implies prejudice. Estonia had to choose in 1991 what to do about citizenship, just as many other occupied countries have done after they were freed. Historically, when empires break up the fate of stranded migrants and colonists has been harsh. Estonia didn’t deport the migrants (it just made the military go). But I think it was fair to say that if they wanted citizenship, they should make a conscious choice. Those that choose otherwise are not “discriminated against” — they can do pretty much everything except vote in national elections. Statistics show that there is no prejudice based on ethnicity–what does matter is having perfect written Estonian. If you can do that, nobody cares if your name is Ivanov or Thwaites or whatever. Would you be willing to change the word to say they face “difficulty” which is more accurate?

    • I understand what you’re saying and agree that they could get citizenship if they were to meet the requirements and some clearly choose not to.

      Throughout my time in Estonia I asked about the situation with ethnic Russians and while many responded favourably others showed animosity. My comments about discrimination were based on those conversations and my research but of course I could be wrong. I hope the statistics you mention are correct.

      I won’t change what I wrote but I do appreciate you taking the time to explain the situation better than I did in my post.

  9. That is truly interesting and very fascinating, I’d love to visit one day! 🙂