Exploring Tallinn’s Patarei Prison

Patarei Prison in Kalamaja, Tallinn, with broken windows and sea fortress architecture against blue sky

Patarei Prison is certainly strange, but overwhelmingly sad, rather than creepy, in the evening light. It’s silently and slowly decaying, the once proud fort that’s now shedding its last layer of skin, generous flakes of Soviet-era oil-based paint in muted colours. Tallinn’s formidable sea fortress no longer keeps anyone from the outside world: instead, it’s full of weeds, rust and damp.

Sadly Patarei was permanently closed to visitors from 7th October, as it’s become too unsafe, but it’ll reopen in the future with full access and hopefully a museum in place. In the meantime, you can see the exterior from Beeta promenade, but I want to share why the site is so important.

Corridor with prison cells at Patarei, now abandoned building, in Tallinn city, with green peeling paint
Inside the main block, which held male prisoners.

The Russians were actually first to occupy Patarei, not long after it was built as a fort for Nicholas I in 1840. Like so much of Estonia, the fort-turned-prison adapted to each 20th century change of hands, from brief Estonian rule to Russian control, then Nazi rule, then Soviet takeover, before the fall of the Iron Curtain saw it back in rightful Estonian ownership again. The last prisoners left in 2005; art students made it their dramatic exhibition space nine years later.

Even in summer, I found the buildings are damp, cold and unforgiving. Piles of detritus, like cables, books and long-forgotten typewriter parts, seem to lurk around every corner. Artworks vary: some are clever; others are just deliberately provocative scrawls. Lurid murals and more contemporary waste piles aside, the atmosphere reminded me of Kilmainham Jail in Dublin. Like Kilmainham, a good way to preserve the site would be to hire it out as a film location (as long as projects were vetted first).

Estonian prison sea fortress with peeling paint, damp walls and memorial plaques to those held here.
The building is now in disrepair and, like Kilmainham, it may well become a museum. The plaques (bottom right) are for Jewish Holocaust victims who either passed through or were killed here.

If this was Britain, Patarei Prison would be snapped up by opportunist developers, quickly becoming a gated community of luxury apartments, the irony lost on the elite buyers who could afford their price tags. One of my friends insisted it’s better to walk into Paterei and explore in your own time (which you definitely can’t do since the closure, as everything’s secured), but I’m glad I took the tour and saw things in context. You can’t really understand this place without it – you’re just passively looking at ‘ruin porn’. That’s all well and good for Instagram shots and obnoxious articles for Vice magazine (which published a tacky piece of Paterei clickbait including phrases like ‘the anti-lulz of the hanging chamber’).

The key to any renovation is to respect the people held here – and sometimes murdered – in horrendous conditions. That means preserving or recreating as much of the 19th-20th century features as possible. When I visited a totally different attraction, the glitzy Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen, I loved how you could step into an intact room with no risk of spoiling it, thanks to simple glass panels separating visitors from exhibits. Similar glass panels would work really well at Patarei, so anything over the divide would remain intact, but would pass any health and safety tests. Estonians could also look at site-specific museums like Colditz Castle for more inspiration.

Estonian prison architecture rusting and damaged
The earth is slowly reclaiming this site, with weeds everywhere and materials disintegrating. However, the hanging basket is a weirdly domestic touch for a prison.

Paterei became a prison in 1920, with 4,000 inmates in the Nazi era and 2,500 in the Soviet era. Things were, of course, brutal under the Nazis – people hung at random each morning with typical sadism, as my guide explained. However, a little research after my trip uncovered more shocking stories not covered on the tour. Male Estonian Jews were shot here in October 1941 (women and children were sent to Harku concentration camp, then transferred elsewhere); groups of foreign Jews were kept in Paterei before some were sent onto Vaivara camp, then to Germany or Poland’s concentration camp systems; several thousand others didn’t reach Vaivara but instead were shot and dumped in mass graves at Kalevi-Liiva. Read more about the Holocaust in Estonia here. There are two on-site memorials to Holocaust victims, and I hope this will be expanded by the time it reopens.

Further horrors occurred from 1944-1953. 30,000 Estonians were sent to Siberia, the guide explained, and Paterei was their pre-court prison. Post-WWII conditions were particularly harsh as guards let the toughest prisoners establish order. The most downtrodden inmates had to sleep by the toilet and were routinely abused by others; guards would turn a blind eye, and sometimes close the single ventilation shaft to each prison dormitory. My guide explained that people would deliberately puncture a lung to try and stay in the hospital wing; looking at the rusting beds and imagining the disgusting and degrading conditions, I could hardly blame them. Today’s hospital ward is intimidating, with an ancient operating area, beds and medical equipment, but it was still a relative haven for traumatised inmates.

Inside Estonia's sea fortress prison with medical ward, broken materials and typewriter.
Things may have moved on since the inmates left, but many of these details would be recognisable to them from years ago: that medical reception, the clunky Soviet-era equipment. Everything has a story.

After 1953, the nightmare continued. Shower day, on Thursdays, came with menace: the person to be shot was quietly extracted from the shower queue, taken to a red room and shot. Others were made to wait for the death penalty at the end of the corridor, a place known chillingly as ‘Leningrad house’. The last death penalty was handed out in 1991. I don’t know how many records remain from the KGB-dominant era of Paterei (if they’re anything like the Hotel Viru in Tallinn, they could be comprehensive), but it would be great to bring survivors’ stories to life and put names and faces to those lost.

One particular prison mural sees snarling wolves, representing Nazism and Communism, facing each other: ‘The same dogs behind the same bones’, reads a quote at the top. Estonia’s rapid progress since independence in 1991 is all the more remarkable considering what its people went through.

Graffiti at Patarei with black and white street art mural against prison wall
There are murals everywhere, courtesy of art students and enthusiastic visitors/trespassers.

Outdoor exercise ‘boxes’ introduced in the 50s meant prisoners could get some air, if not much space. When heating arrived, they communicated in Morse code by tapping on the pipes (the women made to work as cleaners were particularly good at this). More modern additions to the prison feel out of place: a gym and sauna area overlooking the water is perhaps the weirdest, however empty and crumbling it may be.

Places like Paterei deserve to be understood and remembered, however gruesome the details, and hopefully it will be preserved for future generations without its impact being diluted.

Conditions today in Estonia's famous prison, where Nazis and Soviets held locals
A glimpse of the sea – if they were lucky, inmates might have seen this briefly during their time inside the fortress. More likely, they’d have stared at the walls or quickly glanced at the courtyard during their hourly ‘exercise’ once a week.

Visiting Notes: Paterei Prison, at Kalaranna 2a, is close to the Sea Plane Harbour. It’s a 35-40 minute walk from the city centre (Viru Street area); alternatively, take the 73 bus to the Lennusadam stop for a shorter walk.  The complex is now closed to tourists but you can view it from the outside, and from further along the sea wall.