It was a chance discovery, or serendipity in other words. In 2015, I was in Tallinn, capital of Estonia for a visit and top on my agenda included a visit to downtown Tallinn (now declared a UNESCO heritage site), Hotel Viru (more on this in a later post) and a trip to Helsinki with Tallinn as the base. I would stay for seven days at a hostel located in the city’s downtown area. I intended to take a peek into the lives of Soviet era survivors, and their lives post the stern rule of the USSR. Growing up the Soviet Union almost always made it to newspapers, capturing my imagination. This world still remained shrouded in mystery to me. The prison, therefore, was a Must Do on my travel list.
It was a casual conversation in the dinner hall with fellow hostel mates that the name Patarei Prison sprung. The sound of the name and the intrigue associated with it led me to dig for more information about the prison. Further enquiry revealed that it didn’t find a mention in brochures that often decorate entry to travellers’ hostels across the world. The brochures are more to do with touristy places that travellers often visit and places that are off the beaten path are ignored.
The hostel coordinator announced that a visit to the prison could become a reality but at a premium. The desire to see the inside of a prison whose history dates back to 1840 and which was active as recently as 2002 was overwhelming. The condition that was laid upon was that he knew a person who could make it possible but he needed a minimum of five people with 20 Euros apiece. A deal was immediately struck and the visit was fixed for the next day. Now Tallinn is not a big city and adventurous people can traverse the city on foot. From the hostel, the prison was a comfortable 20-minute walk. After a ten minutes’ walk, a desolate stretch begins which is dotted with warehouses and Patarei is located at the far end. If you are lucky you might spot some people. Till date, this part of town feels desolate and deserted.
The now dilapidated prison greets you with its mammoth imposing weathered iron gates – testimony to a tumultuous history. When we reached the location, the gates were locked and it took a few phone calls for the tour guide to arrange keys to the prison gate. After a restless fifteen minutes, the keys finally arrived. Once, we five were inside the prison, it took a moment to sink in that the location that the Russians had chosen for this prison seemed apt. It was by the Baltic sea and an escape from the prison might be a daunting task with harsh chilly winters that can freeze you to death. On the edge of the sea, there was no getting out. It was a robust construction and the detailing of the prison seemed pitch perfect. Since the prison does not feature on the local tourist map, it was evident from the stillness that not many have visited this location of historical importance. Despite being constructed in 1846, the paint layer seemed fresh and intact on the walls.
Strikingly, there were drawings made by prisoners on walls of the prison and on wooden tables. Everything looked surreal and intimidating. When we visited the prison, it was just before dusk and a majority of the prison, spread over four hectares, looked like a set straight out of any Alfred Hitchcock or John Carpenter film. It was both calm and scary at the same time.
It was tough to see the chambers of the prison that was earmarked to torture prisoners. The tables that had gathered dust for years in the chambers had metal instruments, the very sight of which could evoke fear in the hearts of even the strongest one. (the interior of the Terror museum in Budapest shares a similarity with the torture chambers at Patarei). Most of the rooms were locked but thankfully the guide had keys to a few. Each cell looked more sinister than the previous one. The cells that faced the ocean had small windows and it would be tough to imagine what would have happened to the prisoners when cold winds blew over the Baltic during winter. Heiti Talvak, Jaan Isotamm and Jaan Kross were some notable names who were imprisoned in Patarei.
The history of the construction of the prison is as interesting as the prison itself. After being part of the Swedish empire, Estonia finally became a prized Soviet possession in 1710. It was then that the thought of fortification of its Baltic territories crossed Russia’s mind. The grand plan was to make four forts but in the end only Patarei could be completed in 1840. One could easily gauge the size of the prison with its capacity of 2000 prisoners apart from prison officials. The prison was active as recent as 2002 and during the Czar and the Nazi rule it was synonymous with terror. Even as empires changed hands, their space for incarceration and subjugation of the human spirit remained intact over centuries.
Patarei is a testimony of the terror that was unleashed by Nazism and Communism during the 20th century and of horrors that Estonians were subjected to by the Soviets. It’s been six years since I visited the place but a major portion of the prison was destroyed in 2017 due to a storm post which was declared as an endangered site by Europa Nostra. Last heard, the prison has been closed since then and there is a little chance that it will see visitors again.