2 March 2014

Problematic built heritage and dark tourism: Patarei prison

Patarei is an unusual 'attraction' in the picturesque Baltic city of Tallinn, which raises a number of questions about the presentation of problematic heritage. The story of the building reflects the complex relationships between Estonia and Russia over the last couple of centuries; its survival is delicately balanced between different narratives of the past, and different visions for the future.

General view of the first courtyard of Patarei prison from the entrance.
The original 1830s ‘lunette’ is in the background; to the right are later additions made during the 1860s;
to the left are later additions built by the prisoners in the twentieth century. Photograph copyright Paul Belford.

After almost two centuries as part of the Swedish empire, Estonia came under Russian rule in 1710. Russia planned an ambitious series of fortifications to protect all of its Baltic territories, although little was achieved on the ground in Tallinn in the short term. Grand plans were drawn up in 1791, but it was not until 1829 that work began on one of four intended forts; in the end Patarei was the only one to be completed (Treufeldt 2005). The main building was completed in 1837, with the rest of the complex operational by 1840.

It was a self-contained fortress housing over 2,000 people: there were officers’ apartments, soldiers’ barracks, an infirmary, bakery and kitchens as well as the various magazines and artillery emplacements. Officially called the ‘Defence Barracks’, locals came to call it the ‘Battery Barracks’ (Patarei kasarmud), eventually shortened to ‘Battery’ (Patarei). Problems arose almost immediately. Underlying springs caused damp, although ironically there was insufficient drinking water until a well was completed in 1847; steam and smoke from the ground-floor kitchens also damaged the ordnance (Treufeldt 2005). Consideration was given to abandoning the site altogether, but it proved to be a useful deterrent during the Crimean War. In 1854 and 1855 a joint Anglo-French naval operation attacked the Russian navy (and its forts and supply chain) in the Baltic; the Russian fortress at Suomenlinna (near Helsinki) came under heavy attack and the Russians were forced to retreat to land-based forts, of which Patarei was one of the most important (Greenhill and Giffard 1988). From 1864 Patarei became an ordinary barracks, and improvements were subsequently made to the accommodation. In 1869 the seaward gunports were converted to windows, improving ventilation. In 1892 the main semi-circular range (lunette) was raised to three storeys, and a Russian Orthodox church was established in one of the casemates. In 1899 a new bakery and kitchen range was built (Treufeldt 2005).

The later nineteenth century had seen a ‘national awakening’ in Estonia and other Baltic states, the pace of which increased after the first Russian revolution of 1905. Estonian autonomy was granted after the second Russian revolution in February 1917, but elections were thwarted by the third Russian revolution in October and the subsequent German occupation. The withdrawal of German troops in November 1918 was quickly followed by a Red Army invasion; Estonian troops eventually won the War of Independence, and in 1920 the Treaty of Tartu marked the beginning of the new Republic of Estonia. It was at this time that Patarei was turned into a prison (Kuusi 2008, 109). Extensions were built by the prisoners using limestone blocks and prison-made concrete and roof tiles; these comprised an eastern wing of 48 solitary cells in 1932, and a southern wing accommodating 500 inmates in 1934 (Treufeldt 2005).

Corridor on the third floor of the ‘lunette’ building. Doors give access to former artillery emplacements,
converted to barracks in the 1860s and then used as cells in the twentieth century. Photograph copyright Paul Belford..

Patarei’s most notorious period – and the one with which it is still most closely associated today – began with the first Soviet occupation of Estonia from June 1940. The prison came under the jurisdiction of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD (Hinrikus 2009, 520). Within months 8,000 people had been arrested and deported; a further mass deportation of ‘socially foreign elements’ began in March 1941, and it is estimated that around 100,000 people (nearly 10% of the population) were lost during this period (Rahi-Tamm 2005, 26-28). In June the German Army invaded, beginning a brutal occupation which quickly crushed any initial hopes of liberation. In 1944 the Red Army recaptured Estonia, and so began the second Soviet occupation, which lasted until 1991. There was considerable resistance, including the ‘forest brothers’ – a loose affiliation of up to 30,000 resistance fighters who remained active into the 1950s (Rahi-Tamm 2005, 31).

