Arriving in Tallinn I took the local bus to the city centre and the first thing I noticed was the huge piles of snow. Not only was it piled up several feet high in the centre of the roads dividing the traffic but there were also huge mounds of snow at the side of the road. I also seemed to be the only person on the bus not wearing a Russian style fur hat and gloves. My hostel was just through the gates of the Old Town, so I went for a walk through the cobbled streets. As I walked up the hill the snow had melted because the sun out, it was hard to tell it’s February here!
There is plenty of the old city wall still standing, and it looked beautiful against the backdrop of all the snow and tree branches. The Alexander Nevsky cathedral was enormous and still had the hammer and sickle emblems at the bottom of the crosses on the domes. I went inside and the church was very ornately decorated, there were beautiful detailed chandeliers hanging and lots of silver and gold on every surface. I walked down the hill to the Occupation Museum, Estonia was occupied first by the Soviets, then from 1940 to 1944 by the Nazis, then by the Soviets again! The museum explained that under German rule the Estonian were allowed to keep their traditions and play their national anthem but under Soviet rule they were integrated with the Soviet way of life. Schools taught in Russian and thousands of Russians were resettled into Estonia to try to make it an integral part of the Soviet Union. The displays in the museum were moving, there was a collection of suitcases belonging to Estonians who had been killed and buried in mass graves by the Nazis. In contrast the basement contained Russian statues of Lenin and others celebrating the Russian victories over the Estonian people, which were removed after Estonia regained its independence in 1991.
Next I visited Kiek in der Kok, which sounds very rude! It actually means ‘peek in the kitchen’ in low German, and is called this because it’s a tower of the city walls and from the windows there were clear views into homes just outside the city walls. It was intriguing to learn about the doctors who treated patients with plague, back in medieval times any serious illness appears to have been called plague, probably because diseases spread and killed people so easily in poor living conditions. Estonians had special outfits they wore while treating bubonic plague sufferers so they would avoid catching it. It was a black robe with a hood and a face mask with a long pointy nose section, which was filled with herbs and spices to keep the smell of death out. I also took a tour of the Bastion tunnels, which were a part of the city’s defences. It seemed as though we were underground, however the way the tunnels were built meant they were actually above street level. The tunnels were built on the surface and then covered with deep layers of soil to build up the defences. During the Second World War the tunnels were used for shelter during the Soviet bombing of the Tallinn in 1944, then in the early 1990’s homeless people lived in the tunnels, sectioning them off into separate apartments.
The next morning I decided to do a hop on hop off bus tour because it was difficult to walk far without slipping on the ice, and I don’t have the thigh muscles of an Olympic athlete to keep my legs tensed against falling. As we drove round the city a building built to house the Russian military was pointed out as it is one of the very few buildings in Tallinn that still had mementoes of the Soviet regime. The building had large tall windows with balconies and at the top of the tower on the roof was a Russian star. It seemed the only reason it hadn’t been taken down was because the height of the building meant there were no ladders to reach that high.
The town museum told the story of Tallinn and it’s part in the Hanseatic League of the North European coast. I also learnt more about Estonia under the Soviet regime, after the brutality of the Nazi occupation the Estonians suffered more at the hands of the Soviets. In 1949 thousands of Estonians were sent east to Russian gulags in Siberia because of perceived opposition to the regime. One person told how their stepfather received a 10 year sentence in the labour camp followed by 5 years in exile all because a work colleague denounced him without proof, probably to avoid punishment themselves.
The next morning I took the trolleybus to Kadriorg Park to see the palace built by Peter the Great. The Palace has a large collection of European art as well as still being partially furnished as a palace. In almost every room there was a big stove in the corner to heat the room and most of the were covered in beautiful Delft style tiles from the Netherlands, as is common in other European palaces and historic houses.