Tour guides have called it the most haunted place in Estonia.
And you can wander around the empty halls and rooms of this vast abandoned structure entirely on your own.
It was built as a sea fortress under the orders of Nicholas I of Russia (ca. 1828) to protect the sailing route to St. Petersburg, and finally completed in 1840.
The vast sprawling structure covers an area of 4 hectares (10 acres), and when its fortress phase became obsolete, in 1867 it saw service as a barracks.
But Patarei is best known for the years between 1919 and 2004, when it served as a Soviet prison.
We parked outside the outermost wall and walked through the gates, toward what looked like a college-aged couple sitting in a small shack. We paid a few euros admission and were given a small brochure. And then we wandered this massive abandoned structure at will, exploring anywhere which wasn’t locked.
Many people were murdered in Patarei. The last execution took place there in 1991, right before the Soviets left. We also heard rumours of psychic experiments having been conducted in the medical wards. And the walls seem to hold the echoes of past screams.
Pre-WWII executions took place in the hanging room, down a narrow corridor in a space between thick walls. A hole had been cut into the floor to accommodate the legs of the condemned, when the support had been kicked out from beneath them.
Later executions by the KGB took place in a room where the walls had been painted red to conceal bloodstains. Prisoners were shot in the back of the head. Several heavy doors and thick walls hid the sound of those shots from the outside world.
For the first hour or so — in the courtyard and especially in the deepest corners of the basement — we had the place entirely to ourselves. We wandered alone down there, and the only sound was my breathing, and my shoes crunching on broken glass or shuffling across stone floors as I picked my way carefully over debris.
My wife and I became separated in the dank cellars. She was photographing a narrow room filled with junk, so I wandered into the next room to see what was there. When I came back, she was gone. I never heard her calling me; the darkness had swallowed all sound.
Despite rumours that this was the most haunted place in Estonia, I didn’t find it creepy, apart from the medical wing and a couple rooms that were so dark I couldn’t see inside. Those rooms felt like a scene from the Walking Dead, I expected to hear stumbling footsteps behind me at any moment.
The rooms went on and on and on. And we were left to decipher each clue for ourselves, and to piece together what each room must have been.
The prison cages in the exercise area — a large courtyard in the centre of the fortresses wings — was based on the same basic format as the KGB jail I saw in Vilnius, Lithuania. Narrow cells of stone block, with a small view of the sky through the cage over the roof, and a walkway running down the centre so guards could look down on prisoners from above.
There was barely enough room to pace around in a circle. And only high noon would give proper light. But I guess it didn’t matter very much. According to records, prisoners only got 1 hour of sunlight per week.
Inside the central portion of the prison, a long curved hallway stretched for ¼ mile in an arc originally designed to ensure that invaders of the fortress couldn’t fire a shot down its length.
Huge cells opened off this hall, room after narrow room, crammed with 16 metal bunks. Each cell held 30 people who were locked there awaiting trial, or exile to Siberia. At its peak, Patarei held around 4,600 prisoners.
Damp cells faced the sea with tall wooden windows, giving a view of the ferry terminal, and of ships going past, and warmth, and freedom. But it must have been so terribly cold and damp in winter, with the wind streaming through broken panes and gaps, and those stone walls soaking up the sea air.
So much junk is just left as it was when the Soviets went away. Blankets are scattered on bunks, as though squatters had occupied the place and stepped out moments before we entered the room.
Decaying books rotted on shelves in the prison library. Photos of women torn from magazines were still taped to the walls of the cells. Old telephones and typewriters were piled in a heap in the centre of one narrow office room. And coils of razor wire still rusted in the yard.
Bare bulbs light a lot of the prison rooms. But many rooms and cells have been left in darkness, as though the Soviets had just gone and forgot to close the door.
In the surgeries of the medical wing, old operating lights hung over stained tables, and empty vials, packs of latex gloves, and paperwork were scattered in piles on the floor.
The wing beneath and above the medical area had more spacious, open rooms. They must have been used for the staff, or for administrative purposes.
The third floor of one wing had been used for some sort of pop up art exhibit, and the walls still held anti war and anti Soviet murals. It lent the place a very strange atmosphere. An attempt to reclaim the past from old ghosts. But it only seemed to amplify their groans and screams.
There are some who feel Patarei should be restored and curated. But that totally abandoned atmosphere is the best way to capture the brutality of the Soviet era.
It isn’t the same when you’re visiting some cleaned up, airbrushed site with guides or a tour group. Those tours become routine, the speeches are rote — and so are the jokes — and you never know how much is nationalist propaganda.
When a site like Patarei is airbrushed, that rawness is gone.
But here you’re picking through the debris of someone’s life. You’re seeing the ugliness of the official quarters and rooms. The utilitarian facelessness of it all.
You can vividly imagine how hopeless and bleak it must have felt to be locked away there. How the cold would chill you to the bone beneath a coarse wool blanket, as you stared at the ceiling from a rusted metal bunk. You can imagine the sour sweat smell of all those confined people. And the smell of bad food and boiled cabbage.
The prison was vast, and it seemed to go on and on, through so many long corridors and dark rooms, on level after level. But we only saw a small fraction of it. And that took three hours.
Several other wings were locked up with steel doors, or barred so that I could only see another gloomy corridor disappearing into distant shadow, with room after room opening off of it.
When we finally came out, the sky hung low and rain was drizzling down. So we didn’t emerge into sunlight.
And we walked away in silence.
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2015