Occupation Museum, Tallinn
A modern museum in the heart of Tallinn
that focuses on the periods in history that most Estonians would rather forget about, in particular the nearly five decades as part of the Soviet Union
. Though comparatively small in size, its compact exhibition is excellent, rich in intriguing artefacts and an absolute must-see for any dark tourist visiting this corner of the world.
More background info:
in general see also under Estonia
. As its name implies, the museum's topic is the succession of occupations of the country in the 20th century: first by the Soviet Union
in 1940 – as Germany
from the west, the USSR took eastern Poland and the Baltic states as agreed in the Hitler
- or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
. Then, as Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Estonia fell under Nazi
The Germans, who had actually been welcomed by many Estonians as liberators from Soviet rule, were eventually kicked out again by the advancing Soviet troops towards the end of 1944. From then, the longest period of occupation ensued. Until 1991, Estonia
remained a constituent part of the USSR
But just as with the other Baltic states (see Latvia
), this had always been seen as an occupation by the general population. Cultural repression took the form of the folk traditions and songs in the Estonian language having been made illegal. Quite physical expression of terror took the form of tens of thousands of Estonians being deported to the gulags
in Siberia. Hence this is generally seen as the darkest period in Estonian history.
In contrast to that, the country is rightly proud of how it all ended. Estonia, like the other two Baltic countries, was at the forefront of the process that eventually led to the demise of the USSR
in 1991. Yet the celebration of Estonia
's “singing revolution” is not overly excessively celebrated at this museum.
The Tallinn Museum of Occupations has come into being through a private initiative started in the late 1990s by one Olga Kistler-Ritso. She had emigrated to the USA
in the 1950s but had always followed events in her native country. After its independence was achieved in 1991 she decided that Estonia should have a museum about its recent history too. So the Kistler-Ritso Foundation was established and began sourcing funds in the form of private donations.
After a preparatory planning and collection phase, the construction of the museum building was begun in October 2002. The building was finished in June 2003 and the museum opened to the public shortly after that on 1 July. Tallinn
's occupation museum is thus the newest of the three museums of its kind in the Baltics (after the Museum of Genocide Victims
and Riga's Museum of Occupation, which were both established in the early 1990s already).
Olga Kistler-Ritso's efforts were recognized by the Estonian state too and she received various honorary awards. Ten years after the museum's opening, she died, aged 93, in November 2013.
What there is to see:
The museum is compact but of a striking modern design. The way to the entrance under the glass front is marked by concrete suitcases … which symbolize deportations, of course. The handles of some of the “cases” bear tags with place names (plus the universal person name John Smith) such as Berlin
that also fall firmly within the realm of dark tourism.
Inside you are greeted by a lofty hall with glass walls on three sides letting plenty of light in. So it is only the contents that are dark here. Towards the street-facing front of the building is a kind of gallery sloping up above the entrance; at the top are small tables and seats where you can sit and relax or read.
Along the southern wall is the reception desk and book/gift shop. It is here that you buy your ticket and where you can hire audio-guides. As most labels and texts in the museum are also translated into English, an audio-guide won't be required for many foreign visitors. What is useful is a laminated sheet you can borrow that explains the nature of the large exhibits in the main hall.
The museum's exhibition is mostly on the ground level. With one exception: there is also a cellar and a staircase leads down to it. Down there you can find not only the toilets but: right in the loo foyer (is it deliberate humiliation?) several statues and busts of communist
leaders are clustered together, including at least two Lenins
, as well as a selection of propaganda posters. Also on display down here are various Soviet
-era apparatus, presumably surveillance devices or some such sinister electronics of the day, plus a tiny KGB
cell, barely big enough to hold a single person – who could neither sit nor kneel down nor stand up straight. Cruel.
Back upstairs in the main exhibition: in the centre of the hall there is a “wall” made of former prison cell doors along which there is space for temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit in May 2014 it was one entitled “The National Committee of Estonia 70”.
The actual permanent exhibition kicks off with a few stunning exhibits, such as a refugee boat, a sea mine and a metal plate that has a tiny, 1 millimetre hole in it … big enough for KGB
spy cameras to get a wide-angle view through it. At the Viru KGB Museum you can see a camera of that type and check the view for yourself. On the rusty metal plate here, the tiny hole is barely visible even when you look hard for it. If you don't know it's there you'd be extremely unlikely ever to notice it.
Opposite a row of real deportees' suitcases stands an installation consisting of two stylized steam locomotive fronts, one with a Nazi
swastika at its head, the other bears a Soviet
red star. Behind these are two mock “bookcases”, one featuring a Lenin
, the other an Adolf Hitler
. In between hangs a cluster of rusty weapon parts suspended on wires from what looks like a coat stand.
After all these rather more symbolic introductions, the more content-focused part of the exhibition starts at the far wall. This is lined along its entire length by floor-to-ceiling glass display cases chock full of artefacts, documents, photos and texts.
In addition, there is a set of computer/video screens with controls for playing, forwarding, rewinding historical footage as well as survivor/eyewitness interviews.
You could in theory spend hours viewing and listening to all this. However, I found the acoustic overlap of the soundtracks coming from the loudspeakers at the neighbouring video/audio stations quite taxing. I therefore did not play as much of the material as I would otherwise have wanted. Headphones would have been a much better solution here!
