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Patarei prison

  
 4Stars10px  - darkometer rating:  7 -
  
Patarei 01   watchtowerA Russian-Empire-era former sea fortress overlooking Tallinn Bay that from 1920 was turned into a prison. Especially during the Soviet occupation it became one of the most notorious prisons in all of Estonia. It closed for good in 2002. Since 2019 the east wing has housed a temporary exhibition that by 2025/26 will be transformed into a proper museum.

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

     
More background info: The construction of the site began in the first half of the nineteenth century, when what today is Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. A whole series of such fortifications along the coast was planned, but Patarei was the only one actually constructed. The curved main building held gun emplacements – and the Estonian name “Patarei” actually translates as ‘battery’.
  
However, as early as from 1864, the guns were removed and the complex was turned into an ordinary military barracks. Extra storeys were built atop the former gun battery and more annexes were added.
  
After Estonia’s first gaining of independence in the wake of WW1 and the subsequent War of Independence against the newly formed Red Army of the Soviet Union (see Estonian War Museum), Patarei was converted into a prison. Over the years more wings were constructed by prisoners, including a southern wing and the eastern block of solitary confinement cells that is now part of the museum that is in the making.
  
Then came the first Soviet occupation from 1940-41, when the complex was taken over by the notorious NKVD (the precursor of the KGB). Over the next few months thousands were arrested, locked up in Patarei and interrogated in the basement cells of the NKVD headquarters in the Old Town, before being deported to the gulags in Siberia.
  
When in the summer of 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the USSR and in the course of this occupied Estonia, Patarei was briefly closed as a prison, but soon after taken over by the feared SD (“Sicherheitsdienst” or ‘security service’) of the Third Reich.
   
In 1944 the Soviets were back having pushed the Germans out on their westward advance. And it didn’t take long for the NKVD/KGB to re-establish their political prison at Patarei. Especially in the remainder of the 1940s, tens of thousands were purged, temporarily held at Patarei in overcrowded and filthy conditions (though they were still regarded as better than the notorious KGB Cells in Tallinn) and then deported to the gulags in the east (see also Maarjamäe memorial complex!).
  
Even though the death of Stalin in 1953 ushered in less widespread repression and an end to mass deportations, for the inmates still held in Patarei prison or sent there in subsequent years, the prison regime actually became harsher. Interrogation techniques turned more violent, both physically and psychologically. The communal courtyard was partitioned so there was less freedom of movement.
  
During the Summer Olympics of 1980 in Moscow when Tallinn hosted the sailing events, the prison windows facing the sea were shuttered to prevent foreign participants seeing prisoners inside Patarei.
  
The prison was not only a place of incarceration. Executions (by hanging or shooting) took place here as well. Allegedly the last one was as late as 1991, the year in which Estonia declared its independence from the USSR (see Contemporary History Museum and Teletorn).
  
Even after independence Patarei continued to be used as a prison for more than another decade but was finally closed in 2002. After that discussions started about how to make use of the abandoned and increasingly dilapidated site. Various plans were suggested and dropped, parts of the complex were used for art projects and the former cell tracts became an urbexers’ destination. For a while tours of the inside were offered. Yet Europa Nostra, a cultural heritage preservation organization put Patarei on their list of the most endangered sites in 2016. It was in that state that I first saw Patarei, in 2014, though I couldn’t get inside because the season for tours had not yet started in April.
  
In 2019 the complex was sold and big plans are afoot. One part of the eastern wings of the ex-prison complex have been taken over by the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory. An exhibition called “Communism is (a) Prison” opened for the first time in May 2019. I finally got to see this when I revisited Tallinn in July 2021 – see the report below.
  
However, the current exhibition is only a stand-in for a planned “International Museum for the Victims of Communism” scheduled to open in 2025-26. So I presume the current exhibition will no longer be accessible in the one or two years leading up to the opening of the permanent museum. The outline of the plans for this museum claim that the original structures of the cell tracts will be preserved, but the commodification will be more modern and up-to-date and more design-heavy. I will have to revisit Tallinn (any excuse, really) when this has opened and check out the changes.
   
The rest of the complex is set to change even more significantly. When I was there and walked into the courtyard to the north-west of the prison museum in the east wing, I found pop-up stalls, art installations and a certain relaxed counterculture vibe.
  
But a poster near the gateway gave an “artist’s impression” of what the future of the site is to look like. And I for one found this outlook rather disturbing. Envisioned is converting the entire site into a mixed-use complex incorporating most of the old structures but augmenting them with large glass roofs over the courtyards and it’s all to be turned into offices, businesses, apartments, entertainment facilities and restaurants. In short, it’s to be one of those often rather soulless over-commercialized spaces and will surely lose much of its place authenticity. At least the prison museum is to remain.
  
