After spending a day wandering around Old Town Tallinn, which was fantastic, we decided to check out the Patarei prison, which is now a tourist attraction.
What is Patarei?
Built in 1828 for Tsar Nicholas I, the Patarei Sea Fortress has operated as an artillery battery, barracks, and finally a prison. It was operational until 2004, and is a sprawling building right on the Baltic sea, a short walk from the Old Town, the ferry/cruise ship port, and the sea plane terminal.
It’s most notorious period was during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, when it operated as a KGB run prison for criminals and political dissidents.
All that sounded interesting to us…we’ve toured prisons before (including Canada’s famous/infamous/notorious Kingston Penitentiary just a few weeks ago). We’ve seen WWII sites and Cold War sites. We’d just been to Tallinn’s Museum of the Occupations, detailing the history of Nazi and Soviet occupations of Estonia during the 20th century. But to some extent, all of those are polished a bit for the tourist masses.
Patarei was not. While it is possible to do an organized tour, we just showed up and wandered around ourselves. It literally feels like they put a ticket booth out front, opened the door, and let you in.
The complete lack of information boards, except for one shown below, almost added to the creepy feeling of the place. The grey stone walls towering above us were imposing, the overgrown pathways symbolized the neglect that I’m sure any prisoner here felt.
Inside the prison, we could walk down long corridors, past crumbling walls, rusting steel doors, and mounds of debris. The sheer size and scale of the prison was intimidating.
While some rooms were empty, others still had bunkbeds where prisoners were held, 30 to a room. Articles of clothing were still strewn about.
In the yard, the “outdoor recreation” areas were little more than cement cubes, with 10 ft high walls. Now overgrown with weeds and trees breaking through the concrete floors.
The prison hospital, little more than a couple of rooms, looked more like a set for a Saw movie than anything used to heal the sick.
The most ominous part of the prison came inside one of the doors off the courtyard. A small sign indicated the “hanging room”. Just a small room with a single chair and a hole in the floor, covered with a few boards, left little to the imagination.
Graffiti of Patarei
Graffiti covered the walls throughout the prison. Granted, it was sometimes hard to tell what was from the times of the prison vs what has come since. We had the feeling that the prison must have been abandoned for years after it closed, and was likely used by squatters before opening as a museum. That extra layer of history almost adds to the feeling of despair that pervades the entire area.
Walking around the museum, there was little sound. Visitors, including ourselves, seemed to wander the corridors in silence, ducking into darkened rooms where you needed a flashlight to explore. There was a constant feeling of uneasiness that you could sense from everyone – that sort of “we shouldn’t be here” type of feeling.
We probably spent an hour exploring. Our imaginations definitely filled in the blanks left by the lack of information provided, but that almost added to the experience. You could imagine the pain, suffering, and death that occurred inside those walls.
It was a completely different experience than we had expected, and different than most of the experiences we’re having on this trip. And we were ultimately glad to leave, but also glad we went.
See the Patarei museum website here.