Aaron and I had one full day in Tallinn, Estonia. Gert set up a private tour of the Patarei Prison that closed in 2005. He told us it would be different and nothing like we had experienced! Once again, he was right!
I don’t even know where to begin with what I saw and the stories I heard from our “tour guide”. I will give it a shot and hope to portray a glimpse into my experience that afternoon.
Gert set up a 2pm appointment at the Prison. We arrived at the prison and I was a little confused because there was not a public parking lot for tourists. We just waited along one of the abandoned snow covered roads outside the prison walls. I was assuming this prison would be like a tourist attraction in the States. You pay a fee, get a guided tour with a head set amongst other visitors or just walk around reading little bits of information posted along the “route”. This was NOT the case. This is not a prison that is open to the public. One has to set up a private tour and right now the prison is for sale in hopes that an affluent investor will come along and create something urban for the waterfront property. The government does not want to put money into keeping it an historical site. After seeing the prison, I am saddened the Estonian government will not preserve the Soviet-era structure.
Our tour guide (Aaron and I cannot remember his name) was an interesting Estonian who lived on the premises. He spoke english with a heavy Estonian accent. I had a hard time understanding him throughout the tour. He makes Indian Teepees for a living and his workshop is within the prison walls. I found it creepy and when I asked if there were any weird ghost stories he encountered, he did not give me a straight response and he would not answer my question! Haha! We all laughed over this, but we all knew he had a mind full of interesting stories!
We started the tour entering through an old iron green gate. Our tour guide had his ring of keys that he pulled out and proceeded to unlock the gate. We entered a courtyard of sorts. He pointed to the smaller of three trees in front of us and said, “Just behind that tree was were a prisoner was hung every morning! The guards didn’t care who it was, they just wanted to hang someone every morning.” Welcome to the tour! Ha! Eerie!!!
We stood there for a moment in silence as Aaron and I were trying to process what he just said to us! Really?! Estonia became independent from the Soviets in 1991, so the thought that this prison was used so recently was troubling. This prison was heavily occupied during the Soviet reign. It housed many prisoners who were politically outspoken against the Soviet Regime.
We proceeded to the outdoor exercise rooms. When a prisoner was in good standing, he or she (yes, there were female inmates) could have fresh air. This meant sharing a six foot by 8 foot stone room with maybe 10 other inmates and their exercise was walking in a circle. I have seen Hollywood movies depict this exact activity. There was no roof to the room, just barbed wire so no one would try to escape from top. This seemed impossible because there was a large walkway that the guards patrolled on the rooftops of these exercise rooms. There was a long stretch of the rooms on either side of the guards walkway. I think our tour guide said there were 10 open air exercise rooms that were used.
Our guide then had us enter the prison as if we were being admitted. He took us to each room that was used for different purposes. For example, there was a room where prisoners removed all belongings, a room to sign the papers understanding the rights of the prisoner, a holding room until a cell could be found, a room where pictures and measurements were taken, etc. One interesting thing about the prisoners signing the admittance papers was that if a prisoner refused to agree with the reasons for his/her imprisonment, they would be taken to the next room where small lockers were located. These lockers were like an American High School locker but a little deeper and shorter. So, maybe 20 inches deep and only 5 foot high. The prisoner would be left in this locker until he would consent to signing the papers. This was very painful because the prisoner could not sit down or stand up. It is like doing wall sits for minutes, hours, sometimes days!
It was incredible to me that papers, empty beverage cups, sheets, pillows, etc. are all still throughout this prison. Nothing has been cleaned up and not much has been looted. It was as if the prison shut down in the night and everyone disappeared. In fact, some of the prison cells were still in tact, with pictures hung on walls, sheets on beds, etc. It was a strange feeling to be in that prison!
I don’t think I can share some of the stories our guide told us concerning what took place in the cells. Awful and terrible stuff! Some cells housed 16-20 prisoners in a room that was fit for 10. The influence of the Soviet occupation of Estonia was evident in some of the stories that were shared.
I forgot to mention that there was no electricity, which meant darkness. Rooms that did not have natural light were pitch black and our guide had a tiny lamp he would shine so we would not trip over anything and we could make our way through the prison. At one point our guide walked ahead of Aaron, Gert and I and he started slamming the prison doors like the one pictured above. All three of us jumped and I let out a scream! It was so loud!!! Our guide was demonstrating what the prisoners would hear and how they would know someone was coming or going. My heart was beating a little faster after that!
We also were shown the visitation rooms. One room was what we all see in the movies, with the see thru divider separating the prisoner from the visitor. Also, there was a tiny room where visitors got to enter and sit with the prisoner for very short periods of time.
The worst was the walk to the shower rooms. Our guide told us that each week if a prisoner had behaved properly he would have the privilege of taking a shower. The guards would line the prisoners up and proceed in a straight line down a floor to the shower room. Usually, a guard would randomly grab one of the prisoners from the line and hold him back. The rest would proceed to the showers and the one prisoner was taken to the execution room. The prisoner would be presented before a panel of 3 or 4, i.e. warden. This prisoner would not know what was happening. He would be taken into another room where he was asked to stay and a gun was placed in an officers hand, who would then have to shot the prisoner. This room was painted red. We were told it could not be cleaned up properly so the government painted over with red paint after the prison closed. The other prisoners never knew what was happening. They just thought that if you were called to shower you might have a chance of leaving and being released. The prisoners that were executed, obviously, never returned to their cells so other prisoners thought it was a good thing. So there was always excitement on the days the prisoners were told they could shower. Horrific!
In the above picture, the stairs on the left are the stairs the prisoners would come down to shower. The open door is where the guard and the “chosen” prisoner entered for questioning and execution! So morbid!
As we were leaving the prison, our guide told us some stories of a few of his friends that had been imprisoned for political reasons under Soviet rule. We then asked him if he had ever been a prisoner and, again, he would not answer the question! Gert thought he was teasing us, but Aaron and I think he was saying more without saying anything! This prison trip was so interesting for us!!! I was so intrigued by the history of the prison and the stories that were shared. I felt like I became part of that history just by walking those hallways and those floors. I am sure in years to come it will no longer be a prison, but perhaps a shopping mall. I find it such a shame that it will not be preserved for history’s sake. I do a lot of reading about the Holocaust and WWII, so now I want to read more about this part of Europe that was effected by WWII and its’ Soviet occupation!