    
What there is to see: Quite a lot. Here is a description of my visit at the end of July 2021:
  
The first indications you are approaching a prison come as you get to the outer gate at the rear of the complex: rusty metal watchtowers and walls crowned with electrified barbed wire. Through the gate in a wide courtyard, more rusty watchtowers and guard posts can be seen.
  
There are also a few memorial plaques on a wall as well as a free-standing memorial stone, all related to the Holocaust, especially to French deportees who were sent here or to Kaunas and Stutthof in May 1944.
  
The museum part is clearly marked by a huge Soviet red star ringed by barbed wire and a banner that proclaims “Communism is a Prison”! (Interestingly, on the associated website the name of the exhibition is given as “Communism is Prison”, and you have to wonder whether that is simply a linguistic mistake, commonly encountered in countries whose languages do not have articles, such as in Russian too, or whether there is a deeper figurative meaning hinted at here.)
  
The scene is thus clearly set, and as a visitor you know what to expect: an unabashed and forcefully worded condemnation of all things communist. And this is delivered. Throughout the premises text panels in red go through the usual subtopics of violent power grab, purges, repression, deportations, gulags, executions, resistance and uprisings (e.g. in Hungary in 1956, or the Prague Spring) and the eventual collapse of the communist world towards the late 1980s and the end of the USSR in 1991, with Estonia regaining its independence (see also Contemporary History Museum!). All these texts are in Estonian and English.
  
I won’t dwell on the text panels and other commodification elements too much, though, as these are all likely to change by 2025/26 when the new and expanded exhibition is due to open (see above). So instead I will concentrate more on the physical and visual aspects here, which are less likely to be so affected by the changes to come – the museum website states that the character of the cell tracts will be retained.
   
And these cell tracts are quite something. The whole place exudes an incredibly grim atmosphere. It is probably the largest site to provide insights into a Soviet prison anywhere.
  
This starts even before you enter the building. Behind the inner prison wall and opposite the ticket booth, there are two clusters of open-air “tiger cage” cells – individual exercise yards maybe – covered only by wire mesh and overlooked by yet more rusty watchtowers/guard posts. Inside some of the cells life-size silhouettes (of prisoners presumably) on white sheets are attached to the rear walls.
  
Then you enter the gloomy interior of the first cell tract. This is in the easternmost annexe building. Inside are cells for single or double occupancy. Some you can enter, others remain locked. One is illuminated by dim orange electric light, most are almost dark with only a little daylight filtering through the barred windows. Images give a better impression than any words can so I refer you to the photo gallery below. Several cells featured additional text sheets about selected individual stories. It remains to be seen whether these will also be incorporated into the eventual larger new exhibition in a few years time.
  
The exhibition continues upstairs on the first floor of the eastern part of the main sea-facing wing of the former sea fortress (access to the second floor is blocked). The difference to the newer annexe is immediately obvious. This is now clearly a fortress, with high vaulted ceilings and thick walls. The cells are mostly larger and were communal. In one of them this is indicated by a row of wooden two-tier bunk beds covered by more inmate silhouettes – densely packed like sardines. Other cells contain arty installations, yet others separate exhibitions. One I saw in July 2021 was entitled “Communism and Terror” and this was laying the anti-communist stance on even more thickly. Separate panels (sarcastically labelled “honour board”) single out some of communism’s biggest “bad boys”, such as Albania’s Enver Hoxha, Cambodia’s Pol Pot and, of course, the USSR’s Joseph Stalin. Towards the end of the exhibition the originator of all this communist “evil” is named and portrayed too: Karl Marx. A cut-out photo of him sits behind a desk with copies of his writings. A nearby panel states the number of “deaths by country” (some figures are a bit dubious though). The statement that these days there are only four communist-party-led countries left (China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam) strangely absolves North Korea by non-inclusion in this club, and you have to wonder why that is.
  
When I visited there was also a separate small exhibition about the March 1949 deportations, the peak of the Soviet terror in Estonia. This was a simple text-and-photo exhibition in Estonian, English and German. In what way this will be worked into the coming museum remains to be seen.
   
But back to the physical aspects. There are more large cells with bunk beds and by the cell doors there are also peepholes that would have been used by the guards to check on inmates. You can inspect these both from the inmates’ perspective inside the cells as well as from outside, from the guards’ perspective.
   