Patarei was one of two prisons in Tallinn that served in effect as clearing houses whilst prisoners were investigated before being sent to the Gulag. These investigations could last days, weeks or even months, but were extremely rapid in the early years of the occupation when the lack of accommodation in Estonia meant that it was preferable to send prisoners to Siberia as quickly as possible (Rebassoo 2008, 4). Interrogation mainly took place at the notorious Pagari Street in cramped, dark, filthy and poorly-ventilated cellars, with prisoners subsequently moved to Patarei. Hillar Tassar, a civil engineer, was in Patarei in 1948 and 1949, before being moved to Vorkuta to work in the mines: ‘The difference between Patarei and Pagari prisons was like day and night. In Patarei … the cell was a room with a vaulted ceiling in an old naval [fortress] with a window opening right on to the sea. In stormy weather the wind blew spray into the window’ (cited in Hinrikus 2009, 173).

1840s artillery emplacement subdivided in the 1860s, and then used as a cell –
containing 16 beds in 8 bunks, and typically housing 30 prisoners. Photograph copyright Paul Belford.

Nevertheless conditions were cramped. Cells with 16 bunk beds were often made to accommodate 30 people (Anon 2008, 2). Hilja Lill was in Patarei during the winter of 1945-1946: ‘…up to 25 people were crammed in a cell meant for seven. We slept like herring in a tin, heads against the wall, feet jumbled together. For food we were given 400 grams of bread a day, a teaspoon of sugar, fish-head soup’ (cited in Hinrikus 2009, 49). Another inmate, one of the ‘forest brothers’ recalled that in solitary confinement the daily ration was only 300g of bread and cold water (Hinrikus 2009, 136). Heljut Kapral, a musician in Patarei during 1945, remembered shaving using a piece of glass, and ‘we made needles from a piece of bone salvaged from our soup, also using a piece of glass … After the evening roll-call a regular feature of the daily schedule was mutual delousing’ (cited in Hinrikus 2009, 135).

Despite the conditions, prisoners in this early period had relative autonomy. They tended to be housed together with people from their own areas or groups, and were able to make use of the open yard for exercise (Anon 2008, 5). Kapral recalled how the majority of men in his cell ‘had a university education’ and put together a schedule of lectures and discussions: ‘my assignment was to familiarise my cellmates with the basic principles of making an atomic bomb, since I had just passed my examinations in physics and chemistry’ (cited in Hinrikus 2009, 134).

The death of Stalin saw a change in the climate of the relationship between Estonia and the USSR, with many deportees being allowed to return home. Policy adjusted from mass repression and deportation to more targeted approaches (Rahi-Tamm 2005, 32). For the inhabitants of Paterei the consequence was a hardening of the regime.

The formerly open courtyard, viewed through later twentieth-century guardhouse windows;
the yard below is enclosed and subdivided into small, closely-observed cells. Photograph copyright Paul Belford.

Whilst prisoners in the 1940s were able to say that interrogations there were ‘rather polite’ (Hilja Lill , cited in Hinrikus 2009, 49), or even ‘polite and reasonable’ (Heljut Kapral, cited in Hinrikus 2009, 134), it is clear that later questioning techniques involved psychological and sometimes also physical violence. It is possible that sexual violence was also deployed as an interrogation technique against women (Kurvet-Käosaar 2009, 76). Despite the installation of central heating and flushing toilets in the 1970s, this period also saw the formerly open courtyard partitioned into small cells, and freedom of movement curtailed (Anon 2008, 5).

Tallinn hosted the sailing events for the 1980 Moscow Olympics; the sea-facing windows of Patarei were clad with steel ribbing to prevent eye contact between prisoners and foreign sailors (Treufeldt 2005). Executions were frequent; by shooting and by hanging – the last execution took place in 1991 (Anon 2008, 4).

