Contemporary History Museum at Maarjamäe
More background info: Estonia
is a young country, though rooted in an ancient culture (with a very distinct Finno-Ugric language); but as a nation it only began to form in the late nineteenth century and didn’t become an independent country until after WW1
. This was short-lived, though, as Estonia was part of the territorial dividing-up of European “spheres of influence” between Nazi Germany
and the USSR
according to the secret part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
. So when the Third Reich
from the west in September 1939, the Soviets took their allocated parts in the east, and shortly after also annexed the Baltic states.
This first Soviet occupation of Estonia was followed by a Nazi German one after Hitler
also attacked the USSR
, in “Operation Barbarossa” in the summer of 1941, thus tearing up the “non-aggression treaty” that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was supposed to be.
Many Estonians saw the Germans as liberators from Soviet repression, just as happened in the other two Baltic countries, Latvia
. However, with the Nazis also came Nazi crimes. As usual it was especially Jews and communists who were targeted. Unlike its neighbours, Estonia didn’t have quite such a large Jewish community, so the numbers of those deported and killed in the Holocaust
were lower here. Yet it was a near absolute extermination – as infamously illustrated in the Nazi-drawn map of Eastern Europe on which Estonia was marked “judenfrei” (‘free of Jews’) by 1943.
Also de facto deported were Baltic Germans, who in a so-called “Heim ins Reich” (‘home to the empire’) operation were “repatriated” to Germany, or rather: resettled in the newly conquered territories of Poland
and accommodated in houses from which their previous Polish occupants had been expelled.
As fortunes turned against Germany in WWII
and the Red Army pushed westward, the tide turned for Estonia again as well. From late 1944 the Soviets were back. And as the Potsdam Conference
cemented the territorial shifts of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Estonia remained in Soviet hands and forcibly became the Estonian SSR.
This time the occupation (see also Museum of Occupations
) lasted almost as long as the USSR did. Calls for independence already grew in the protest movements of the late 1980s, especially in the so-called “Singing Revolution” and the “Baltic Way” (see below). Then as in August 1991 the Moscow
coup against Mikhail Gorbachev was shocking the world, the Estonian Supreme Council quickly and unilaterally declared Estonia independent and no longer part of the Soviet Union
. A brief military intervention (see Teletorn
) ended together with the failed putsch, and the new government in Moscow under Boris Yeltsin recognized Estonia’s independence.
The country then quickly shed all shackles of the Soviet era – and even much of the memory of it. Of all the former Soviet republics that are now independent countries, Estonia is probably the most anti-Soviet (and even anti-Russian). This is also palpable in this museum.
Estonia demonstrably sided with the West in joining NATO
, the EU and then the eurozone and has become a powerhouse of the new economy and is at the forefront of the IT industry.
All this is covered in this museum which is housed in Maarjamäe Palace. This was originally a grand summer manor of a Russian aristocrat who purchased the plot of land in 1873. He lost his fortune in the wake of the Russian October Revolution of 1917 and emigrated, and the palace was leased. In 1933 it was converted into the glamorous “Riviera-Palais” hotel/restaurant. This was short-lived, though, as it closed already in 1937 and the complex was taken over by the government.
Subsequently the Maarjamäe Palace housed the Estonian Military Aviation School. During the first Soviet occupation, the building was taken over by the Red Army in 1940. After they left in 1941 the complex was turned into residential apartments with communal kitchens and slowly began deteriorating.
However, in the 1980s the palace was renovated and the first museum moved in, then still under communist rule and entitled “History and Revolution Museum of the Estonian SSR”, which opened in 1987.
As soon as Estonia had regained its independence in 1991, the exhibition at Maarjamäe Palace was updated, and in 2008, to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Estonia
first becoming an independent state, an all-new exhibition “Will to be Free” was opened. Ten years later, for the 100th anniversary, the current exhibition “My Free Country” opened.
Despite the clear anti-Soviet stance of the museum, as also reflected in its permanent exhibition’s flowery name, the collection of over twenty communist-era statues and busts that had originally been simply dumped behind the museum (that’s how I saw them on my first visit in 2014 during a Soviet Tallinn Tour
), also received a complete makeover. The backyard was elaborately landscaped and all of the statues and busts were re-erected and given plaques with brief texts explaining their original location and who’s depicted.
