17 June 2009
Today started off innocent enough. I got up, dragging my feet, but finally made it out the door. I grabbed some Indian food for lunch before heading to the Estonian State Maritime Museum.
I tried to fanagle my way in with my drivers license, but the ticket lady was keen on my ploy and made me pay full price, which was still only US$4.50.
The museum is located at the north end of Old Town in the 15th century cannon tower Paks Margareeta, literally Fat Margaret. The inside of the museum has several floors with a central stair case, making excellent usage of space. I thought it was quite cool. The top of the tower is also open to the public and provides a very nice view of Old Town and the surrounding area.
I headed back down so I could walk to the pier to visit the second part of the museum. And this is where I discovered something rather interesting.
At the turnoff for the museum ships, I saw a rather cool looking gate. I went to go take a picture when I noticed that there were some signs pointing the way to a park. So I decided to go investigate.
The area was very…industrial…in nature and I decided that it must be some sort of old military installation. As I wandered down the rabbit hole more, there was an old lady who started yelling at me.
She beckoned me over; and I obliged, not wanting to get into trouble. She was selling tickets for something, although I wasn’t exactly sure what for. But, it was only 30 kroons1, so I went for it.
She gestured to me what I’m going to assume is the international sign for hanging…as in executing someone by hanging. Great.
I walked in, alone. The ground floor was labeled “Prison Kitchen.” I stepped every so lightly and cautiously. There was minimal lighting, mostly from the barred windows. In places were there was insufficient light, I used the flash from camera; daintily taking a picture around the corner before reviewing the results on the tiny LCD screen.
A rather rambunctious group of Russians teens came in behind me. It was good knowing that my screams for help would at least fall on someones ears, presumably.
I carefully stepped up to the second floor, and that’s where things began to get weirder. All all throughout the first floor, little bits of paper were glued to the wall with jokes. Some in English, others not. Then there was the doorway, stacked to the ceiling with pots. Another stacked to the ceiling with books. What the hell was going on?!
I continued on. Rooms filled with beds…abandoned.
At the end of the hall, a surgery room lined with stark white tiles. The surgery table is left abandoned in the middle with a surgical light overhead. A notebook is ready to tell the tales that the walls refuse to give up. However, it’s been encoded in a different language. A heart-lung machine sits ominously in the corner. I can only imagine the atrocities that could have gone on here.
I go to the third floor, wondering if I’m pushing my luck too far.
The doors to many of the rooms are closed. Some with locks on them, others just refuse to open. This door has a port on it like you might find on a submarine. Who did they keep here?
Noises of someone coming up. It’s an Israeli woman who’s taking pictures for an art project. She’s decked out top to bottom in a red and black jump suit, carrying a large format camera on a tripod in one arm; a ring of keys in the next.
Single bed rooms; many with paint peeling.
A plain room with a desk, a chair, and a couch. Perhaps for a psychiatrist?
A communal bath and shower room.
Another room with a metal bed attached to the floor. The smallest table I’ve ever seen sits across from it with three tiny seats.
I’ve reached the end of this part. I go back down the stairs and outside, absolutely thankful to breath the fresh again. Confident I’ve picked up some sort of horrible disease (although I was careful not to touch anything).
I have no idea exactly what this place was for, but I do know two things: it must have been horrible and there’s no way in hell I would ever want to be trapped here.
I go into another building, a sign outside proudly announces: Poomisruum…Hanging Room. This must have been what the old lady was talking about. I was quite sure how they managed to hang people in the room, although I imagine it had something to do with the floorboards being removed.
Leaving the hanging room, I proceeded to the prison yard. Nothing terribly exciting. A stark concrete cell outside, completely fenced in. A bench in the middle. I wonder how often people got to use these.
I left the prison area (I was mostly convinced that’s what it was at this point) and went to go find the boat museum. By time I got there, though, it was closing time. Oh well, the prison was much more interesting.
I headed back towards the hostel, stopping at a grocery store to pick up some staples for dinner and breakfast the next morning.
As for the prison.
I had stumbled into what I later found out was Patarei Prison. It was built between 1829 and 1840 (yes, mid-19th century) as a military barracks. It was later converted for use a prison during the Soviet occupation for much of the 20th century. Essentially, Patarei was a KGB prison where they “held, tortured and killed political prisoners”2
This makes some sense, as the KGB headquarters in Tallinn was only a short 20 minute walk away, perhaps only 5 by car.
Basement windows of the former KGB cemented up to prevent screams from being heard
As for the mysterious artwork? There’s an explanation for that too. A joint Finish-Estonian project between the University of Art and Design Helsinki and the Estonian Academy of Arts. It runs through the end of August 2009 in case anyone else is interested.
I was also able to dig up some blog posts to help fill in the blanks; definitely worth a read:
- A traveler visits the prison on January 10, 2007: Patarei prison
- Another traveler visits on August 2, 2007: Locked Up in Estonia