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We rose late-ish, and went out for breakfast. Misha and I had coffee and kebabs at a 24hr kebab box (whose keeper spoke Russian, but not English); Rog regarded this as Sick, and went for the little café round the corner instead. Once again, it was bright and breezy as, once again, we strolled past the glass security box outside the shuttered US embassy. I’m sure we’re on a watchlist now.
On the north shore, three very large, very different Russian structures stand silhouetted against the blue Baltic: the Linnahall, Patarei Prison and the seaplane hangars. Leaving the Old Town, walking past the little archery range next to the massive northern bastion, we espied the Linnahall, an enormous brutalist ziggurat of broad staircases and desolate plazas. It was once known as the V.I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport, and is now crumbling and clearly unloved; the only parts still in use are the car park and the jetty, where the fast ships to Finland dock. There were a few people wandering around it, clearly as bemused as us as to why this thing even existed; a young English couple overheard us talking their language and asked if we knew any beaches round here. We shrugged, professed ignorance, and indicated the fairly rocky Tallinn coastline and the catamaran to Helsinki.
Heading west along the coast we stumbled across an open-air fish market, with more dried mackerel on display than you could shake, well, a fish at, and snacked on some little salty strips; then continued along a road which turned into a road-to-be, beds of heavy-grade aggregate lined with fresh new concrete kerb pieces. As it turned back into a road a few hundred metres away, we passing a young father with a pushchair, heading the other direction, about to make a terrible mistake.
Patarei prison was also very reminiscent of a fortress, but that wasn’t a coincidence at all, because it was built as one. From above, the thing looks like a child’s drawing of a boat, a curved hull with a triangle sail sticking out of the top: the curved outer edge, which faces the sea, was built to be full of casemated artillery, the triangle inside containing barracks, ammunition, secondary defences against a landward attack, etc. Our shambling walk across the building site had taken us to the wrong corner, and trying to find a way through the high walls and barbed wire, we found only found a monument to French Jews deported to Estonia and murdered there during the war. Eventually we worked our way around it and found an entrance; the place was full of graffiti, and felt thoroughly run-down and achingly bohemian. A shack down by the water, on the little sandy stretch between and fortress and the sea, sold drinks and T-shirts to a mixed group of tourists, working men and local hipsters; the t-shirts turned out to be useful, as a bird had just crapped on Rog. We sat for a while under a parasol, watching little sparrows taking dust baths, and huge multi-coloured cruise ships coming and going from the port.
An Estonian took our money (on whose authority, god knows, but we didn’t feel like arguing), and inside, the prison was cool and damp and fearsome. Nothing remains of the original military fittings; most of the gun casemates have been converted into cells, six or eight bunks with a tiny horrible squat toilet/shower unit in one corner, all locked up behind a serious steel door painted blue and stencilled with the cell number. The end of one wing had a creepy operating theatre, still with hypodermics and bits of smashed up autoclave lying around; the end of another had a lovely little library, with welcoming wooden shelves and a mural of the great moustaches of European literature. On the walls of most cells, prisoners had taped up magazine and newspaper clippings; women were occasionally in evidence (one individual cell’s occupant clearly had a massive thing for Dana Scully), and one guy had a whole bunch of tea and banana stickers, but the main theme on display was cars –not even fancy cars, just really boring generic ones (the Citroen Xsara was a mainstay in many cells, to Rog’s intense disgust.)
As a big empty building redolent with symbolism, the prison attracts street art like a pond attracts scum. Highlights included a lovely Art Deco woman at the top of a staircase, welcoming one to hell; a room full of strings on which someone had hung paper aeroplanes; red stencils on a staircase insisting that the spirit of Marx and Lenin; and a bunch of random fire extinguishers hanging on one landing. The graffiti intensified the higher we got; on the top floor, it had reached the status of full-blown Art Installation, covering entire rooms with things which ranged from trite “countercultural” white noise to some really quite accomplished and evocative pieces. Looking down into the courtyard, we could see the little concrete boxes with barred roofs where prisoners could take the air. The execution chamber was quite small, plain, and quietly disturbing.