The Maarjamäe Contemporary History Museum is a branch of the Estonian History Museum, whose main base is in the Great Guild Hall on Pikk in the middle of the Old Town of Tallinn
What there is to see:
It’s worth taking in the idiosyncratic architecture of Maarjamäe Palace
before entering. Inside, but also still outside the exhibition is a large hall that you should take a look at as well – especially for the large communist
on its walls, entitled “The Friendship of Nations
The actual permanent exhibition
. It is subdivided into sections along a chronological timeline, beginning with the early twentieth century
, the emergence of the Estonian Nation and the War of Independence
in the wake of WW1
. On display are a few military uniforms of the time, weapons, helmets and propaganda posters in various languages, especially Russian and German, as the Estonian language was only starting to become established at the time.
The numerous text-and-photo panels that provide information are all bilingual, in Estonian and English (and the translations are OK, not always flawless, but accurate enough that the content comes across fully). There are also a few interactive elements such as audio stations and screens. An audio guide is also offered, but I declined using one, so I cannot comment on the quality of the narration. The exhibition is self-explanatory enough, so I don’t deem the audio guide particularly necessary.
The next section is about the immediate post-war years in which independent Estonia was formed. Military themes still dominate and one large exhibit is a crude mock-up of an armoured vehicle that you are even invited to enter. One quirky element in the exhibition are partial human sculptures that seem to half vanish into the walls, sometimes there’s only an arm, sometimes half a person. What the deeper meaning of these is supposed to be eluded me.
The following section is not so dark but a “happy” one, about growth and glamour and progress in Estonia
. On display are various electric household appliances that illustrate that life was good at that time in the 1920s and 30s
. Proudly emphasized is the young nation’s tolerance towards the different ethnic groups sharing the country, which were granted a level of autonomy unheard of elsewhere. This also included a Jewish community. One remarkable exhibit in this context is a Torah scroll from a synagogue in Tartu. The scroll was saved from destruction by Jewish scholars who managed to flee to Russia
before the Nazis
looted the synagogue in 1941.
This brings us to the era of the first Soviet occupation
followed by the Nazi German
years of 1941-44
. The loss of the multi-ethnic population due to resettlement of Baltic Germans and Russians is covered. And as expected, the infamy of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
is underscored as it meant the loss of independence for Estonia and the other Baltic states.
years were also the darkest phase
for Estonia in terms of repression
, first by the Soviets who sent numerous opponents of communism
. From July 1941 this was followed by German reprisals against former collaborators with the Soviets and of course the almost total extermination of Estonia’s Jews and Roma in the Holocaust
. One exhibit here is a typical striped concentration-camp
uniform. This was worn by an Estonian communist who was arrested by the Germans in 1941 and imprisoned first at Patarei prison
and later in a camp in Germany
. He survived and returned home after the war in 1945, taking his prisoner clothes with him. Also on display are various machine guns and soldiers’ uniforms and such military gear, as well as items from the Forest Brothers partisans of the early Soviet days (cf. Estonian War Museum
The next section covers the years
between 1945 and 1987
is the dominant colour here, fittingly. And as you would expect in contemporary Estonia
, the portrayal of the Soviet Union
in general is deeply damning. Emphasized are the cult of personality revolving around Lenin
, the propaganda and surveillance the regime subjected the population to, the constant fear of the Cold War
era, the gulag
system, enforced collectivization, scarcity of goods and restrictions of movement and of freedom of expression.
However, also shown in this section are the various forms of resistance and adaptations of cultural elements from the West, including a punk scene that developed in Estonia in the late 1970s and early 1980s in opposition to Soviet monotony. The rising protests against environmental destruction by the Soviets is also a key element, especially the so-called Phosphorite War.
This takes us to the years from 1987, when the environmental protest movement against a large open-cast phosphorite mine was successful; the Soviet authorities had to cave in to the strong waves of protest. This was the starting point for ever more resistance and renewed calls for independence. Several items related to the protests are on display in this section.
