EVEN AMONG THE three former Soviet satellite states known as the Baltics, themselves a curious amalgam of Central European, Scandinavian, and former-Soviet culture, Estonia is an anomaly. Unlike Latvia and Lithuania to the south, its language is on the outlying Finno-Ugric tree, meaning it has more in common with Hungarian than with Latvian or Lithuanian. Its proximity to Helsinki across the Bay of Finland makes it closely economically linked to Finland, with Estonian workers ferrying north in search of higher wages, Finns ferrying south for cheaper booze, and both countries exemplifying aspects of Nordic culture while remaining apart from the core Scandinavian countries both linguistically and historically.
The specter of its Soviet past, from which Estonia only gained its (most recent) independence in 1991, looms vastly to the east. Russia is also intricately woven into the fabric of modern Estonia, with ethnic Russians making up nearly 40% of the population, and approximately 10% of the population speaking little to no Estonian. The former masters now make up much of the Estonian underclass, occupying much of the blue-collar sector – just as Estonians do in Finland.
As in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the Baltic states saw their fortunes rise and fall numerous times over the course of the 20th century. And much like their fellow former Soviet satellites in Southern Europe, there remains a substantial portion of the population who remember soldiers and tanks in their streets, and can be understandably protective of their new-found freedoms and tenuous national identities.
And just as in the former Yugoslavia (with its hundreds of spomenik, the bizarre, geometric war memorials that dot the landscape), memorials in the Baltic states are an especially sensitive subject. The Communist governments in both the Baltics and Yugoslavia went on a spree of monument-building in the decades after WWII, which, when the ruling paradigms collapsed in the early 1990s, became fraught symbols of a tangled past in the power vacuum of the present. While some of the monuments in these regions were destroyed and others were moved or built around, most have been simply left to age themselves into obsolescence. When the material is concrete, however, the aging-out game can be a long one.
1. Tallinn TV Tower
The Tallinn TV tower, in the forested northeastern district of Pirita, was built in 1980 to boost the city’s broadcasting abilities during the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A hulking example of Soviet-style brutalism at its most sci-fi, it mirrors analogous structures found across Eastern and Central Europe. Interestingly, Tallinn’s tower played a unique role in breaking the final grip of Soviet rule: when troops still loyal to Moscow’s hardliners came to claim the tower, workers barricaded the interior stairway, holding them off long enough to see the moderates hold power, soon followed by Russia’s complete withdrawal from Estonia.
The TV tower holds a unique place in the pantheon of former-Soviet monuments, with the structure itself playing a role in the fight for independence. As such, it has been reclaimed as a national symbol, and remains in relatively pristine condition, with a museum at its base and daily elevator rides to the top.
2. Maarjamäe Memorial
Maarjamäe is a highly fraught memorial, even for a country with as complex a history as Estonia. Hulking menacingly over Pirita Tee, the shoreline road that leads from central Tallinn to the northeastern Pirita district, it is actually an amalgam of multiple structures built at different times. The oldest part of the complex is a German cemetery, destroyed by the Soviet government after WWII and only renewed in recent years. It consists of a broad, grassy field, occasionally interrupted by small groupings of different-sized stone crosses, as well as a newer memorial path that pays tribute to those who died under communist rule.
The obelisk at the south end of the complex was built in the 1960s to honor Russian soldiers killed during a military operation all the way back in 1918. An article in the Eesti Rahvusringhääling describes the dramatic event:
The obelisk commemorates the so-called Ice Cruise of the Baltic Fleet, the evacuation of Russian warships from Tallinn to Helsinki and later Kronstadt to get them out of the Germans in February 1918. The operation followed an order by Vladimir Lenin and meant moving more than 200 ships including several heavy cruisers across the partially frozen Gulf of Finland.
The much larger, arena-like concrete complex to the north was completed in 1975, and honors Soviet troops killed during WWII. Though it’s technically a condemned structure that is officially closed to the public, it nonetheless hosts a steady stream of visitors on sunny days, and offers a picturesque view of Tallinn Harbor.
A wedge-shaped vertical column on the north side of the plaza holds a dolomite pyramid, upon which once stood an “eternal flame” that has since been removed. A ghostly pair of disembodied hands, carved in deep relief, floats above the pyramid, still warming themselves over the absent flame.
Finally, across Pirita Tee, a geometric sheltered walkway approximately 100 meters long sits directly on the shoreline. Once intended to be part of an even larger memorial, it was left isolated when the project was abandoned, and now appears as a strangely isolated shoreline bunker, with weeds growing from its cracked concrete roof and smatterings of graffiti on its walls.
3. National Library of Estonia
Looming over the gently sloping streets of Tönismägi in west-central Tallinn, the National Library is the newest structure featured here: it was built between 1985 and 1993, meaning its construction began under Soviet rule and ended in a newly-independent nation. Housing over 5 million volumes, it serves not only as a symbol of Estonia’s identity, but also as an active community hub, with numerous reading rooms, exhibitions, and events.
Set on a hill, it features some of the same multi-level stairways, driveways, and doorways as Linnahall (see below); unlike that structure, however, it is generally well-maintained, and its height hazards feature prominent signage.
Directly across the street to the northeast is a small, nondescript park known as “Liberators’ Square” during the Soviet era. The removal of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, a Soviet memorial, from the park in 2007 was highly controversial, leading to two nights of rioting in Tallinn and a week-long protest outside the Estonian embassy in Moscow.
Linnahall, a massive former stadium just north of the harbor, is a crumbling time capsule of 1980s Soviet architectural hubris. Like the TV tower to the east, it was built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The structure features numerous stairways, platforms, and multi-level entrances, an epic promenade featuring dozens of blue lampposts, and a seaward-facing entrance complete with a working helipad and a metal-awninged lounge.
As with so many Olympic buildings worldwide, the sudden departure of spectators led to the hall’s inevitable decline and eventual closure. Like Maarjamäe, the hulking structure with its various multi-level entrances and Escher-esque stairways offers an impressive view of Tallinn Harbor and the Bay of Finland. Unlike the memorial, however, the outer structure is still open to the public – though the entrances are well-secured with welded rebar and barbed wire.
Though the main structure still maintains its monumental solidity, at its edges the complex is visibly crumbling into the earth and water,. Trees and grass sprout through cracked concrete, and former structures have been washed away by the tide, leaving only phantom pilings behind. This premature aging makes the site feel almost ancient, and gives it an uncanny, temple-like timelessness that belies its late-Cold-War origins.
All structures featured are reachable by Tallinn city transit. Enter unmarked or restricted areas at your own risk.