Patarei, A soviet Prison Exhibition in Estonia

This post isn’t going to be a cheery travel post, but anyone who follows me here or on Instagram will know that part of the reason I travel is to learn more about the histories of countries, and more often than not that includes difficult, incomprehensible stories – which are so important we have to read them and re-tell them.

A deceptively sunny Paterei

So let’s visit Patarei. Paterei Prison lies about a 30 minute walk out of central Tallinn, and is the next installment from the Estonian leg of my Baltics road trip. It is really worth a visit if you get the chance while in the city.

The prison was actually built as a fort in the 1830s by the Russians when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. When the Russians were defeated in the Crimean War, the fort was converted in to barracks. When Estonia gained independence (for the first time) in 1918, the site was reconstructed as a prison.

It remained a prison until 2005. Yes, 2005.

Outside the building

From 1940-1991, Estonia was part of the Soviet Union (USSR), and ‘behind the Iron curtain’. This means it didn’t have independence and the prison was under Soviet control. For Estonians, Paterei is one of the most prominent symbols of Soviet terror.

In 2018, the site was opened to the public with an exhibition telling the story of Communism and the Soviet regime’s atrocities here in Estonia during the years of Soviet rule. In 2025, the museum is expected to be expanded to address communism more widely and include exhibits on Cuba, China, Cambodia and other areas where human lives have been lost as a result of a Communist regime.

Deaths in Communist countries

Visiting the museum is sobering. At the time of my visit it wasn’t renovated, so you literally walk around the prison as it was left at the end of its life. There are a lot of boards in each of the cells and areas though, so reading it all takes at least a few hours.

Exhibition entrance

The first cell blocks tell the story of individual prisoners held there. There’s the story of the farmers who refused to give up their crops to the Communist regime (under Communism, everything you produce is for everyone else so you contribute it to the main ‘pot’) and were tortured and shot, or sent to Siberia, just for refusing. In the end 75% of Estonia’s farmers were killed, sent to labour camps or deported so that those left were favourable to the regime.

There’s the story of the ex-leaders of the Estonian Republic – all of them bar 1 (who escaped to Sweden in 1940) – were murdered by 1944 following torture. For one of them, he was picked up from his home and just disappeared with his wife never seeing him again and never finding out what happened to him before she died.

There’s the story of the teachers who continued to use Estonian as the language in their classes, rather than Russian – they were tortured and killed for being enemies of Communism. There’s the native Germans living in Estonia, now enemies of the state in the war. There’s the Gypsies who were socially ‘undesirable’, the University student who defaced a Stalin poster, the father who has been informed on because the next door neighbour wants to steal his wife.

There are every day people, going about their lives. Abducted, sent to labour camps, tortured, shot, sent to Siberia, fed to dogs, tossed in to mass burial pits. In the end Estonia lost 25% of its population. Just think about that – 1 in 4 people you know just disappearing, in the course of just a few years, for often completely trivial ‘crimes’.

After the individual stories, there is also a gallery about the wider impact of Communism – what does the ideology mean, where did it come from, how did it get a foot in the door. There is then a great exhibition of Communism during the post-WW2 period (in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Budapest and various other countries).

It tells the story of resistance, of bravery, and ultimately of death because these people were more often than not murdered in cold blood. There are distressing pictures – one of the resistant fighter alive and smiling, and one of the fighter dead. The most upsetting one was of a 17 year old who threw paint at a Communist monument. Tortured and left dead in the street.

After that harrowing gallery, there’s an ‘honour board’ (Soviet honours) of the guards and controllers who ordered atrocities such as murders and deportations. What I found hardest here is that after the Soviet Union fell, these people didn’t go to Russia – they stayed in Estonia, living side by side with the people they’d once treated as no more than vermin. One of the main organisers of a 1969 deportation and mass murder for example, lived in Tallinn until his death in 2000, well after the 1991 fall of the USSR.

It made me realise that even once Estonia had independence in 1991, it wasn’t overnight. The transition must have been so hard – no infrastructure set up, no teaching agendas, no funding, nothing. And for the people to adjust to it as well must have been a real challenge.