Two other significant events in this context were the Baltic Way
of 1989 and the Estonian Song Festival. The former was a protest organized by pro-independence campaigners who brought around two million people to form a human chain across the entire length of the three Baltic states Lithuania
, connecting the three capital cities Vilnius
– a total distance of 420 miles (675 km). Photos and a few artefacts illustrate this momentous event.
The Estonian Song Festival grounds (see below) became a venue for another unique form of protest, when from 1988 ever larger crowds gathered to sing banned patriotic songs in Estonian – which gave the world the term “The Singing Revolution”.
The decisive moment came when on 19 August 1991
a military coup was staged in Moscow
to end Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika policies and depose him. The next day the Estonian Supreme Council declared independence
. The Soviet
troops that then attempted to take over the TV Tower
on 21 August left the next day after the putsch in Moscow had failed. Unlike in January in Vilnius
the defence of the TV Tower ended without any bloodshed.
The final section is about developments in Estonia after 1991, which also had their dark aspects. The early years of independence were a wild time of lawlessness and economic opportunism. Also not swept under the rug is the issue of citizenship. As soon as Estonian was declared the sole language of the nation and Estonian passports were issued only to Estonians, this led to a deep division, with the ethnic Russians who had moved to Estonia in Soviet times suddenly ostracized and without citizenship. On display here are the different types of passport, those for Estonians and the grey “aliens passports”. The issue is still unresolved with nearly 80,000 people of unsettled citizenship status living in Estonia.
The episode of conflict about the removal of the Soviet Bronze Soldier statue from the city centre is covered in detail too (see this separate section
Other aspects of post-independence Estonia
that are illustrated in the exhibition are the growing consumerism and Westernization. Important milestones were also the country’s joining NATO
and the EU in 2004. EU membership was not universally welcomed in Estonia, and artefacts on display include campaign items from both the pro- and anti-EU camps.
The worldwide economic crisis of 2008 also led to Estonia joining the eurozone, scrapping its former currency, the Estonian “kroon”, and adopting the euro. On display in this context is a tightly pressed pack of shredded older kroon banknotes.
While the country overall made great progress economically and culturally in opening up to the world, there were also dark aspects left, such as the unsavoury rise of a right-wing extremist skinhead movement. An intriguing and disturbing item on display in this section of the museum is a T-shirt with a portrait of former top Nazi
Rudolf Hess printed on it!
All in all, the permanent exhibition provides a very good overview of the ride the young nation of Estonia has been on for just over a century. Displays are varied and the information rich, detailed but not too overbearing. The anti-Soviet stance can occasionally be a bit heavy-handed, but that’s to be expected in the Baltics. Anyway, the exhibition does not whitewash the problematic issues that still linger with regard to the post-Soviet legacy.
But this is not yet all. In addition to the indoor exhibition there’s also an open-air part “hidden” behind the museum where a collection of 21 Soviet-era statues and busts have been re-erected. You can’t reach it from within the exhibition but have use the main entrance to exit and then walk all the way round the building to get to the backyard.
I had been there before, namely in 2014 as part of a “Soviet Tallinn
” guided walking tour. Back then, the communist statues were simply dumped behind the museum, most statues toppled and many badly damaged. With the recent overhaul of the museum and the opening of the new “My Free Country” exhibition also came a resurrection, as it were, of the collection of communist statues. Many have been refurbished and cleaned and now form an orderly ensemble within a meticulously landscaped garden. Moreover, the statues now come with explanatory text plaques informing visitors about who is depicted and where the original location of the monument would have been.
There’s a splendid Lenin
statue, moved here from its original location in Tartu. Next to this are a few large Lenin heads. In the back is even a re-erected Stalin
! The latter used to stand in the centre of Tallinn
, was removed in the early 1960s in the course of de-Stalinization, and miraculously survived in storage until it was brought to Maarjamäe. Also part of this commie pantheon is a Kalinin statue plus a few Estonian commie big shots whose names will be far less well known outside the country (or even within it, these days). In addition there are some thematic sculpture groups that commemorated certain historical events plus a couple of damaged soldier statues, one armless, the other headless. The latter, as a plaque explains, lost his bronze head to metal thieves in the wild early 1990s!
