Paterai Prison: the Best Bars in Tallinn

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The weeds were waist-high at the foot of the watchtower; the windows were smashed, the door rusted open.

The whitewash on the main building had weathered to beige and flaked away and exposed the crumbling brick beneath. Razor wire coiled haphazardly round the edge of the roof. Windows were missing panes of glass behind the bars; some had been bricked up and a few, in what must have been administrative rooms, seemed stuck open.

Paterai Sea Fortress is a sprawling sextant-shaped building arranged – as an estate agent would say – over four floors, including the basement. It was built as a cannon battery in 1840 on the orders of the Tsar to protect the shipping lanes to St Petersburg; later it was converted into barracks, and later still to a prison. But it was long ago abandoned and left to decay.


The main wing curves around the waterfront and looks out across Tallinn Bay. Two smaller wings extend from the rear and meet at a point and enclose a courtyard with standard Soviet exercise blocks, three metre squared, surrounded by walls too high to see over, open at the top, but covered with mesh. A gangway for the guards runs between them.

I had read that it was possible to arrange guided tours but instead just turned up and walked in. I doubt that I was supposed to, but the gate was open and the security guard never looked up.

There was an eerie silence in corridors which once must have echoed with the slamming of doors, the jangle of keys, the clunk of locks; sobs and screams, jeers and shouts, the thumps and squeaks of scuffles, running feet and the sickening thuds of batons swung with abandon.


The paint was bubbling from the walls, and each accretion from each regime was visible; the chequerboard floor tiles were half-hidden under dust. A ventilation duct had burst open and its panels hung limply from the ceiling.

The administrative rooms had the look of being ransacked, or cleared out in a hurry by ham-fisted soldiers.  Drawers left open, doors hanging off cupboards; chairs knocked over and never picked up, the contents of files strewn across desks and over the floor. Smashed typewriters, telephones and office bric-a-brac spilling out into the corridor.

The dusty shelves in what used to be the library were bare, except for a few rows of toppled booklets, stray pages from books and screwed up newspapers with the headlines of twenty-five years ago.


A few of the cells still had skeletal bunks squeezed in rows under vaulted ceilings – it was thirty to a cell in Soviet times. The rest were hauntingly empty, expect, perhaps, for a solitary chair and paint which had peeled from the walls in strips and covered the floor like autumn leaves.

There was nothing to stop me nosing about wherever I liked and I wandered, as if at a gallery, down each of the long, empty corridors, stepping through gates which used to seal off each section, peering into rooms never knowing what I would find inside, with only natural light spilling through windows and into the corridor through open doors, and occasionally being plunged into total darkness and having to use the torch on my phone.

One room was filled with old chairs, spewing out stuffing, upside down bunks, collapsing cupboards, more Soviet newspapers, leg braces, and the remains of a notice with a heading in Russian which my phone translated, nonsensically, as “what to do if grab”.


Another room had a sink in one corner, missing its taps and stained dark brown, and a squat toilet whose walls were papered with fading pictures torn from magazines of young women who might well be grandmothers now.

The tiles in one room of the old prison hospital were still gleaming white, but the grouting around them was filthy with age and neglect and the paint, as elsewhere, was peeling away in sheets and the damp was blackening the plaster beneath.

Operatory lights were still attached to the ceiling, angled at the frame of an operating table and a mottled dentist’s chair. There were big broken bottles, scattered syringes and a box marked ‘ТАБЛЕТКИ’ (pills), and cabinets and machines and tables and chairs which looked as if they belonged in a hospital bay; but there were, as well, discordant notes like a flat iron, a house brick and the rusting head of a pitchfork. It looked like conceptual art.

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It occurred to me, when I was at the far end of the corridor on the top floor, that the security guard would be likely at some point – I had no idea when – to lock the front door, shut the gate and go home for the day. It occurred to me, too, that no one knew I was inside.

Perhaps I might hear the door shut; and perhaps I might be able to run to an open window, or wrestle one open, and shout down to the security guard; but, then, this was the security guard who never noticed me going in.

I hurried a little after that, down to the claustrophobic basement where one room was filled with old bicycle wheels – surreal, but I was conditioned to the surreal by then – and out into the courtyard, where I waded through weeds to the exercise blocks, then quickly up, down and along the other wings.


In a melancholy room lined with heating pipes, spotted with damp, and lit through a small, high window, there was a trapdoor in the floor and a rusted hole in the ceiling above it where a hook used to be. This, apparently, was where prisoners were hanged.

There was no way that I was going to risk spending the night among the ghosts of this bleak and silent monolith. I made for the exit and slipped out again. The security guard never looked up.

© Richard Senior 2016

Tallinn When the Ships Leave


The walls of Tallinn had been up for six centuries when the Wall went up and were still up three decades later when the Wall came down and when Estonia joined the EU and then the Euro and the border posts came down and the prices went up and the tourists flooded in.

They come to gaze at the old city walls and the terracotta-topped turrets and the cobbled lanes and the merchants’ houses and craftsmen’s guilds and the spires and arches and old wooden houses and pastel-painted facades and to smirk at the sign which modestly claims that “parts of the old monastery [are] of historical interest” and a tower called Kiek in de Kök, which sounds painful but turns out to be Low German for ‘peep in the kitchen’.

The old town was made a conservation area in the middle sixties – around the time that architects everywhere decided that buildings should be unpleasant to look at – and the medieval skyline has not been interrupted by discordant modern blocks and, within the walls, old Tallinn has retained its historic integrity and manages without the cheesy, oversized logos of global chains which so many ancient towns think they need.


The buildings, which were shabby and soot-blackened in the Soviet days, have since been cleaned up and freshly painted; and the town has been cleaned up, as well, since the early, free-wheeling, post-Soviet days when dive bars offered cheap drinks and bad music to roaring stags and screeching hens, and working girls openly hustled for business in the middle of town. It is a beautiful, charming, intensely photogenic city.

But for much of the day, it is hardly worth taking your camera out because every building has people standing in front of it, straightening their hair with their fingers and smiling uncertainly while significant others take endless snapshots for family albums, and friends photographing each other doing the sort of jumps you see in the brochures for self-styled adventure travel companies – the sort which look like a soldier being machine-gunned from behind.

I carefully picked my way through the chicanes of selfie sticks, and ducked and hurried and did emergency stops to avoid photobombing strangers, and got repeatedly stopped by couples who pressed their cameras on me and appointed me their official photographer, as they posed in front of buildings, straightening their hair with their fingers and smiling uncertainly. I stood, as if at a level crossing while a goods train passed, as tour groups with loud voices and louder shorts rallied behind the flag, saying “hey, ain’t it priddy,” and “questo è bellissimo” and “look, dear, aren’t there a lot of foreigners”.

Half a million people live in Tallinn and another half million pour off the cruise ships every year. All of them seemed to be there at once, on the same baking August weekend as me.


Then at five o’ clock, the foghorns of the ships in the harbour farted and the multiple bells of the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral announced the hour: the big confident bells, the apologetic little bells, the sonorous bongs and incessant tinkles, all clashing together in a great cacophony like a big box of assorted bells dropped down a flight of stairs. They went on ringing for at least a minute – I thought they might keep it up the whole hour – and, distracted by them, I did not notice at first that the crowds had melted away, that the lanes had cleared, that no one was posing now in front of the buildings straightening their hair with their fingers and smiling uncertainly, and no one was asking me to take their photo, and the pied pipers of the tour companies had led their groups to the harbour.

It was dreamlike, then, in the narrow lanes with the dwindling sunlight playing on the buildings and casting long shadows and few people about and little sound except my own footsteps on the cobbles.

 © Richard Senior 2015