There are also windowless solitary confinement cells, guard posts along the main slightly curved corridor, administrative rooms, and, especially interesting, the photography section. Mugshots of inmates were taken here. By the entrance to this section are two “holding cells”, also windowless like the isolation cells. Here inmates had to await their turn to be photographed. At the far end long film strips are arranged hanging from the ceiling with countless images of desolate and disturbed-looking prisoners in black and white.
  
At one point you come to a tiled hall where one of the wings towards the south-west branches off. You can peek in, but access is blocked. The same applies to the rest of the main sea-facing tract. Instead the circuit continues down another flight of stairs back to the ground floor. Here a projection highlights the relevant laws that the Soviet gulag terror was based on. Beyond is one final arty installation with a toppled Lenin bust lying in the dirt as its centrepiece … just in case you haven’t got the message yet (which could be concisely summarized as “good riddance to communism”).
  
Then you exit through a turnstile and are back in the large courtyard. So the exit is in a different place to the entrance and once you’re out you can’t re-enter. This may be worth bearing in mind in case you want to refer back to an earlier part of the exhibition.
  
You may also take a look at the section of the former sea fortress that is not part of the current anti-communism museum, through a gateway arch opposite the museum’s entrance. Here you enter a large courtyard between fortress blocks on all sides. This was at the time of my visit a kind of pop-up place with a food stall and various art installations. All this is temporary and awaiting a total transformation into a largely commercialized space – see above.
  
It may be worth noting what has already been lost. This very courtyard used to feature a long row of yet more open-air “tiger cage” cells connected by a corridor and a guard walkway above. You can still see this on photos on Google Maps dated 2014-17 (external link, opens in a new window). Now all of this is gone. Yet more photos there indicate further elements not incorporated into the present museum but formerly part of the 'urban explorations' of Patarei before its ownership changed hands.
  
This includes in particular the hospital tract. There are several highly atmospheric photos of this to be found online. I have a very soft spot for abandoned hospitals, I admit – I’m just fascinated by the contrast between what a working, busy hospital looks like and the eerie emptiness and stillness of an abandoned hospital. That’s why I lament that none of this is incorporated into the exhibition I saw in July 2021. I fear this hospital may be lost entirely already. The same seems to apply to other parts of the interior, including a former library … as well as plenty of artistically very elaborate and high-quality graffiti/murals. I fear all this is also either doomed or already history.
  
All in all, then, it’s not easy to come to an overall verdict. What I found at the current museum exhibition in July 2021 was visually a dark feast, that much is certain. The commodification is in part a bit debatable, but in line with what you have to expect in Estonia (see also Maarjamäe memorial complex). But it’s the parts that are either already no longer there, or doomed, that leave a bit of a bitter taste. And the further outlook is disheartening for anybody like me who places greater value on place authenticity than forced commercialization. I guess that from 2026 I will have to re-revisit Tallinn to see the outcome of all those redevelopment plans. Maybe they’ll pull it off in an acceptable fashion (says the optimist in me), maybe they won’t (says the realist/pessimist in me).
   
  
Location: A bit over half a mile (0.9 km) to the north of the northern end of Tallinn’s Old Town and just to the east of the Seaplane Harbour maritime museum in the Kalamaja district. The entrance to the museum is at the end of Suur-Patarei, the access road that branches of the main northern thoroughfare Kalaranna.
  
Google Maps locator: [59.4496, 24.7429]
  
   
Access and costs: Within walking distance from the Old Town; mid-priced.
  
Details: To get to Patarei you can walk all the way from Tallinn's Old Town. From the northern end of Pikk take the Margareta Gate, cross the large road intersection towards the Energy Discovery Centre and turn left and then right into Kalasadama, which takes you to the eastern end of Kalaranna. Follow that street in a northerly direction past all manner of recent and ongoing developments until you come to a small car park on your right. From here the way is signposted. The car park gives way to a narrow cobbled street, which is the northern end of Suur-Patarei. Through the main gate turn right and the museum entrance is impossible to miss. Note that there is no access to the museum from the seaward side of the complex, nor from the west.
  
There is no public transport directly to the site, but bus line 73 goes along Kalaranna with stops at Kalarand south of Patarei and at Lennusadam to the west, both about half a kilometre (0.3 miles) from the gate to Patarei.
  
Note that the museum is currently open only seasonally between May and September!
  
In season, the opening times are: daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last admission 45 minutes before closing time).
  
Admission: 8 EUR (concession 5 EUR)
   
  
Time required: between one and two hours (depending on how much you want to read of all the text material).
  
   
Combinations with other dark destinations: Right next door to the north-west of Patarei is the Seaplane Harbour with its maritime museum which also features a few darkish aspects. Also within walking distance to the south-east of Patarei is one of the largest Soviet relics in Tallinn, the Olympic Linnahall complex, now largely abandoned (but who knows what plans some developers may have in store for this) – see under Soviet Tallinn.
   