The communist sculpture collection behind the museum is the largest in Estonia
and a real extra asset now that it’s been properly integrated into the museum grounds. And it’s freely accessible – you just have to know where it is.
There is one more part of the museum, namely the former stables of the Maarjamäe Palace complex. This is where temporary exhibitions are hosted. But on my visit in July 2021 I gave it a miss. It’ll be a different temporary exhibition by now anyway.
to the north-east of the centre of Tallinn
, just south of the Maarjamäe memorial complex
by the road leading to the suburb of Pirita. Official address: Pirita tee 56.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs:
outside the centre of Tallinn
, but easily reached by bus; reasonably priced.
Details: The location is a bit far out for walking it, which would take about an hour and wouldn’t be very pleasant (along busy roads), but the bus stop near the museum is used by a host of bus lines, including e.g. the 1A or 38 from the Viru Centre bus terminal or line 174 from Balti jaam at the train station or from just east of the Old Town. The ride takes about 20 minutes. If you have your own means of transport you can make use of the free car park to the west of the museum.
To get to the hilltop you have to either climb a flight of stairs or use the long ramp from the south.
Opening times: in the summer season, between May and September, Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Mondays and on various public holidays; during the rest of the year also closed on Tuesdays.
Admission: 10 EUR (concession 8 EUR)
The open-air display of the collection of communist-era sculptures is behind the museum in a landscaped garden that is in theory freely accessible at all times (but you’d want to see it in daylight), independently of a visit to the museum’s exhibition inside the palace.
Time required: I spent about two hours at this museum in total (i.e. including the commie statues collection); if you want to read everything on every single text panel and go through all the interactive elements in the main exhibition you could probably use significantly more time than that.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
just to the north of the museum within easy walking distance is the Maarjamäe memorial complex
around the Old Soviet victory monument, as well as the new Monument to the Victims of Communism right next to it.
From the bus stop outside the museum you can take line 34A or 38 to the Tallinn TV Tower
(which also played a role in both Tallinn’s Soviet era and the end of it), while line 174 or 1A can take you to the Estonian War Museum
(about the military side of the country’s history from WW1 to the present day).
For everything else see under Tallinn
Combinations with non-dark destinations: part of the Maarjamäe complex is also the Film Museum with its exhibition entitled “Take One”, which opened in 2017. Outside in the large landscaped gardens various items of open-air art can also be admired.
Behind the museum complex steps lead up the escarpment to a plateau from where you get good views over the sea and Tallinn in the distance.
Two bus stops south of the museum is the access to the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, which might be worth a look for the architecture of the grandstand alone.
For more see under Tallinn
- CHM 01 - Maarjamäe Palace
- CHM 02 - inside Maarjamäe Palace
- CHM 03 - early 20th century
- CHM 04 - independence
- CHM 05 - half absorbed
- CHM 06 - post-WW1
- CHM 07 - invitation to step inside
- CHM 08 - onset of moderinity
- CHM 09 - signs of Jewish life
- CHM 10 - geography by crockery
- CHM 11 - WWII
- CHM 12 - dark times
- CHM 13 - Forest Broothers
- CHM 14 - medical and sowing kits
- CHM 15 - the Soviet era begins
- CHM 16 - Lenin vases
- CHM 17 - gas masks
- CHM 18 - Soviet uniform
- CHM 19 - gulag relics
- CHM 20 - KGB spying equipment
- CHM 21 - everyday cultur
- CHM 22 - counter-culture
- CHM 23 - The Baltic Way
- CHM 24 - celebrated cartoon
- CHM 25 - into the post-Soviet era
- CHM 26 - EU or not
- CHM 27 - an unsavoury side of domestic counter-culture
- CHM 28 - open-air exhibition of communist statuary
- CHM 29 - Lenin
- CHM 30 - more Lenins
- CHM 31 - even a re-erected Stalin
- CHM 32 - armless soldier
- CHM 33 - headless soldier
- CHM 34 - cluster
- CHM 35 - bunker outside