Tallinn Explored – Patarei Prison

Patarei Prison - food flap in prison door
Food flap in massive cell door

With Covid-19 confining many of us to our own four walls, either under stay-at-home orders or even under quarantine, it is natural that some feel kind of imprisoned. During last Summer’s visit to the Estonian capital of Tallinn, The Significant Other and I had the chance to visit a truly gruesome place, the Patarei prison, built in the mid 19th century as a sea fortress on Tallinn Bay. Join me for a tour of a real prison and dive into the history of a place that many occupants did not survive.

Patarei Prison - outside view
Patarei prison

The Patarei prison is a scary place. Layers of paint peel off the walls in palm-sized pieces, and the mould paints flowers on the remains of the interior. Patarei is truly desolate. The history of the four-hectare fortress is dark: built during the time when Estonia belonged to Russia, Patarei was used as a prison for the first time during the years of the Estonian War of Independence from 1918 to 1920. From 1941 it was used as a Nazi labour and concentration camp for four years, then as a Soviet prison and, after the country was separated from the Soviet Union in 1991, as an Estonian prison for eleven more years.

Patarei Prison - watchtower
Watch Tower
Patarei Prison - outside prison way
Open prison corridor

Even when the water fortress on the shores of Tallinn Bay on the Gulf of Finland was finally completed in 1840 (after twelve years of construction), it proved inhospitable, not made for people. It was humid, there was no drinking water, and many soldiers accommodated here fell ill with tuberculosis. Today, Patarei is hardly more hospitable than it was back then, on the contrary: the semicircle by the sea is in even worse condition since it was abandoned 13 years.

For visitors this is exactly what makes it so interesting. As soon as they have passed through the rusty gate, they can freely explore the main building. Most doors in the damp and cold building are open, under the crumbling plaster the brick walls are exposed, a musty smell is in the air.

Patarei Prison - hallway
Hallway of isolation cells
Patarei Prison - bed releases
Folding bed release handle
Patarei Prison - cell view
Isolation cell with folding beds

In some cells some beds are still covered with mattresses. The white sheets are long since grey and eaten by moths. On the walls prisoners once carved lines, their calendar for the time in the hellhole.

Patarei Prison - cell block
Hallway in cellblock
Patarei Prison - view into cell
Cell Interior – table and sanitary area
Patarei Prison - interior of cell
Double cell
Patarei Prison - cell beds
Double cell
Patarei Prison - cell toilet
Patarei Prison - cell block view
Hallway with cell doors

In Soviet times, up to 5000 prisoners were incarcerated here. The ground floor houses the facilities where the incoming inmates were processed. Often, 30 to 40 prisoners were crammed into the holding cells designed for just 16 people.

Patarei Prison - main hallway
Hallway in processing block
Patarei Prison - processing cells
Holding cell in processing block
Patarei Prison - wash room
Washing room in processing block
Patarei Prison - processing block hallway
Main prison hallway
Patarei Prison - prison photographer's room
Prison photographer’s room

Many prisoners were kept at Patarei for weeks or months, most of them then disappearing in Siberian gulags, many finding their gruesome end in front of the execution wall in the basement of the fortress.

Patarei Prison - staircase
Patarei Prison - Execution wall
Execution wall in basement

In 1980, all the windows facing the sea have been closed with steel plates – so that the prisoners could not send signals to the participants of the sailing competition of the Moscow Olympic games, which were held at Tallinn. After the games, the plates were simply left on; for the next 22 years, hundreds of prisoners sat in their cells without daylight. In 2002, when the prison was abandoned, there were still 1200 prisoners.

Visiting Patarei prison is an eery experience. It still gives you a clear impression how gruesome life in those prisons in the past must have been.

So when you are under stay-at-home orders or quarantined in your own four walls, and feel yourself kind of imprisoned, think about what the Nazi- and Soviet prisoners had to endure in the hell of Patarei prison.

All images were taken with either my iPhone Xs or the Olympus OM-D E-M1X with the mZuiko 12-100mm F/4.

