Like most cities that once formed part of the Soviet empire (whether as a member of the USSR
itself or one of the Eastern Bloc
received its share of the stamp of communism
. The era left behind Soviet relics ranging from typical architecture to socialist realist
artwork and propagandistic statuary. In Estonia
, the post-Soviet clean-up, in the zeal to clear away all reminders of that chapter of history, was particularly pronounced. So there isn't that much left in that category for dark tourists to see. But some traces can be tracked down if you know where to look – or better still: go on a specially-tailored guided tour!
What there is to see:
Two highlights for those in search of relics of the Soviet
era in Tallinn
are given their own separate entries here:
The latter was also part of a guided tour that I went on when I was in Tallinn in late April 2014. The tour is entitled “Soviet Tallinn – Back in the USSR” and is run by EstAdventures
– see the sponsored page
for this company here
! I highly recommend this, because otherwise you may miss many a detail.
The main stops on the tour as outlined below can also be found unguided, but not all of the smaller details are so noticeable, and you would certainly lose out on the accompanying stories that put it all into a proper connected context. So for once I'd say doing this on a guided tour is better than doing it on your own. I won't give too many details and stories away here, just a few main points:
The tour started at the Sõprus building
on the edge of Tallinn's Old Town. Partly because it is an easy spot to find, and partly because the building itself, a former cinema built in the early 1950s, i.e. in Stalinist
times, is a prime example of Soviet
architecture still left in this city today. Just look up at the facade and spot all those Soviet stars!
The walking tour then continued to the building in which the Writers' Guild used to meet during Soviet times to discuss politics – it is still a cafe, now a modern capitalist one of course, so you could come back to have a coffee there yourselves and ponder the change of times …
Also still within the Old Town is the former KGB building
. Unlike its counterparts in Tartu
, Riga and Vilnius
, the Tallinn KGB
building has virtually been stripped of its old associations. The interior has been converted into luxury apartments, and except for a small marble plaque on the outside wall there's no indication whatsoever of the building's former function. Moreover, the plaque is in Estonian only so you wouldn't have a clue what it says if you (like virtually all tourists here) do not know the language. The text translates as: “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.” Note the bricked-up windows at basement level – behind these were the KGB prison cells! The story goes that the KGB themselves bricked these windows up so the screams of those interrogated inside could not be heard in the street. Allegedly there had at one point been talk of making a museum out of this basement too (as in Tartu
), but so far (in 2014) nothing has come of that. So the site remains rather silent and abstract.
UPDATE: this has changed! The former cells have meanwhile been opened up for the general public and there are guided tours, run by the Occupations Museum
. I'm planning a return trip to Tallinn in late May 2020 and will try to incorporate this in my fieldwork. Watch this space ...
The next significant stop on the tour was at Linnahall
. The name literally means as much as 'town hall' but that is quite misleading. What it actually is is a large event location complex built for the 1980 Olympics (which mostly took place in Moscow
, of course, but Tallinn
was the venue for the sailing competitions – hence!). On the tour, the guide showed us pictures of what it looked like back in the day, and these contrast rather starkly with the appearance of the place today. Neglected and mostly abandoned, the cheap concrete that the complex was built from is slowly crumbling away, the paving is cracked and the whole thing looks closer to a ruin than anything remotely functional. It's too big to simply demolish, it seems, so it's just left there – to rot. If you are like me and actually get a special kick out of looking at a) dereliction and b) shoddy socialist designs and construction practices, then this is quite a cool place! Needless to say, most Estonians prefer to simply ignore its existence (except for the graffiti sprayers, of course, who see it more like a free-for-all canvas).
We then headed back towards the centre, only not to the Old Town but rather the more modern part to the east. We walked past the Viru Hotel (see KGB Museum
), a former Valuta shop that is completely window-less (so that normal mortals could NOT see the wares on offer to only those privileged enough to have access to foreign currency), a former ministry building (where a Lenin statue used to stand) and Soviet- era apartment buildings. Of the latter we were shown the difference between "elite" and "normal". The elite building is grand and topped by a Stalinist-style tower that – remarkably for Estonia
– still features its spire with the Soviet
star at the top.
We then caught a bus from the Viru Centre underground bus station and travelled out to Maarjamäe for the Soviet memorial complex there – see the separate entry here
! The highlight of the tour there was seeing the abandoned communist-era statues in the back yard of the modern history museum!
Back in the centre, we were taken to a cafe that is still as close to the Soviet style as is currently possible to find, which meant that it was cheap, the range of food and drinks on offer very limited and very old-fashioned, and the service splendidly stern and smile-less. Bring a little tongue-in-cheek “masochism” and you too will love it.
