Maarjamäe memorial and museum
UPDATE: I've just been back to this place and also finally visited the museum. I'll write a full new report soon and also update and expand the photo gallery as soon as I find the time. The main change here is that the communist statues have been reerected and now come with information plaques; this is a contrast to the increasingly crumbling Soviet monument and the all new shiny 'monument to the victims of communism' that was added in 2018. The anti-Soviet stance is also prevalent in the modern history exhibition.
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 the branch of the Estonian
History Museum that deals with the country's modern history of the past century or so (and thus falls within the time-scale for dark tourism
). The latter features as a hidden gem a collection of Soviet-era sculptures in the back yard. It's a bit out of the centre of Tallinn
but worth the excursion.
More background info:
The most prominent feature of the Maarjamäe monument, its spire, was erected in the 1960s in honour of some 1918 revolutionary soldiers, the rest of the complex and its sculptures were added in the 1970s, including the memorials to Soviet defenders of Tallinn
against the advancing Nazis
in 1941. The symbolic war cemetery and memorial to the German
war dead were added in much more recent times.
The Maarjamäe palace that now houses the museum goes back to the second half of the 19th century and was originally the home of a rich Russian aristocrat. Over the years it has served as an upscale restaurant and hotel, a Dutch consulate and a flying school, and for a long time it was occupied by the Soviet army too. In the 1970s it was given to the Estonian History Museum who restored the pseudo-gothic structure and first opened an exhibition here in 1987. The current main permanent exhibition, grandly entitled “A Will to be Free”, was opened in 2008 on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the first Republic of Estonia
As you would expect, it concentrates on modern Estonian history from ca. 1917 onwards, thus covering the entire Soviet era as well as the renewed struggle for independence in the Baltic states that contributed to the USSR
's downfall in 1991. The museum's counterpart in the Great Guild Hall in the historic centre of Tallinn
, in contrast, covers the country's older history. Do not get the two locations confused. To see the bits that are of interest to the dark tourist you must head out here to this isolated location by the road to Pirita.
The museum has plans to put its collection of currently 15 Soviet-era statues and sculptures into a proper formal outdoor exhibition context (in contrast to the junk yard style they are in at present – see below
). Whether this will happen, and if so when, remains to be seen. Things like this aren't easy to promote (and get funding for) in Estonia, which of the three Baltic states is the most hostile towards the Soviet part of its history being “exploited” for tourism (see Dark Tourism and Place Identity book review
What there is to see:
You can see the main part of the Maarjamäe monument from far away, such as from Tallinn
harbour, as it has the form of a tall spire. That classic design element is surrounded by other typical Soviet
style monumentalism in concrete (and partly marble-clad). It's now largely abandoned and neglected – and most of the time you may have it all to yourself, except for the odd youth with a spray can or couples looking for a peaceful, secluded spot. There is some graffiti and cracked or damaged paving and cladding, but overall it's not in too bad a state, all things considered.
The spire is actually set to the side of a main paved concourse heading towards the sea. It does not quite reach the sea, as the main Pirita road separates it from the shore, but right by the shore is a concrete installation of angled slabs that seems 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 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.
Walk through this gate-like monument and you'll come to a cemetery of sorts. First there are symbolic graves commemorating Soviet
defenders of Tallinn
, lined up just behind the main monument on the edge of a small grove of trees.
Immediately to the south 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. Apparently, the Soviets had simply bulldozed the cemetery over when they built the Maarjamäe monument as an act of brutal revisionism. 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.
To the south of the monument and cemetery sits the Maarjamäe Palace, a neo- or “pseudo”-Gothic pile that now houses the modern part of the Estonian History Museum. Its permanent exhibition “A Will to be Free” chronicles Estonia
's history from the 1917 via the long Soviet
era and the independence struggle of the late 1980s and early 1990s up to the present day. It is organized into four thematic sections, entitled, in turn, “Power and Government”, “The Power of the Mind”, “Fighting and Resistance” and “The Good Life” (use your imagination to decipher that last one in particular).
The exhibition mostly features photographs and documents, augmented by a few artefacts as well as audio-visual footage played on screens, including interactive ones. The exhibition is trilingual, in Estonian, English and Russian. Unfortunately I cannot report any first-hand impressions as the museum was closed on all three days when I would have had the chance to visit it while in Tallinn
The main attraction of the museum for the so-inclined dark tourist, however, is a slice of Soviet legacy that lies hidden in the museum's back yard: a jumble of old Soviet sculptures. And this was accessible on a Monday too when I saw it as part of my Soviet Tallinn guided tour
The statues mostly look like they've been simply dumped here – and apparently that's exactly what happened to them, in some cases by individuals who simply took on the initiative themselves (even illegally). At the northern end of the collection stands a proud bronze Lenin
in full upright glory. This one used to stand in front of the Estonian Agriculture Academy. Now old Vladimir has to look on to the jumble heap of fellow statues lined up along the museum's back wall.