Wherevery you are and however you are impacted by Covid-19, stay safe and keep the faith. In the end all will be well!

Have a great Monday!


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41 thoughts on “Tallinn Explored – Patarei Prison

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  1. I visited places like these about 1990. It was like stepping into Dachau compared with the penal systems of Sweden and Finland that I had visited before. I feel human pain looking at your photos. Such a hard memory, but good to remember nonetheless.

  2. Definitely looks like a creepy place, Marcus! Like a scene right out of a Stephen King horror novel!! I hope you all are staying well!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment, Amy. It was creepy, visiting this place, but I’m so glad we did. All is well here, only we’re getting tired of being locked down. At least two more weeks to go. I need to see people :-)! Happy Sunday and stay safe! Marcus

  3. We’ve enjoyed visiting Tallinn many times from Helsinki and on our last visit a couple of years ago we tried to visit the prison but it was in a dilapidated state and permanently closed so we could only walk past so it’s good to see your excellent photos of the interior. At least life is not so,bad for us all. Take care and thanks for posting. Marion

    1. You should visit Patarei Prison during your next visit to Tallinn, Marion, it is very much worth it. There is a permanent exhibition about the terrors of communism in the prison, and within the context of this exhibition the main prison block can be visited. Thanks for visit and comment! Happy Sunday! Marcus

  4. Excelent documentary Marcus. Gives me the creeps. There seems to be no end tot the cruelty and sadism of mankind. On the positive side: Your pictures do put our current situation in a sobering perspective. How lucky we are, even when loched down.

  5. I thought Patarei was no longer open for tours (closed about a year ago?) Seems you got there just in time – a truly harrowing place

    1. Hi Sue, Partarei is open for an exhibition (Terrors of Communism). In the context of this exhibition (that’s in the prison) you can visit the main prison building. Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment! Marcus

  6. Great documentation, Marcus, we can not even image what those prisoners had to endure in those times. Staying in between our four walls, isn’t a prison at all, it gives us an opportunity to re evaluate our life style and as well our thinking. Stay safe and healthy.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Cornelia, and for taking the time to visit and comment, much appreciated! Considering, we are all doing well, despite the lock down. Happy Sunday! Marcus

  7. Very interesting. Great photos. I was thinking I loved the black and white photos but then the color photos were just as wonderful. I’m glad you did a mix of both!

  8. Thanks for this fascinating insight into an old prison. Sadly even today British prisons are not so brutal but are overcrowded and insanitary. We humans never really change and cruelty persists beneath the veneer of civilisation.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Nikita, so much appreciated! I believe you are right with your view on today’s prisons. Kind Regards and stay safe! Marcus

  9. What a cruel space, Marcus, to be, to document and to report of.
    My first free association was: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Carceri d’Invenzione, 1760-61
    Second thought: what about the prisoners at the Nazi period?
    Third: I do not remember to having heard of this place before,
    so respect and memory to all the former inmates
    Yours, Bernd

    1. Thanks for commenting, Bernd, appreciate your thoughts. The Nazis used Patarei during their occupation of Estonia just as devilish as the Soviets before and after. The current exhibition at Patarei focuses on the terrors during the Soviet times, that is what we learned about during our visit and what I mainly wrote about. Hope all is well with you during these days! Stay safe! Liebe Grüße, Marcus

      1. Thank you Marcus,
        for your historical background and feedback. What a pity, that most of the commerorations at Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Bergen-Belsen as to the 75 years of liberation could only take place in a small circle.
        Best wishes

  10. What a sober and somber montage. I was surprised to see the checkerboard pattern of the floor tiles. Such a touch of design surrounded by iron doors and steel bars make a stark contrast. A fascinating tour, Marcus.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read an comment. Interesting comment about the checkerboard pattern. The prison was built as a military fortress and later converted. I believe this has something to do with the design. I recently read that the carpets in English sailing warships during the Napoleonic wars had the black and white checkerboard design as well. Happy Sunday! Marcus

  11. Gruesome is the right word alright.
    And the words cruel and sadistic
    Thanks for the perspective, Marcus

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