Introduction: The Difficult Past of Estonia
The spicy scent of smoke didn’t seem to bother the residents of Valmiera, a small town in Latvia. Old wooden houses were standing next to the new ones reminding the bypassers that poverty and income differences are a part of everyday life in Latvia, a country fled from the Soviet union palms only two decades ago. We had arrived in Valmiera the previous night, and now the rising sun revealed the true faces of Valmiera to us. The abandoned manor houses we had already seen in our visit dominated our conversation, and we were impatiently looking forward to seeing our main destination, the abandoned military town of Skrunda. Our rental car was (again) filled with gear and we were carefully prepared to find the town from the countryside where it is easy to get lost. We had been shooting other places in Estonia just a couple weeks earlier and now we were ready to continue our work and our exploration.
The history of the Baltic region was strongly visible wherever we went. Hammer and sickle, Lenin and the cyrillic letter were signs of a utopia, which left so much confusion and sadness behind it. In this case, sadness meant something valuable for us - a treasure chest of abandoned places. We had seen a lot so far, but the old utopia seemed to offer us strange visions time after time. The abandoned military installations represented the remnants of a delusional doctrine whereas the forgotten and deteriorating manor houses were signs of peace, culture, and ancient beauty. Pale factories, or what was left of them, got us thinking more and more about the fast economical change that reformed these countries rapidly. The western cities and the countryside are still rifts from a different time, divided to their own eras. Life in the countryside seemed to be protected from the struggle for power, but also from the fast pace of modern life.
We set the coordinates to our GPS and checked that we were going to the right direction. Inside our cold car, we were forced to trust to this simple set of numbers. The scent of smoke quickly vanished as we left Valmiera behind and started our journey towards Skrunda, a place where the ghosts of the Soviet Union were still present.
Abandoned locations in the Baltic Region
The Baltic region is comprised of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The northmost country of the Baltics is Estonia. A shallow gulf separates Estonia from Finland, which is part of the Nordic region. Latvia shares a border with Estonia in the South and Latvia also has some borderline with Belarus. Lithuania is to the South from Estonia and Latvia. Lithuania shares a border with Poland. The concept of “Baltic” was introduced after the First World War, Finland was often seen as one of the Baltic States, but the coming decades intertwined Finland to the Nordic region and to Scandinavia. During the Soviet years, the area of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was called “Pribaltika” in Russian. The mutual Baltic identity was forced by the shared experiences from the Soviet Union and close collaboration during the years of struggle for independence.
When the Baltics declared their independence after the Soviet Union collapsed, they were faced with enormous financial reforms. Before, exports of these three countries were shipped only to Soviet Union now the countries had to start their economies from a scratch. The inefficient factories in the countryside could not compete in an open market economy and as a result, unemployment skyrocketed. Export comprised mainly of ordnance and the demand for it was nonexistent. The rapid transition to market economy was a shock for the Baltics. One of the biggest challenges was the return of private ownership. Lands and companies were returned to their previous owners from the times before the communist era. This redistribution of property meant that there were winners, and losers. Surprisingly, the states triumphed and only a decade later after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic nations had the fastest growing economies in the European union in which the countries joined together in 2004.
The rapid changes were still visible and we could sense the change in the large quantity of abandoned buildings. Compared to Finland, a visit in an Estonian abandoned building, a factory for instance, is a totally different experience. In Finland, the factories can be filled with items, machines, and “stuff” which tells more about the place and the moment the place was abandoned. There are more clues about the story. In the Baltics, everything worth selling has been ripped from the buildings. Whether an abandoned military compound, factory or apartment, only walls are intact. It can be difficult to investigate a place when no items remain and stories don’t reveal facts to the explorers. The large amount of abandoned buildings is a result of a particularly wide migration from the Baltics in the beginning of the 1990s.
Our navigator was telling us that were closing in on Skrunda. We had been driving for hours and while the excitement grew the journey seemed slow and the miles long. A couple of times, we stopped to shoot some smaller abandoned buildings which we noticed from the moving car. Our schedule was sound and we would have 5-6 hours in Skrunda before the sunset. Mostly the scenery was of farms and thick, gloomy forests. We felt that we were on foreign ground although Latvia isn’t so far away from Finland. We were close, and the coordinates didn’t let us down. We found an old sand road with signs telling us that we were there. After a while, we encountered an old guard booth with a Lada (Made in Russia-styled car) parked in front of it. We had heard that the locals made some extra cash with entrance fees to Skrunda because the town had built quite a reputation in the past years. The rumours were true, in the car an old woman was waiting for some visitors to the place. We had no trouble paying the woman the entrance fee and besides tickets, we got ourselves a good laugh. She gave us also a map of the area with no English translation so it was basically useless to us, but of course we thanked her and started to make our way to the town. We collected the equipment from our car and started pacing towards the silhouette in the distance. We were in the ghost town of Skrunda.
Skrunda-1 is a piece of utopia that is slowly slipping away from our minds, into history. In the vicinity of the town of Skrunda used to lay a Dnestr-M-type radio station. With the help of this station, the Soviet Union could have detected possible nuclear weapons launches from the West. Another station of this type was planned but never constructed. The city of Skrunda was quickly built after the development of the ICBM, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, which can carry a nuclear weapon from one continent to another. Soldiers, proudly wearing hammer and sickle in their uniforms, sat 24 hours a day, year after year, listening to a possible missile launch from another side of the world. The missiles never came, although both powers kept their fingers on the red button through the Cold War. The balance of terror kept Skrunda alive.
