Maarjamäe memorial complex
There are three distinct points of interest here. Firstly, an old Soviet
monument now largely neglected, a former German war cemetery now marked by another memorial and symbolic grave stones, and a new Memorial to the Victims of Communism unveiled in 2018. It's a bit out of the centre of Tallinn
but worth the excursion and it combines well with the Contemporary History Museum
just to the south of the complex.
More background info: The memorial complex at Maarjamäe was constructed in successive stages.
The oldest part is the Soviet-era tall obelisk you can see from far away. This was erected in 1960 and commemorates Soviet Bolsheviks who actually fought against Estonians at the time of the Estonian War of Independence and the Russian Civil War. Little wonder then that the monument wasn’t exactly popular with many Estonians.
In the 1970s the memorial was much expanded. Added were the angular concrete structures, the symbolic amphitheatre, the eternal flame, the semi-abstract sculptures and memorial graves to members of the Bolshevik Navy who perished on two vessels during the Russian Civil War. The expansion was completed in 1975. Parts of the monument are said to also commemorate Soviet soldiers who fell in the fight against Nazi Germany
in 1941 and 1944, although it is not especially clear which parts serve which purpose.
regained its independence in 1991 and the Soviets
departed shortly after, this Soviet-era monument complex had an uncertain future. It has certainly not been maintained, yet nor has it been demolished. It’s just slowly crumbling.
In 1998, additional elements were introduced to counter the Soviet-ness of the existing monument. The former German war cemetery that the Soviets apparently bulldozed to make space for their monument was partially reinstated and additional memorial stones were laid out that honour the German defenders of Tallinn and Estonia in 1944 … that is to say it celebrates Nazi
soldiers instead of Soviet ones. Whether that is any less controversial is in no way obvious to me.
Finally, in 2018 a very large “counter-monument” was unveiled. This is the Monument to the Victims of Communism. It involves an arithmetic conundrum. It is claimed, not only at the monument itself and its associated website but also on platforms like In Your Pocket or Atlas Obscura, namely that Estonian victims of Soviet communism
numbered 75,000 and that was a loss of 20 per cent of the whole Estonian population of just over a million. To me, but evidently not to everybody, this is a discrepancy that doesn’t add up, as 20% of a million is 200,000 not 75,000. I think what is meant, but not expressed well, is that the 20% is an overall loss, not just through direct communist persecution and murder of opponents but also through emigration.
It’s still unclear what time frame these figures refer to, as Estonia had a population of 1.2 million in 1960 which grew to well over 1.5 million by 1991 (the year of independence from the USSR
) before falling again to currently 1.3 million.
Anyway, the largest numbers of deportations to the gulags
and executions took place in 1940/41 and during the early years of the post-WWII
Soviet occupation, with a peak in 1949. After the Stalin
-era the political terror eased somewhat, although it never went away altogether.
The Victims of Communism Monument’s narrative is – as was to be expected – rather aggressively anti-Soviet. It too goes as far as calling the Soviet deportations and executions “genocide
” and refers to the gulags as “death camps
”. Neither is really acceptable, as it was never the entire Estonian people that was targeted, nor were the gulags similar to the mass-murder factories that the actual death camps of the Nazis were in which millions of Jews were systematically exterminated (and just for being Jewish, so that really was genocide).
It is also telling that while the new monument and the 1990s memorials to the Germans are polished, clean and well looked-after, the old Soviet monument is left to crumble.
What there is to see: You could start exploring the complex either from the north, beginning with the new Memorial for the Victims of Communism, or start at the southern end, which is what I did when I visited the site in July 2021.
In fact, I had been there before, namely as part of the “Soviet Tallinn
” guided walking tour I was on in April 2014. Back then the new anti-communist memorial didn’t exist yet and the communist statues behind the adjacent Contemporary History Museum
in Maarjamäe Palace were still just a jumble, simply dumped there, not in the re-erected form you find them in now.
The main Soviet monument’s oldest part, the 35m (114 feet) tall obelisk, is visible from far away. From the main road and the Maarjamäe bus stop a long ramp leads up the slope to the monument. You then come to a crossroads of sorts, with a long wide path leading south-east to some angular structure, while to the north-west is the central part of the complex.
The obelisk stands slightly to the south of this on a grassy hillock. The main part consists of an amphitheatre-like area which also used to have an eternal flame somewhere (long extinguished). This whole area has meanwhile been fenced off and a sign in Estonian, English and Russian informs visitors that access is forbidden due to structural safety concerns.
Indeed this part of the monument is visibly crumbling, as it clearly hasn’t seen much (if any) maintenance since the Soviet days.
The now inaccessible end part of the amphitheatre hovers over the hillside by the roadside, stopping just short of the road itself. Across the road right by the shore is a concrete installation of angled slabs that seem to continue the monument at the waterfront, even though it is quite disconnected from it.
In the middle of the main concourse is a monument of two inverse bas reliefs of hands and a bit further inland a path branches off to a monument consisting of an abstract metal sculpture (partly damaged now) suspended between two triangular stone slabs. This is supposedly depicting “Perishing Seagulls” but no matter how long I looked at it, I failed to discern any bird shapes in this.
Walk through this gate-like monument and you'll come to a cemetery of sorts. First there are symbolic graves commemorating Soviet
soldiers, lined up just behind the main monument on the edge of a small grove of trees.
Immediately to the south and east of this is an open grassy field with clusters of three concrete crosses each dotted around. A stone slab by the paved path in front of the field informs visitors of the fact that this is a symbolic restoration of a German war cemetery
. The information plaque is in Estonian and German only. For the most part, though, it simply lists the names of those buried here – or at least of those whose records could be traced.