After these exhibitions you can also visit the bathrooms (they are awful), torture rooms, solitary confinement rooms and guard’s rooms. In the torture room it tells the story of a woman arrested for being related to someone in political opposition to the Communist regime – she was tortured for days whilst pregnant, and when she gave birth prematurely they took her baby and she never saw it again or even knew if it survived. She was also left infertile from the torture.

In one of the torture rooms

I think it’s safe to say this museum is not an easy visit. It’s not Tallinn’s beautiful romantic old town. But it is so important we share these stories, and understand the context as well behind current feeling in the region around Russia and the war in Ukraine.

What do you think? I appreciate this wasn’t a fun post, but I hope it was interesting and informative none the less. Thank you for reading. Stay safe and happy travelling.


  1. I definitely agree that it’s important to go to these museums or educational sites, at the same time we sightsee and have fun while traveling. I’ve not been to Patarei, but I can imagine it would be a very sobering experience to learn about the history of war, communism, and the ugly side of humanity. While difficult to learn about, it’s all the more important to learn anyway, to understand just how bad people can treat each other during hard times, and to avoid repeating that in the present day. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also believe it’s important to visit these sort of places and
    I’ve toured numerous prison exhibitions from Dublin to South Korea. I walked outside Patarei a few years ago before it opened to the public and wish to explore its interior sometime. Thanks Hannah for another informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That was so interesting and illuminating. I agree that can’t have been an easy visit. As you say, it is important that people are aware of this history despite those horrible visions.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is absolutely horrifying. It’s so disheartening to learn how truly awful humans can be to one another. I can’t imagine living through something like this. Thank you for sharing this piece of Estonia’s history. I never realized just how many terrible things happened under Soviet rule.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lyssy. I totally agree, I’d had a bit of a mood earlier in the day because I didn’t get the breakfast I’d ordered…after that visit I decided I was ridiculous. It puts everything into perspective.


  5. Really interesting post. Even though it is not a light and fun subject, it is really important to talk about these things to understand more about a country, but also to avoid reproducing them in the future. I can imagine this visit was not and easy one, but I hope you got a nice comforting meal afterwards! Thanks for sharing this visit with us too, I really had no idea about Estonia’s soviet past!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Juliette, I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I definitely ate a lot of food and drank too much wine afterwards. It’s so important though to learn about these awful periods of history and the impact on people

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This post struck a nerve, Hannah! It’s quite horrifying how much the Estonian people suffered under the Soviet Union as did the Latvians and Lithuanians.

    You need to have an open mind for visiting the prison and places alike and be ready to deal with the heavy atmosphere. It is inevitable to feel it, especially because it seems that something really bad happened there, somehow everybody left and destroyed it but they left it all behind. Given that my family lived under the strict Russian regime for way too many years, I wish more people from around the world would visit the Baltics and learn what Russians are capable of doing to other human beings as many are still unaware of what happened. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Aiva, I’m sorry – I know every family’s story is different, but I haven’t come across one without at least some tragedy and hardship. The things the Baltic people, and your family, went through are just unimaginable. It is so important we learn and re-tell the history to educate and never forget. xx

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  7. I agree that it’s so important to visit and learn sites like Patarei. I don’t know if fascinating is the right word but what occurred in many of these prisons around the world is just so inhumane and cruel that the interest also lies in how people could have committed these acts. I hope I get to visit one day- it sounds like alot of research and time has gone into ensuring visitors have a comprehensive understanding of that time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean – it’s just so important to visit and learn and it’s crazy that these things happened. I am always surprised by humanity’s cruelty to one another, but perhaps that is a good thing. We need to make sure we don’t take freedom for granted, that’s for sure. Thanks for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for reading – I agree, the depths to which humanity can sink and treat others is truly appalling and shocking. Sadly, it is still happening in the world today and it makes me very sad.


  8. These type of places are never a joyous visit, but like you said, it’s important to know the history in order to fully understand a country/city. It certainly must have been difficult to visit, thank you for sharing the history here.

    Liked by 1 person

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