Wintery Holiday: Part II

Baltic States (continued)

December 20, 2018 – January 2, 2019



Estonia shares a similar history with Latvia, one we saw at the recently expanded and rebranded Vabamu Museum of Occupation. (Vabamu is comprised of the Estonian words for freedom, ‘vadabus’, and museum, ‘muuseum’)

Being high-tech, the museum offered audio guides cued to automatically begin when standing in front of each display; yet, similar to Riga’s museums, excellent English signage practically eliminated the need for it with the exception of four videos describing life during the Soviet rule.

Several rooms highlighted the deportations and life in the camps with artifacts, such as the prisoners’ desire to create a semblance of normal life by making greeting cards out of any scraps they could find…

and a jacket worn by a young boy who worked in a camp’s production shop (the left side of the jacket was worn away by his leaning against his worktable)….

One startling item was a small poison tab appearing in the resistance exhibit covering the partisans forces.

These were used by infiltrators who would slip these into fellow partisans’ drinks in order to subdue them for capture by the Soviets. A survivor explained it best (I apologize for the blurriness): 

Having spent time in Riga’s Museum of Occupation we already had a pretty good idea of the fifty years of misery in these Baltic countries, so it was a relief to read some dark humor shared by Estonians during this period, two of which are below:

“What are the three kinds of victories of advanced socialism? Food is kind of scarce, Queues are kind of long, Life is kind of shitty.”   –   “Who is a communist? The one who has read Marx and Lenin. Who is an anticomunist? The one who has read Marx and Lenin and actually understood them.”


After spending an hour learning about the terror of Soviet rule, we walked into the area covering “The Singing Revolution.”

The name reflects Estonia’s love of song, a trait shared by Latvia and Lithuania. In Estonia the first Song Festival was held in 1869 arising out of the growing sense of patriotism. It was the only cultural activity conducted in the Estonian language (Russia forbade use of the country’s native language during this time). And, if the official program didn’t feature Estonia’s national anthem, the audience would often sing it anyway. 

With Gorbachev’s easing of restrictions in the 1980s Estonians become more vocal in their push for independence. The Estonian National Independence Party is established in 1988. At the Song Festival the same year, special patriotic songs are composed, sung and broadcast live on radio.

In 1989 the ‘Baltic Way’ occurs, a peaceful protest involving all three Baltic countries.

By 1990 the Estonians are negotiating with the USSR to transition to independence. With no solution reached as of January 1991 protests occur throughout the three Baltic countries, with deaths and injuries in Riga and Vilinus (capital of Lithuania) yet none in Tallin. Negotiations begin anew, with Gorbachev holding a referendum asking Estonians what they want. 77.8% vote for independence.

On August 19 a coup begins in Moscow to prevent Gorbachev from signing a union treaty that would make Russia a confederation. Soviet hard-liners thought it would break the USSR into independent states, hence, the attempt to stop the signing. The coup extends to Estonia with Soviets trying to seize power there. The local authorities call for resistance by asking people to gather at symbolic and strategic locations–Toompea (Tallinn’s castle), the TV tower, the radio station:

People! Come to the defense of the TV and radio Building! Leave women and children at home! No pointed tools or uniforms!”

Estonia claims independence on August 20. The next day Soviet troops, without using force, try to take the TV tower but are unsuccessful.

Independence is declared by Estonia on August 21, 1991. Called The Singing Revolution due to the use of patriotic songs during the 1980s in defiance of Soviet rule, all three of the Baltic countries managed to obtain their revolution through non-violent means. By 1994 all Soviet troops had withdrawn from the country.



Although this museum as well as Riga’s provided excellent information regarding the occupations between 1940 and 1991, nothing beats the power of a first-hand account. Which is what we received during our tour of KGB Offices in Tallinn’s Viru Hotel.

Constructed by Finnish engineers in 1972, this Tallinn hotel served as a showcase of USSR to all foreign visitors (the only ones allowed to stay there) and a convenient way to capture foreign currency. It also had a top floor, the 23rd, of which no one spoke but which everyone knew was the KGB’s office for monitoring everything that happened on the premises.

We joined a small tour group led by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. She escorted us to the top floor where we entered two rooms.

The first was the hotel manager’s office with all of the contents relocated from a lower floor and placed exactly as it had been the day he left in 1991. He had a direct line to the KGB office (the faceless one on the desk) which shouldn’t have been surprising considering anyone in that position would be a puppet of the Soviets.

She then ushered us into the actual room used by the KGB. Like the manager’s office, this room remains in the state in which it was hurriedly left.

One exception was a glass case displaying tools of the trade, such as a cufflink microphone.

But, the hotel seemed to be built for microphones as they had been placed in lamps, vases, ashtrays, even inside dinner plates (!). And, of course, the walls had cameras and the floors had hall monitors. In short, the guide’s description matches exactly what you’d find in any Russian spy thriller.

In some instances, the hotel visitors playfully acknowledged the spying. The guide mentioned how one guest checked in, went to his room, then loudly said ‘One, two, three… I’m just giving you a sound test.’ Needless to say, short conversations were the rule.

To work here provided benefits for the locals. Of the 1,000 employees for the 839 guests, the floor monitors made out the best. They managed to trade with the guests and received ‘gifts’ to look the other way. Yet, an atmosphere of fear pervaded the hotel. Which is expected considering the unmentioned occupants of the 23rd floor.

