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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!