Thematically, the exhibition is roughly ordered chronologically from left to right, starting with the brief first Soviet occupation, followed by the Nazi German
occupation and WWII
, and then the long decades of Estonia
as part of the USSR
In a back room there is (or at least was at the time of my visit in spring 2014) a separate exhibition about the life and work of the museum's founder Olga Kistler-Ritso (see background
Back in the main hall there are more display cabinets with Soviet-era artefacts, including ones relating to the 1980 Olympics in Tallinn
(the city hosted the sailing events – see Soviet Tallinn), uniforms, medals, more spying technology, but also everyday objects, including a roll of toilet paper. Anyone who actually visited the Soviet Union in its day, or went to its successor states in the immediate post-Soviet years, will recall that sort of loo roll: it was shiny-glossy, hard and sharp-edged so that when using it you had to take care not to end up with paper cuts on your arse! (No wonder Western loo roll was a prized commodity in the USSR
Amongst the larger objects on display are two Soviet-era cars, two phone booths, a drinking-water vending machine, a stack of old radios as well as set of red flags used in parades during Soviet times.
The balance between information in different media (text and audio-visual) on the one hand, and interesting original artefacts on the other, is very good, as is that between the dark topics and a certain entertainment value given the “retro” look of many of the exhibits.
The gift/book shop has a few interesting items as well and is worth a good look. I bought a set of photos from Patarei prison, a DVD about the Bronze Soldier
as well as a brochure about the Holocaust
(which is something you don't find much about in general).
Overall, the Museum of Occupations has to rank highest in the range of attractions that Tallinn
has to offer the dark tourist. A must-see in this city!
at 8 Toompea, on the corner of Kaarli puiestee (route 8), 10142 Tallinn
, just a few steps south of the city's Old Town.
Access and costs: easy to get to, not expensive.
Details: the location of the museum is central enough, still I managed to walk straight past without noticing it once or twice (when I wasn't looking for it, though). From the Old Town you can either walk straight down from Tompea Hill along the street of the same name that descends from Alexander Nevsky Cathedral towards the southern ring road (Kaarli puiestee) round the Old Town. Or, coming from the lower Old Town, head south on Harju street to Victory Square and turn right and walk west for ca. 250 metres. If you've seen a picture of the museum's striking modern architecture, you won't miss it.
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on public holidays.
Admission: 5 EUR (concession 3 EUR), audio-guide (in English, German, Finnish, Russian or French): 4 EUR. Guided tours (35 EUR) have to be booked in advance.
Time required: from between 45 minutes and an hour or so for a decent look around to several hours for a fully in-depth visit taking in all the material played on the computer/video screens as well.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Tallinn
– the best way of complementing a visit of this museum with something along similar thematic lines would be to go on a Soviet Tallinn walking tour (see also the sponsored page
for EstAdventures), also the modern history museum at Maarjamäe
and of course the Viru KGB Museum.
Further afield in the other two Baltic states, the equivalent museums in Riga – the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia – and in Vilnius
. The latter has the Museum of Genocide Victims
, which is quite a misnomer of a designation as this too is mainly about the Soviet occupation. That was hardly a 'genocide
' while the Holocaust
, which definitely was, is barely mentioned at the museum, even though it raged more viciously in Lithuania than in many other places. Still, the museum in Vilnius is probably the best of three in terms of size, authenticity and original structures, as well as width of coverage. The Tallinn equivalent I would place in the middle, while the Riga Occupations Museum is at least currently (before it moves back to the newly refurbished original location) the least impressive of the three, especially due to a dearth of artefacts and its heavy reliance on text panels.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Tallinn
- Museum of Occupations 01 - modern structure
- Museum of Occupations 02 - concrete suitcases
- Museum of Occupations 03 - inside
- Museum of Occupations 04 - suitcase theme picked up again
- Museum of Occupations 05 - different occupations
- Museum of Occupations 06 - prison doors
- Museum of Occupations 07 - KGB spying
- Museum of Occupations 08 - down to the basement
- Museum of Occupations 09 - Soviet statuary
- Museum of Occupations 10 - Soviet propaganda
- Museum of Occupations 11 - no longer pointing anywhere in particular
- Museum of Occupations 12 - cell
- Museum of Occupations 13 - surveillance technology
- Museum of Occupations 14 - old audio gear
- Museum of Occupations 15 - back upstairs in the main part
- Museum of Occupations 16 - artefacts, photos, documents
- Museum of Occupations 17 - narratives on screens
- Museum of Occupations 18 - Lenin
- Museum of Occupations 19 - Adolf
- Museum of Occupations 20 - SS
- Museum of Occupations 21 - torn
- Museum of Occupations 22 - heavy medals
- Museum of Occupations 23 - old car and phone booth
- Museum of Occupations 24 - Soviet-era phone booth
- Museum of Occupations 25 - Soviet-era drinking water vending machine
- Museum of Occupations 26 - Soviet-era radios
- Museum of Occupations 27 - Soviet-era bog roll
- Museum of Occupations 28 - 1980 Olympics
- Museum of Occupations 29 - past glory days
- Museum of Occupations 30 - Soviet spearhead