On long, clear summer nights when the sun sets for only a few hours—and even when it doesn’t at all—crowds of tourists and young people gather at the Linnahall to watch the sunset. The Soviet-era concert hall and sports venue, built for the Moscow 1980 Olympics at the sea’s edge in Estonia’s capital, has been abandoned for years and is now popular with urban explorers and graffiti artists.
Where once the crowds gathered in the main hall to watch performances, people now sit on the roof above drinking beer. Across the bay as the waves and sky turn first orange, then pink, purple and finally a deep blue-black, the sun glows next to another of the city’s abandoned relics: Patarei Sea Fortress. Now dilapidated, decaying and empty, the fortress was originally used as an army barracks. Later it was converted into a prison, taking in prisoners throughout the Soviet and Nazi occupation, when it was one of the most hated and feared places in the country. It finally closed in 2005 after Estonia joined the European Union.
Since then, the fortress, in the Kalamaja “hipster” area, has become popular with tourists looking for something unusual away from the fairytale-esque medieval Old Town. During the summer months visitors can explore part of the prison, which has become a museum, for a couple of euros. However, there are no signs on the wall offering context or historical information, and no repairs have been made since it closed. Several tour guides offer a “behind the scenes” look at the fortress.
But with no upkeep the fortress is in danger of being lost forever, says the Estonian Heritage Board. Last year it submitted the complex for the list of Europe Nostra’s 7 Most Endangered heritage sites for 2016; it was named one of the final seven in March. Winning doesn’t secure the fortress’ future, but it could ease the application process for funding.
Standing in the musty entrance hall, my guide told me that it would take millions of euros to restore the fortress or to tear it down. Then millions more euros to make something on the site. Money, he said, that Estonia doesn’t have.
And anyway, the Patarei handbook says that to locals the place is still associated with “grief, suffering, disgrace and death... The name itself makes people feel uneasy.”
When it was built, Patarei was the largest strategic building in Estonia, a “superior example of the finest 19th Century engineering.” In places the walls are two meters thick, and the sextant-shaped structure is spread over four hectares. The beach-front wall is three stories high. Russian troops moved into the newly built barracks in 1840. It has living quarters, beds for around 1,000 people and a hospital.
After Estonia gained its freedom in 1918, the republic’s army took control of Patarei. Even then it was in a sorry state, affected by damp and mold, “unsuitable for humans.” It was used to store army provisions.
In 1920 the government opted to turn it into a detention house, and then a prison. Tallinn had been without one since the end of WWI and the 1917 Russian revolution, when the previous two prisons had been burned down.
It remained a prison until 2005. The guidebook was written by museum manager Andrus Villem, who has been involved with the fortress museum for over ten years. Villem says that during this period “all the major historic events of 20th-Century Europe, all the diverse turbulent changes of that century, also washed over Patarei.
“Chronologically: the Republic of Estonia 1918-1940, Soviet Occupation 1940-1941, German Occupation 1941-1944, the Second Soviet 1944-1991, and finally re-independent Estonia.
“Throughout these regimes, Patarei remained one of the most hated and feared places in Estonia, having touched, either directly or indirectly, all the country’s inhabitants.”
At its peak during the occupation in WWII there were close to 5,000 prisoners—five times more than its capacity. In September 1941, 207 Estonian Jews, and many others, were killed in the basement. Around 300 French Jews from convoy 73, leaving Drancy concentration camp, were brought to Patarei before being taken on to Klooga work camp in western Estonia. There is a memorial to them outside the fortress.
After WWII there was no letup at the prison, and Soviet political prisoners, including members of the resistance and the government of the Republic, were interrogated and persecuted there until the end of the 1980s.
After the collapse of the USSR, Estonia planned to close the facility as soon as possible, but delays in building a new prison caused it to stay open until 2002. The infirmary did not close until 2005.
Now paint is flaking off the damp and moldy walls, the floors are uneven and stairs are broken. Objects left by prisoners, such as bunk beds, pillows, bedding, mattresses, clothes and medical equipment, still litter the rooms and corridors. Occasionally vagrants set up home in the empty cells. Thieves steal metal. Tourists are told by tour guides not to close doors, as they don’t have keys to all of them. It is not easy to describe just how much the fortress dominates the landscape around it, or its vast size.