Back out into the warm midday air, we walked to the seaplane hangar. It’s a modern museum done right: a glossy, blue-lit marriage of shedloads of EU heritage money to a legitimate one-in-the-world curio. The hangar buildings, built as part of the network of Baltic defences in the final years of the Russian Empire, are of an (at the time) incredibly futuristic concrete shell construction, and are absolutely unique. After the Battle of Tsushima, Tallinn was the cornerstone of the new Baltic defences protecting St Petersburg; its cornerstone, laid by the Tsar himself, indicated exactly how seriously they took these things.*
“There’s one like that at the Lester Aldridge building in Bournemouth! It was laid by Michael Heseltine.”
“Hezza isn’t exactly Nicholas II, though.”
“They shot him, and poured acid on his face so no one would recognise him, and threw his corpse down a mineshaft.”
“There’s still time!”
We had a pricey but tasty lunch in the cafe, enjoying our tea and the weird sight of a full-sized submarine inside a building, before proceeding. A catwalk took us through a suspended exhibit of buoys through the ages, traditional fishing boats and “ice yachts”, lethal-looking little combinations of ice skates and sails, before descending to the ground floor. Digital displays provided thoughtful and well-translated information about everything on request; best of all, our ID cards had little RFID tags in them which let us email particular articles to ourselves for later reading. The military history component, a mixture of big explanatory boards and hefty cast-iron sea-mines, with the huge submarine Lembit looming above it all, was fascinating, and didn’t suffer at all from Estonia’s military history consisting mainly of “having invaded and overrun all of Eesti in a couple of hours, the Russians/Swedes/Finns/Germans then built this really cool thing”, or, at best, “lacking the industrial capacity to build much fancier than a signal buoy, the Eestis bought this cool thing from the British.” So it was with the lovely replica Short biplane hanging from the ceiling, and the Lembit itself, built in Barrow-in-Furness, annexed into the Red Banner Baltic Fleet during the Soviet invasion, ending up rusting up a creek in Nizhny Novgorod (!) until a group of her old Russian crewmen banded together to get her restored as a museum ship. The interior has been very carefully put back together; like HMAS Diamantina, it’s a real labour of love. Above it, a curious line of gun turrets (with most of their barrels replaced by wire skeletons, the originals sabotaged in wartime or melted down for scrap) were backed by a surreal and deeply upsetting anti-war mural, many-armed monsters with clockwork arms and guns for eyes picking up and devouring hapless little top-hatted people by the dozen.
Back into the welcome sunlight again, we toured the harbourfront: a line of old Soviet torpedo boats and military sundries sat on the quay, and all four ships of the Estonian Navy were currently moored behind the museum; minesweepers, with yellow torpedo-like sweeping equipment on their grey decks.** Dwarfing them all was the antique icebreaker Suur Tõll, which our tickets let us explore; it reminded me somewhat of the Mikasa (which is fair enough; they were contemporaries.) Eesti health and safety sensibilities are definitely more Eastern European than Scandinavian, and we got to climb around the engine room, scurry around on the bridge and almost brain ourselves on fuel hoppers in the shadowy furnace rooms.
The three giants of the Tallinn coastline couldn’t be more different, in style, history or current status, and each tells a different part of the story; the vast icon of Communism, newest and largest yet rejected and irrevocably dead; the abandoned fortress turned abandoned prison, a beautiful carcass crawling with symbols of old horrors and new hopes; and the pristine, expensive collection of relics, so thoroughly European in character – it appears to be a celebration of the past, but is more than anything an icon of the future Estonia wants to be part of.
* In 1904, with the Russian Pacific Squadron either bottled up in Port Arthur or wrecked in the Yellow Sea, the Tsar sent his Baltic fleet to fight the Japanese. After spending a hilariously awful six-month naval comedy-of-errors sailing all the way around the world, Togo annihilated this “Second Pacific Squadron” at Tsushima in a matter of hours – the Mikasa was his flagship. With St Petersburg now undefended, the Russians decided sealing their capital off behind minefields and guns was the best option until they’d rebuilt their fleet.
** Which is perfectly fair. and practical One or two corvettes can achieve nothing against anyone – you may as well take the Danish approach*** – but mines still litter the Baltic, and are still lethal after all these years.
*** “Denmark does not need a military. Denmark needs an answerphone which says ‘we surrender’.”