But, what truly made this tour exceptional were the anecdotes shared by our guide. She told us how her grandmother as a young mother was arrested for singing a song and sentenced to 15 years forced labor in Siberia (the family was relieved it was ‘only’ 15 and not the the typical 25 years). With the death of Stalin she along with others received amnesty and eventually was able to return to Estonia.

Another example of Soviet rule was the story of a young girl who wore white socks with blue and black stripes, the three colors of the Estonian flag. The school sent the girl home and called the mother into a meeting to be interrogated about why she let her child wear those socks. They questioned the mother’s ability to properly raise a child; and, since all children belonged to the state, she easily could have lost her daughter. And, this occurred when our guide was attending school in the 1970s.

We asked our guide afterwards if she had been able to participate in the Baltic Way, the human chain of 2 million people that ran from Tallinn to Villinius via Riga. She said she had had a unique opportunity to travel to Helsinki and was unaware of the plan, but her parents did manage to join the line. Wondering how 2 million people knew about this plan, the guide said work places spread the word and assigned groups to specific locations. People without an assigned location travelled the line until they found a gap to fill.

When we asked if anyone was afraid to participate in these demonstrations, our guide said by then the Soviet reins were loosening, emboldening people to speak out. 

We wish we had been able to take her out for a drink because we had other questions we wanted to ask. One being was she worried about Putin annexing parts of Estonia like he did the Crimea in Ukraine. We felt she would have given us an honest and unfiltered answer. Something she couldn’t have done 35 years ago.

Tallinn’s KGB CELLS

We decided to do a quick visit to the cells where Tallinn’s KGB held its prisoners 1941-50 opposite its headquarters.

Located in the basement to muffle sounds of interrogation (i.e., torture), five or so cells including some isolation ones served as a temporary prison where those incarcerated were either executed or sent to Siberia.

Very little information was presented, although I was fascinated by a video with a sand painter depicting Soviet imprisonment.

If short on time, I wouldn’t recommend this site due to the scarcity of information.


One we would definitely add to anyone’s visit to Tallinn is the two-part Memorial to the victims of Soviet occupation. ‘The Journey’ represented by a long corridor banked by brutally stark walls listing the over 22,000 who died under the communist regime.

‘The Garden’ places you in a peaceful setting surrounded by apple trees and bees, the latter referenced in an inscribed poem on the wall referring to Estonians returning like bees to their hives.

Ironically the new memorial is located right next to anther one, part of it pictured at the beginning of this post: the  Memorial  to the Fighters for Soviet Power raised during the Soviet Occupation and now left to deteriorate.*

*Tallinn may not incur the expense to remove it. In 2007 a night of rioting occurred with the removal of another Soviet memorial (the Bronze Solider depicting a Soviet Warrior with 13 Red Army graves). Erected in 1947 it commemorated Russia’s victory over the Nazis. With over 25% of Estonians being of Russian ethnicity, it became a rallying point for youths to protest. 


To complete our immersion into Estonia under the USSR, we travelled to Narva, the most northern and easterly Estonian city that faces Russia across a narrow river.

The cold weather and gray day made a perfect backdrop to view this city. Being a Sunday most places were shuttered, which only added to the gloomy atmosphere. As we traipsed block after block of stark buildings, the city lived up to its reputation as a ‘good’ example of Soviet architecture.

Our one tourist attraction was the castle built by the Danes in the 1370s.

Narva’s fortress faces Russia’s Ivangorod Fortress across a narrow stretch of the Narva River. Gazing across Max mentioned this may be the closest we’ll ever be to Russia.

We paid the small entrance fee then dutifully checked the few rooms of exhibits, one featuring huge cannon balls…

another, casts of Peter the Great’s face (the white one being his death mask), which actually appear to make some of his protraits accurate depictions…

and climbed the 51-meter tower where we saw views of the Estonia-Russia border crossing and Russia in the distance.

Completing our tour of the fortress we began making our way back to the train station. The cold only enhanced the depressing feeling when walking in this city.

The one feeling of warmth was our welcome at the Tourist Information Office. Other than that and a few smiles from some of the employees at the fort, Narva was a destination we were looking forward to leaving.

The grim train station reinforced this feeling. I wish I had snapped some shots but I didn’t, so here’s one grabbed off the Internet:

As the third largest city in Estonia one would assume the station would be manned on a Sunday  and have a semblance of comfort. Wrong. The only people at the station were either dour passengers or family/friends of passengers. And, in spite of being a gray day, no lights were on in the one waiting room. Furthermore, the short hallway into the restroom had been haphazardly boarded off with a half-sheet of plywood. Welcome to Narva.

Adding to my level of concern was the atmosphere in the waiting room as more and more people began to position themselves to be the first to run out on the platform as soon as the train arrived. Not having return tickets with any guarantee of seats and now knowing the only way to get one is on the train itself created a bit of anxiety as neither of us relished the idea of a night spent in Narva.

Some brisk, impersonal shoving began as the doors opened as we joined the dash to the train. Yet, once aboard we looked around and saw plenty of free seats, which only made us wonder what the rush was all about?

And, that was a perfect ending to our exploring how life during the Soviet Occupation had affected Estonia.

Coming up… holiday festivities begin…