The place thematically most linked to Patarei is the KGB cells right in the Old Town on the corner of Pikk and Pagari Street. This is a branch of the more general Museum of Occupations to the south of the Old Town. Also related are the Maarjamäe memorial complex and the adjacent Contemporary History Museum, both a 20-30 minute bus ride to the east of the centre of Tallinn.
  
For more see under Tallinn in general.
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Mainstream tourism in Tallinn is almost entirely centred on the Old Town, which is within walking distance from Patarei.
  
More developments along Kalaranna and the seafront may provide additional tourist spots in the future. For craft-beer aficionados one such development is already in place. The large brewery and taproom of the international superstars of Estonian craft brewing, Põhjala, is a ca. 2/3 of a mile (1 km) walk west away along Kalaranna on the left (bus 73 stop: Noblessneri).
  
    
  • Patarei 01 - watchtowerPatarei 01 - watchtower
  • Patarei 02 - plaquesPatarei 02 - plaques
  • Patarei 03 - museum entrancePatarei 03 - museum entrance
  • Patarei 04 - clearly stated stancePatarei 04 - clearly stated stance
  • Patarei 05 - electrified barbed wire atop the outer wallsPatarei 05 - electrified barbed wire atop the outer walls
  • Patarei 06 - open-air cellsPatarei 06 - open-air cells
  • Patarei 07 - well watched overPatarei 07 - well watched over
  • Patarei 08 - victim silhouettePatarei 08 - victim silhouette
  • Patarei 09 - insidePatarei 09 - inside
  • Patarei 10 - cellPatarei 10 - cell
  • Patarei 11 - writings on the wallPatarei 11 - writings on the wall
  • Patarei 12 - little view outPatarei 12 - little view out
  • Patarei 13 - cell doorPatarei 13 - cell door
  • Patarei 14 - on to the next sectionPatarei 14 - on to the next section
  • Patarei 15 - another cellPatarei 15 - another cell
  • Patarei 16 - grim corridorPatarei 16 - grim corridor
  • Patarei 17 - so SovietPatarei 17 - so Soviet
  • Patarei 18 - illuminated cellPatarei 18 - illuminated cell
  • Patarei 19 - non-illuminated cellPatarei 19 - non-illuminated cell
  • Patarei 20 - more upstairsPatarei 20 - more upstairs
  • Patarei 21 - upstairs partPatarei 21 - upstairs part
  • Patarei 22 - central guard positionPatarei 22 - central guard position
  • Patarei 23 - isolation cellPatarei 23 - isolation cell
  • Patarei 24 - packed like sardines in a communal cellPatarei 24 - packed like sardines in a communal cell
  • Patarei 25 - more grim corridorsPatarei 25 - more grim corridors
  • Patarei 26 - peep holePatarei 26 - peep hole
  • Patarei 27 - peeping throughPatarei 27 - peeping through
  • Patarei 28 - room 101Patarei 28 - room 101
  • Patarei 29 - exhibitionPatarei 29 - exhibition
  • Patarei 30 - installationPatarei 30 - installation
  • Patarei 31 - yet more grim corridorsPatarei 31 - yet more grim corridors
  • Patarei 32 - photo labPatarei 32 - photo lab
  • Patarei 33 - inmate photosPatarei 33 - inmate photos
  • Patarei 34 - holding cells for photographeesPatarei 34 - holding cells for photographees
  • Patarei 35 - decorative tilesPatarei 35 - decorative tiles
  • Patarei 36 - off-limits partPatarei 36 - off-limits part
  • Patarei 37 - guess who is blamed for it all ...Patarei 37 - guess who is blamed for it all ...
  • Patarei 38 - stairs back downPatarei 38 - stairs back down
  • Patarei 39 - projectionPatarei 39 - projection
  • Patarei 40 - Lenin in the dirtPatarei 40 - Lenin in the dirt
  • Patarei 41 - exitPatarei 41 - exit
  • Patarei 42 - parts of the Sea Fort for other usesPatarei 42 - parts of the Sea Fort for other uses
  • Patarei Sea Fortress in 2014 - harbour viewPatarei Sea Fortress in 2014 - harbour view
  • Patarei Sea Fortress in 2014 - rearPatarei Sea Fortress in 2014 - rear
  • Patarei Sea Fortress in 2014 - with Seaplane Harbour museum in the backgroundPatarei Sea Fortress in 2014 - with Seaplane Harbour museum in the background
  
  
  
  
  
  

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2009-2021

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