The hanging room. The trapdoor and stepladder (the hook in the ceiling is out of shot)
provide a grim reminder of the function of this room, last used in 1991.
Photograph copyright Paul Belford.

In 1988 the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration was issued, and the next few years saw a flurry of activity as a new ‘national awakening’ sought to revive the Republic of Estonia. On 20th August 1991 Estonia’s independence from Russia was ‘confirmed’ (the argument that this was a continuation of the 1919-1940 Republic was a powerful tool in avoiding Russian reprisal); and three years later the Russian army withdrew.

Patarei prison closed in 2002, although the infirmary remained open until 2005. This period saw considerable debate around a plan to use the building as the future home of the Estonian Academy of Arts – for some an ideal solution, but an expensive one which was politically contentious (Treufeldt 2005). Instead, in September 2005, the complex was opened as a temporary museum by the Museums of Virumaa; however it almost immediately closed after safety concerns, and although re-opened in early 2006 the Museums of Virumaa withdrew from the project in July (Kuusi 2008, 109-110). The site has subsequently been operated under a public-private partnership as a ‘Culture Park’.

Under the ‘Culture Park’ regime the site has been used for music and arts events, with the main building complex largely left untouched. Initially tourists were offered a variety of lurid ‘prison experiences’, but more recently this has been toned down; there is an optional guided tour, but most visitors pay a simple €2 and undertake a self-guided ‘urban exploration’. There is no formal interpretation or guidebook, little in the way of signage, and an almost total absence of any health and safety. In many ways this is a refreshing approach, and results in a haunting and ultimately moving visitor experience. However the emphasis is very much on the ‘Soviet prison’ aspects of the history of the site, with former roles as barracks and fortress very much downplayed.

The long-term future of Patarei remains in the balance. At the moment it offers a unique ‘dark tourism’ experience, providing a brooding and haunting symbol of Soviet occupation and repression which in a way echoes the role of Auschwitz-Birkenau in relation to the Nazi regime. Clearly it cannot remain abandoned and unmaintained forever – it will either fall down, or become unviable as a tourist destination – even if for the very niche ‘dark tourism’ market which it currently attracts.

However development of the site needs to proceed with caution. The authorities are keen to upgrade the area (they have recently built an excellent new maritime museum next door), and are actively trying to sell the site. It failed to attract a buyer earlier this year, and has been withdrawn from the market whilst interest is sought from the public sector (Ilves 2012). Various suggestions for future uses have been put forward, including any or all of a communist crimes museum, an Estonian War Museum, police, security police and firefighting museums; the Defence Minister has also recently suggested that the complex could ‘also include catering services and a creative incubator … it will open up the sea to the city, clean up the urban space and improve the seaside city's image’ (Ilves 2012). However buildings archaeologists should be concerned; already significant elements of the post-1940 complex have been demolished without record to enhance the site’s perceived value to future developers (Roman 2011).

At the moment Patarei remains a unique and largely unexplored document which encapsulates much of the last 200 years of Estonian history. It is a delicate and remarkable testament to some very painful aspects of recent history. It would be a shame to see it lose that patina altogether, but it is also crying out for sensitive and nuanced conservation.

This is a mildly edited version of a short article originally published as: Belford, P. 2013, 'Patarei Prison, Tallinn: problematic built heritage and dark tourism', Institute for Archaeologists Buildings Archaeology Group Newsletter, 35, 49-54.


Anon. 2008, Patarei, Tourist Brochure, Tallinn: Sihtasutus Mänguväljaku Fond.

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Hinrikus, R. (ed.) 2009, Estonian Life Stories (trans. Kirss, T.), Budapest: Central European University Press.

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Roman, S. 2011, ‘Patarei Prison Tears Down its Soviet-Era Walls’, Estonian Public Broadcasting website: http://news.err.ee/Culture/e9d0a707-162c-4dc5-98a4-f809d0f83c39

Treufeldt, E. 2005, ‘Tallinn Patarei Barracks’, Estonian Art, 2/05 (17).

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