Walking north in the direction of the Victims of Communism Memorial you first come to another memorial cluster
consisting of three flagpoles, three tall concrete crosses and a set of plaques on the ground. These list the names of the various German military units that took part in WWII
battles in Estonia in 1944 … that is: it honours the Nazi
occupiers who fought against the Red Army advancing westwards. A separate memorial stone with an inscription in Estonian, German, English and French (no Russian!) generally honours the “army units involved in the defensive battles of Estonia in 1944
Arguably the Soviets did indeed not just come to “liberate” Estoni
a from the Nazis, but to reoccupy and reintegrate it into the USSR
. But still, I find this honouring of Nazi German “martyrs” somewhat disturbing. To me this seems to say “we’d rather keep the Nazi occupiers than have the Soviets back”. Well, this seems to be a sentiment you do indeed encounter in the Baltics from time to time.
The newest element at Maarjamäe is the Memorial to the Victims of Communism that was unveiled in 2018. Its main element is a 200m (655 feet) long double wall clad in shiny black metal stretching west to east from the roadside inland away from the coast. You can also access it from the pavement along the roadside by stairs. Inside, between the two walls a narrow ledge close to the ground level can be used for placing flowers and little memorial candles.
Along the southern side on the outer wall is a series of plaques and a list of over 800 names of members of the Estonian officer class who were deported/executed by the Soviets. Next to this are symbolic bullet holes in the wall cladding.
Other plaques list the various prisons and labour camps (gulags
) in Estonia
. Other plaques offer up a starkly anti-Soviet narrative of acts “of genocide against the Estonian people”, the “annihilation” of the political elite, the “unlawful mobilization of Estonian citizens into the Red Army”, and the most drastic plaque equates the Soviet gulags with “death camps” (see above
why I find fault with this!).
Yet other plaques note the resistance and “struggle for freedom”, especially by the Forest Brothers (cf. Estonian War Museum
), and the peak of the deportations in 1949, when over 20,000 people were forcibly “resettled” in Siberia. Yet another plaque notes the deportation to camps bordering the Semipalatinsk Test Site
(STS) where political prisoners were allegedly exposed to radiation from the nuclear tests
conducted at the STS. One plaque clearly states that the communist terror constituted “crimes against humanity” and demands that the perpetrators “must be prosecuted”.
Towards the eastern end of the memorial wall steps lead down to a landscaped square referred to as “Home Garden”. On the black wall at this section are a couple of inscriptions in Estonian only as well as, bizarrely, clusters of what looks like metal flies on the wall, but which are supposed to be honey bees (don’t ask me why).
At the southern end of the “Home Garden” stands an info box that alerts visitors to the option of searching electronic databases of victims online. I found it amusing that – as if to echo the metal bees on the memorial wall, a real fly was resting right on this info point.
All in all
, this is a site of stark contrasts, which is interesting in itself, but also illuminating as it shows the different attitudes in Estonia
towards different phases of the country’s dark history. While the old Soviet monument honours Bolsheviks who fought against Estonians, which is seen as an affront, the later German memorial glorifies Nazi Germans who defended Estonia against the Soviets, and the latest monument heavy-handedly throws maximum accusations at the Soviet communists. Seen together, the shifts of emphasis are stunning and provide evidence of how politico-historically charged the site is. Well worth seeing, but the place has to be approached warily.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: a bit out from the city centre, but fairly easily reached by bus; free
To get to the Maarjamäe memorial complex you can either walk it if you can handle the ca. one hour hike from the city centre along busy roads, or get a bus. Line 1A is one of the more frequent buses which, departing from the Viru Centre in Tallinn
's modern city centre (see KGB Museum
), goes straight past the memorial en route to Pirita. The stop you need to get out at is called “Maarjamägi”. This is the stop for the Contemporary History Museum and its car park and it’s also served by e.g. bus lines 5, 8, 34A, 38 and 174. From here the long ramp leading to the old Soviet Monument leads up the slope. If you want to start at the new Victims of Communism memorial you can get out at the next bus stop, called “Mälestusvälja” which is served by the same bus lines except line 174 (!).
The entire monumental complex is freely accessible at all times (but is best seen in daylight, naturally).
Time required: between half an hour for a cursory visit and about one hour if you want to read all the panels in detail.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The most obvious combination is the Contemporary History Museum
at Maarjamäe Palace just south of the old Soviet monument. It’s exhibition is similarly anti-Soviet as the Victims of Communism Memorial, however, in the backyard there’s a splendid collection of Soviet-era statuary. Note that neither this nor the museum are accessible from the path that leads south from the eastern end of the Soviet monument complex. Instead you have to go back down the ramp and then take the stairs up to the Maarjamäe Palace complex.
While you're already up at Maarjamäe you may want to consider getting back on the bus and carrying on towards the suburbs of the city to see the TV Tower
in Pirita (bus lines 34A or 38) or go further to Viimsi and see the Estonian War Museum
(for that take either bus 174 from Maarjamägi” to “Viimsi mõis” or line 1A from either bus stop by the monument complex to “Viimsi vallamaja”. Or else head back to teh centre.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
See under Tallinn
- Maarjamäe 01 - old Soviet monument
- Maarjamäe 02 - crumbling
- Maarjamäe 03 - in better shape back in 2014
- Maarjamäe 04 - hanging in there
- Maarjamäe 05 - more damage
- Maarjamäe 06 - Soviet martyrs
- Maarjamäe 07 - German martyrs, much preferred
- Maarjamäe 08 - those heroic Nazi soldiers who tried to hold back the Soviets
- Maarjamäe 09 - new monument to the victims of communism
- Maarjamäe 10 - steps down
- Maarjamäe 11 - strange clusters
- Maarjamäe 12 - flies on the wall
- Maarjamäe 13 - Home Garden
- Maarjamäe 14 - double wall
- Maarjamäe 15 - looking down towards the sea