The final bits of the tour took us to Victory Square where the last few stories were told, recommendations for further things to see were offered, then we parted. It was a great half day with a great guide. Highly recommended!
The added value of the guiding really makes it worth it, even though you could theoretically see many of the spots described above on your own just as well. But the guide not only told fascinating stories and put things into a historical background context, he also had a folder of old photos making for a before-after effect that you would not get on your own.
The tour was in English (with a native speaker – namely an Australian in our case, as the tour was led by EstAdventures
' founder who originally hails from near Melbourne). And it was friendly, fun and delightfully off-mainstream in the style of delivery … i.e. very personal and attentive, instead of pre-packaged learned-by-rote speeches, let alone that awful microphone-and-headphones set-up you see so often in mainstream city sightseeing tours. None of that here. It was more like being shown round Tallinn
by a friend in his/her home town, who also happens to be an expert on Soviet
Location: various spots in different parts of the city, here's a selection with Google mpas locators:
Access and costs: The sites themselves are mostly freely accessible at any time, but the guided tours run only at certain times or by special appointment; given how much you get out of them, they are very good value for money.
You could walk to most of the locations mentioned here from anywhere within the city centre of Tallinn
, except the Maarjamäe memorial complex
, which requires a bus ride. If you go on the guided tour described above, this bus ride will be included in the price. The rest is a walking tour.
The “Soviet Tallinn – Back in the USSR” tours offered by EstAdventures
) are normally scheduled for 2 p.m. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, between May and September only. That's the usual high season for tourism in Tallinn. The cost per person is 15 EUR (9 EUR for children under 15). In addition to these regular tours, private tours are also available (and cost varies per group size to a maximum of 300 EUR for a group of 10). Things may be flexible, though. When I enquired I was able to get a tour before the beginning of May and for the regular price, even though in the end nobody else other than my wife and me had signed up for that same date. The exact itinerary of the tour is also negotiable and can be tailored to special interests/requests.
The Soviet Tallinn walking tour by EstAdventures
that I went on is officially scheduled to last three-and-a-half to four hours, but we were “on the road”, so to speak, for well over four hours, including a short afternoon/late lunch stop at a cafe. Adding on the Maarjamäe museum
and the Bronze Soldier
could make this a whole day of thematic sightseeing. I would not, however, recommend doing the Occupations Museum
and the Viru KGB Museum
on the same day too, as that may overstretch anybody's limits of concentration. Better split your Soviet Tallinn explorations over at least two days.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Apart from the Maarjamäe memorial complex
that is already part of the guided tour described above, the Bronze Soldier
is also an important relic of the Soviet days. EstAdventures
also offers longer tours by minibus outside Tallinn to places as far away as Paldiski, the formerly closed Navy city for the USSR
's Baltic nuclear submarine fleet (see under Tallinn – dark combinations
), and en route back to Tallinn
a stop by the Bronze Soldier is included. But you can also track it down on your own.
Of course, another significant offering for those trying to find bits of the Soviet legacy, the KGB Museum tour at the Hotel Viru is not to be missed. The Soviet Tallinn walking tour has a stop outside the building too, but to get the full picture, you have to go on the hotel's own guided tours of their museum.
too is (partly) linked to the Soviet era – and again you have to go on their own guided tours to see the inside and hear the stories. Otherwise you can only view it from the outside and peek through the fence.
The most commodified offer in Tallinn relating to the Soviet times is the Occupations Museum
. This focuses mostly on the repression under both the Nazi and the Soviet occupations of Estonia
, but in the cellar there are some Soviet statuary and socialist realist
propaganda posters as well as a few other intriguing artefacts from the time.
Further afield, a day trip to Tartu is worth it for the grim and intriguing KGB cells museum
in this otherwise cheerful student town.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Tallinn
- Soviet Tallinn 01 - Soprus cinema
- Soviet Tallinn 02 - star relic
- Soviet Tallinn 03 - writers meeting point
- Soviet Tallinn 04 - former KGB building
- Soviet Tallinn 05 - bricked-up cellar with cells
- Soviet Tallinn 06 - Linnahall
- Soviet Tallinn 07 - built for the 1980 Olympics
- Soviet Tallinn 08 - now largely abandoned
- Soviet Tallinn 09 - no more yachting
- Soviet Tallinn 10 - Soviet-era elite housing estate
- Soviet Tallinn 11 - Soviet star still in place
- Soviet Tallinn 12 - Ministery of Foreign Affairs - sans Lenin statue
- Soviet Tallinn 13 - windowless former valuta shop
- Soviet Tallinn 14 - another star
- Soviet Tallinn 15 - if you look closely you can find quite a few