Without state support there is little chance of establishing a proper exhibition and doing much-needed research into the prison’s history, Villem said, adding “there is no proper political will to save this place.”
But some people are trying. Europe Nostra said they included the site in the 7 Most Endangered because if no action is taken to stop the decay, “the buildings will be irreparably lost.”
The organization said the main threat is its rapid deterioration, which it blames on “harsh climate and lack of maintenance.” The broken roof and windows let snow and rain in, damaging the timber construction beams and limestone walls. The walls are moist and the basement and ground floor “extremely wet.” Several areas are closed for safety reasons.
The sea fortress is currently described as a culture park, and plans for future development would see the 20,000 square meters of space turned into several museums, galleries and artists’ studios. There could also be a conference center, tourist accommodation, cafés and restaurants. In the summer there already is a small café located on the beach behind the prison.
Even in its current state the building is fascinating to tourists, thousands of whom visit annually. The site has been awarded a Certificate of Excellence by review website TripAdvisor. Tour guide Kadi Pilt says that it attracts those interested in “dark tourism”—seeing places where death and suffering have occurred.
“I warn people in advance that it is not a touristy place, that in fact it is [in] ruins, an abandoned ghost town that is not suited for humans—it never has been,” she said.
“There are many people from all over the world to whom it is [a] kind of pilgrimage: family members of former prisoners and Holocaust victims. They have the stories they have heard, and now they want to see the place. Sometimes these stories have turned into legends.”
Pilt said that giving tours at the start was incredibly draining, retelling Patarei’s dark history day after day. Gradually she built up resistance to the stories she was telling, but says she always sees the effect it has on her groups.
“I have had people getting really emotional—not just former inmates. There have been three or four times when people had such intense sensory or emotional overload [...] that they have felt physically unwell. There have been men revealing weeks later that they are getting nightmares of that place. [...] it is a geography of grief. [However], I also see this rundown place as sublimely beautiful.”
Pilt said one of the most fascinating things is speaking to former prisoners and employees of Patarei when they take her tours.
“Sometimes it takes them a long time to gather up the courage to see this place again. Gradually they open up, they agree with what I tell or describe and add their own details or stories.
“Most of them get lost. They interacted with this place and navigated it differently. So they remember it wrong.
“Memories also change. They mix it up with other prisons or remember stories they once heard as memories of their own. Sometimes they even lie deliberately. But the genuine bits and pieces, often the tiniest details, they keep adding up.”
Alongside the tours, occasionally art exhibitions, film shoots and parties take place in the fortress. Last August, with the help of the EU, a day-long conference was held in the fortress boiler house called “Patarei Comes to Life.” In January, a new film of the same name about Patarei’s future was shown in Tallinn.
Speaking in the documentary, Triin Talk, Chief Inspector of the Cultural Heritage Department of Tallinn, said “the National Real Estate Company [who own the fortress site] has let us know they plan to sell the complex and will not develop it themselves. [...] We have already set special preconditions for heritage protection in the whole area before it gets sold. Detailed planning is also in [progress], which will probably be validated before the sale. All these things will give the private owner clear limits within [which] to act.”
These plans could potentially see the Estonian War Museum moved to the complex, which would become museums of victims of totalitarian terror and the Cold War. Patarei would also have its own museum established.
Merilin Piipuu, Director of the Estonian Museum of Occupations, also speaking in the documentary, said that as a museum, “Patarei has a tremendous potential. It already has life within, so there is no need to create too much extra. It already tells us so many stories. These stories just need to be explained a bit more and have more context added to them, so that both young and old would understand what has happened in there.”
Honorary Chairman of the Estonian Heritage Foundation Trivimi Velliste has estimated that the final renovation costs are likely to be EUR100 million “at least.”
“It depends on the final solution, which is unclear as of yet,” he said by email. “Patarei certainly becomes more and more important for Estonian people while the centenary of the nation approaches in 2018.”
Speaking in Patarei Comes to Life, Professor David Vseviov of the Estonian Academy of Arts makes the best case for saving the sea fortress.
He says: “Throughout the years people’s prayers for freedom have been said in this place. The building is soaked with human tragedies. Could there be any better monument than that? Even if we would put up some stone monument, a great piece of art, it will never have the same symbolic purpose as this building unfortunately does.”