You can spot a Stalin
lying in the dirt on his back parallel to the feet and base of a sailor statue whose head is missing. Next to them is a mess of statuary whose main feature is two clusters of clenched metal fists, now pointing sideways rather than proudly up into the air. A red marble bust nearby may or may not be another Stalin (or maybe revolutionary Mihkel Aitsam – whose hairdo and tash bore a stunning resemblance to Uncle Joe's) and there are a couple of definite Lenin busts. The rest of the commie celebrities featured here will most likely be unfamiliar to non-Estonian non-communists, but the style is classic socialist realism
At present, these sculptures are a “secret” highlight for foreign tourists wishing to see some relics of Estonia
's Soviet legacy, a period that most Estonians would rather forget about altogether. That said, though, the museum is apparently seeking funds to give the sculptures a more organized “living space”, i.e. a formal outdoor exhibition ensemble, probably in the same location, but more commodified and interpreted by explanatory texts. You can already view the preparatory work in a “virtual exhibition” online here
UPDATE 2018: meanwhile the statues have in fact been re-erected at the same site behind the museum, and now they all stand in a large circle facing each other!
by the main road leading from Tallinn
's centre to the north-eastern suburb of Pirita. The monument is right by the road, the cemetery to its north-east and the museum to its south.
Access and costs: a bit out from the city centre, but fairly easily reached by bus; outdoor parts free, the museum charges a moderate entrance fee.
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, 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 (other lines you could use are 5, 8, 34A and 38). The stop you need to get out at is called “Maarjamägi”, From there you can easily spot the Soviet monument's main spire easily.
The monument, war cemetery and Soviet sculptures in the museum's back yard are all freely accessible at all times. Admission to the history museum's indoor exhibition is 4 EUR (7 EUR for a combination ticket with the older history museum in the Great Guild Hall in Tallinn's Hanseatic old town).
The opening times of the museum are: Wednesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (apparently except for public holidays, because – contrary to what I was told at the tourist information in town – it was also closed on Thursday 1st of May, 2014 when I had intended to go).
The monument and cemetery parts of the complex can be seen in as little as half an hour or less. How long you'll spend at the Soviet sculptures depends on how fond you are of them (and on photography time!); the museum's exhibition should take an estimated hour or so (though I can't vouch for that personally – see above
). Getting there from the centre of Tallinn
and back will add another half an hour or so (depending on bus times) … or about two hours if you decide to walk it.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
While you're already up at Maarjamäe you may want to consider getting back on the bus and carrying on towards the edge of the city to see the TV tower in Pirita (bus lines 34A or 38) or even travelling further to the neighbouring seaside town of Viimsi (on bus line 1A) to see its war museum. Or else head back to the centre – in general see under Tallinn
, and especially Soviet Tallinn
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Back to Tallinn
city centre will be most people's choice. Some, however, may want to use the proximity of Maarjamäe to the seaside suburb of Pirita for an exploration of that part of the city, or even go beyond to Viimsi.
Within walking distance (ca. 15 minutes) south of Maarjamäe, those interested in Estonia
's singing legacy can see the vast outdoor arena used for the country's main singing festivals – even when it's empty it is an impressive sight (cynics like me may say especially
when it's empty and silent).
- Maarjamäe 01 - Soviet memorial
- Maarjamäe 02 - spire
- Maarjamäe 03 - hands
- Maarjamäe 04 - gate
- Maarjamäe 05 - bits are missing
- Maarjamäe 06 - behind the memorial
- Maarjamäe 07 - German war cemetery
- Maarjamäe 08 - Maarjamäe Modern History Museum
- Maarjamäe 09 - Soviet statuary dumped in the backyard
- Maarjamäe 10 - Lenin still standing, if no longer proud
- Maarjamäe 11 - headless and broken
- Maarjamäe 12 - Stalin on the ground
- Maarjamäe 13- possibly another Stalin
- Maarjamäe 14 - Lenin on the ground
- Maarjamäe 15 - clenched fists sideways
- Maarjamäe 16 - Lenin and clenched fists
- Maarjamäe 17 - approach from the Pirita highway
- Maarjamäe 18 - memorial complex with TV Tower in the distance