Museum of the Occupation – Tallinn

280908Mus-Occupn16I have many stories to tell about visiting Estonia and while some include unexpected tears, most are very beautiful. This one is not. Visiting the Museum of the Occupation in Tallinn was chilling.

Not sure what took me so long to get to Tallinn. I had wanted to visit ever since I was a little girl and my grandmother told me stories about Estonia. She made it sound so magical, so different from the world I knew in the Bronx – and having finally made it there, I can declare unequivocally that Tallinn and the Bronx are as opposite as north and south 280908Mus-Occupn02or cold and hot. The Bronx of my childhood was war-torn and terror ridden. The Tallinn I finally got to see was possibly even more idyllic than grandma had described.

The museum is set in a mostly residential neighbourhood near the old city – a modest glass building, reflecting its surrounds, with a very small sign indicating what it houses. Once inside I was immediately struck by the suitcases – hastily packed by people who knew they would probably never return, packed with the items they treasured most for a journey with no return ticket.

I stood there quietly, wondering if one of them had been my grandfather’s. Elmar Hiiesalu had hastily packed just such a bag when he was forced into the Soviet army, when the Russians finally overcame the Nazis.

280908Mus-Occupn01This archway threw me – I  couldn’t bring myself to walk underneath it. The power of the imagery was unexpectedly overwhelming. I walked around it instead.

Most of the exhibits were devoted to Estonia’s endless struggle to be  free. It has been alternately occupied by Danes, Germans, Russians and Swedes for most of the last millenia – the fate of a tiny country – with less than a million people. Ironically, the culture survived largely because the Estonian people were forced into serfdom and so preserved their language and customs.

City Museum - WWII - 12But in 1918, when Russia was busying herself with the Revolution – Estonia, along with neighbouring states, Latvia and Lithuania, declared itself a free, sovereign nation. Here is a photo of President Konstantin Pots at the 20th anniversary of the republic in 1938. Pots was my grandfather’s boss – he was his personal secretary. Grandpa didn’t make it into this photo, no doubt tending to some important detail.  Many of my relatives were involved in government work, including the then mayor of Tallinn. If they weren’t forced into the army or sent to Siberia, they went to prison. You went to prison for being the wife of a politician.

Which brings me to the truly chilling part of the visit. The doors. Click the thumbnails for a larger look.



These came from various prisons around Estonia where political prisoners were held, including members of my family. Something so very gruesome about these cheerfully painted doors – you would never find them on a movie set – only in real life. Just being near them, I could hear and feel the misery and sorrow they contained – I had the sensation of wanting to wash them.

280908Mus-Occupn10Things got a wee bit surreal, and slightly humourous when I asked where I might find the loo. Downstairs.

Yes, that is Lenin and Stalin, flanking the entrance to the toilets – women on the right, men on the left. A couple of spare prison doors behind them. If you look at the full-size photo, you will note the statues are damaged – this is from when they were toppled when Estonia declared its freedom again in 1991.

280908Mus-Occupn11 Various other disgraced Communists  – Russian and Estonian, were strewn about the basement floor, along with toppled monuments and Soviet era iconography. The hatred the Estonian people felt for their occupiers is palpable nearly twenty years after they were removed from power.

To be honest, the emotions were so raw, it was truly painful being there. After an hour and a bit, we really couldn’t take any more and decided to walk up to the upper city. This monument made me smile…

Free - again...
Free - again...

Published by Titirangi Storyteller

Telling tales from around the world

8 thoughts on “Museum of the Occupation – Tallinn

    1. Great photo expose. Is that what this is called? I did not visit this museum when I was in Estonia — I am very sorry to say.


      1. Yes, that is what it is called. I loved all the small museums in Tallinn. Rather than one or two large museums, there were dozens – for every little historic niche. One of the highlights was the mine museums – as in sea- mines… I should post some photos.


  1. I love that Lenin and Stalin flank the way to the toilets. How appropriate.

    I know what you mean about the suitcases. When I went to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., I had the same reaction. The doors . . . wow, what a contradiction: bright colors barring the way to freedom. How heartbreaking.

    Great post.


  2. I also was reminded of the Holocaust Museum. What an awesome place that is — as in it fills one with awe! The pile of shoes was incredible. (I think the victims had to take off their shoes before being gassed.) My mother actually could smell a strong odor from the shoes — until I reminded her that those shoes were about 50 years old and so would no longer have a smell. The display was so effective that you actually thought you were smelling shoes! The entire museum was like that. They had people urging the crowd on– to move through the museum, because at the rate we were going, we would need 2 days to see it all! Such an incredible presentation.


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