I’m nearly 50. I grew up on spy movies & novels, so the former Eastern Bloc has always held a fascination for me … It’s the dark place, they’re the bad guys are; although the hero usually escapes to the bright lights of the West.
I’ve been to the eastern side of the former iron curtain only once before: Sarah & I had a fantastic short break in Berlin maybe a dozen years ago … we stayed in a very groovy hotel, we had some friends living there who took us to see all the groovy bars & introduced us to mojitos, I got to see Check Point Charlie. And what European city – especially for someone from a warm country – doesn’t look brilliant under a light blanket of snow?
But Tallinn was our first trip to one of the former Soviet Socialist Socialist Republics.
Ok, I know the Sovs left Estonia in ’91, so I wasn’t really expecting glowering border guards studying our passports and begrudgingly letting us pass, but I was almost disappointed not to even have to show the damn thing (it was an internal European flight). Luggage collected, and a 10 minute taxi ride later we were at the hotel. Too easy.
We had a wander around the old town .. like Brugge, but a bit shabbier, just as many tourists being led like sheep from place to place, and then it was time for our #cycling tour to begin. We did the Funky Bike Tour that promised to show us all sorts of things outside the Old Town.
Former Soviet era factories that have been taken over by artists, former Soviet era factories that are derelict (and that’s being generous), Soviet era apartment blocks from various “Glorious Five Year Plans” (interesting to see they got crappier as time when on) and the high point (I think that’s the right thing to call it), the Tallinn jail.
I’ll give you the history, as I remember it. I’m sure I’m not 100% right on the dates, but if you’re really interested, you’ll google the place and leave a correction in the comments.
Built, originally by the Tsarist Russians as a seaside fort in the 1860’s, over an underground river, the soldiers who were there until about 1920 complained from day one about the damp. And the first thing we noticed on walking into the kitchen area on the ground floor was the chill (it wasn’t a cold day, and I can’t begin to imagine winter), the smell (damp) and funnily enough the wet floor that apparently never dries out. The feeling of damp lasts as least as high as the 3rd floor.
Wars, independence, all sorts of other things happened, soldiers were finally moved elsewhere and it became a prison, which the Soviets put to good use when they moved in to “protect” Estonia from the Germans in 1940. The Nazis used it during WWII, then the country, and the jail, returned to Soviet hands at the end of the war.
It was used by the Sovs until they packed up and headed east in ’91.
But the really shocking thing is the Estonians kept using it until 2004 or so, then it was derelict for a year or two, punks & artists squatted for a time, and finally it’s become a tourist “attraction”. Oh, and you can hire it out for functions & rave parties.
We saw the kitchen, interview cells (one for lawyers, one for psychiatrists); the hospital – complete with an operating table and dentists chair (I’ll never complain at the dentist again, I promise), cells .. 16 men lived in each, I’m it not going to try to describe them; exercise yards, maybe 3m x 4m (but only if you’d been good) and on it went. I decided I didn’t need to see the capital punishment room.
Chilling to think what it must have been like for the warders, who left for home every day, much less the poor inmates.
I’ve been to Old Melbourne Goal, which closed in 1929. You wander around, amazed at the tiny cells thinking “it closed nearly 100 years ago, things are much better now”. Tallinn’s jail was still in use 10 years ago. I don’t want to sound to trite, but imagine the nastiest jail you’ve seen in a Hollywood movie, and multiply by 100. You’ll be getting close.
A set of 40 or so pics are on my Flickr stream.