Buildings made from cheap grey brick seemed to go on forever, column after column. The apartment buildings were identifiable by their height from the other buildings. The lines of windows crossed the buildings symmetrically. The administrative buildings were located between the high apartment buildings. The town used to have its own school, a theater, and many other buildings constructed for a specific purpose. These purposes were difficult to guess and the identical exteriors of the buildings didn’t help us. We separated because there was over 70 abandoned buildings to explore. I chose the first apartment building in front of me. Almost all the windows were broken, in every building. The shards made loud sounds under my boots when I entered the cold and dim stairway. There was no sign of beauty or architectural touch inside the building, only symmetrical steps in box-shaped staircase. Sad. The smell of mold came to meet me quickly, by now it was a familiar smell. The scent of urban exploration. I started climbing the dusty steps and entered the first apartment that I found. I knew that the apartment would be identical to one another. The communist dream. A couple of empty bottles, some books on the floor, faint illustrations of flowers on the wallpapers. Someone used to live here, a family with laughing children. All the happiness had disappeared from this place. No hope or joy. This was a dead place. All the furniture had been moved, stolen or transformed into shapeless goo. The floors were covered with this weird moldy mass that used to be something with armrests. Because of the broken windows, winter entered the apartments yearly. Slowly, the process of decomposition transformed interiors of the apartments. Actually, not all the apartments were the same. In the top floor, I found a door with nice leathery decorations. Behind the door I found a slightly larger apartment. Maybe the “penthouse”, the apartment for an officer who was higher in the ranks. The thank you-gift of the Soviet Army was a couple more square meters of space for the officer and his family.
We met up with Tanja in the main street and decided to continue the journey together. We moved away from the apartment buildings and stepped inside an administrative building located in the outskirts of Skrunda. From the outside it was impossible to say what this building was used for. The interiors gave us some clues but many of the buildings in the area kept their purpose as a secret. Two large barracks contained large spaces, maybe some sort of ballroom for soldiers. All the furniture had been taken so the rooms didn’t seem so ceremonial anymore. A lonely lampshade still remained, maybe it had been too far from the ground to be stolen. Upstairs, we found wooden gun racks and cupboards that were decorated with hammer and sickle, classic icons of Soviet power. Each room constructed an exciting imaginary setting to our minds with mysterious soldiers in a secret military town. Back in the day, the secret of Skrunda started to unveil actually through radio and tv, but not the way you would think. The nearby civilian population started to witness interference in their radio- and tv-broadcasts. The radio transmission could stop for no apparent reason and weird shapes formed over tv-broadcasts. Maybe they were the faces of long forgotten heroes, faces that were painted in the walls of Skrunda.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1992 but the last Soviet soldiers left Skrunda 1998. On the remnants of Soviet Union, the state of Russia was built and Russia would have wanted to continue the use of Skrunda. This wish never came true for the generals of the new Russian army. The huge radio station “Darjal - UM” was demolished in a controlled explosion which cost up to 8 million US dollars. The older radio stations operated until 1998 and when they were closed down, the remaining soldiers packed their equipment and left the area quietly. The military installation known as the town of Skrunda-1 has been abandoned ever since. Throughout the history, Skrunda was closely kept secret. Not even the civilians living only 7 kilometers away knew about the military town. Dark woods cloaked the concrete town with all its secrets.
I was looking at a wall, covered by series of different paintings. Soviet era propaganda. In one particular painting, young soldiers are aiming bravely with machine-guns. The next one illustrates a handsome bunch of sailors defending a sinking ship in flames. Next to the sailors, a huge face of Lenin is constructed into the wall out of stony mosaic. I had seen it before in many Urbex photos. After a photoshoot of the walls, Tanja led me into a two-floored building. The walls of the second floor were painted bright pink, which seemed kind of odd. I peeked from a small window and understood quickly where we were. Just a couple of rows still had benches. The stage had collapsed years ago and it was now only a pile of wood rubble. I was looking at the theater of Skrunda, or what was left of it. Maybe the theater was used as a movie theater because the hole from where I was peeking, would be a perfect spot for a projector. Maybe 25 years earlier, young men were sitting on the rows with no idea what would happen to the Soviet union, and to Skrunda for that matter.
Illustrations of soldiers in various athletic poses seemed a bit funny to us. A little laughter was welcomed. We were standing in the gym hall of Skrunda, which was decorated by gymnastic recommendations for the soldiers. The floor of the hall was gone, only rocky soil was under our feet. The basketball hoops were still intact but covered with rust, naturally. We could still see the large hammer and sickle in the wall. For decades, Skrunda tried to cover herself from the gazes of ordinary people. Now, in the 21st century, military bases live in a symbiotic relationship with their neighbouring towns. Skrunda on the other hand was living its own life, like a tiny society which offered all the essential services to the inhabitants. The essential services were defined by the authority though, and a black market must have flourished. The luxury items were for the elite. The set up reflects well the ideology of communism: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Skrunda tried to imitate a society on its own scale and because of this, was so unique. A miniature utopia.
What kind of a place was Skrunda for the kids? We found some clues when we entered the former school of Skrunda. The dusty corridors danced in apathy. We only understood that we were inside of a school after we recognized the words in the doors, each door had a sign labeled: “класс” and a sequentially laid number after each sign. The cyrillic word can be translated into “class”. From the dust we found odd illustrations about smiling children jumping rope, driving tricycles and throwing ball. The paint on the walls was hanging chaotically wherever we looked. Communism and capitalism were unknown ideas for the children who didn’t see anything bad in a picture of Mickey Mouse, and apparently the teachers didn’t either, because the happy cartoon character with classic large ears decorated a paper calendar. I was wondering about the people who were sitting in these classes - how do they see society and our world now? What was taught in these classes and how was the life of child in this town? Maybe I’ll never know, not much remains. I can only forge an image in my mind which is based on the sad and dusty walls of Skrunda. I know that this place used to have joy, laughter, and everyday dreams of ordinary people. So much is forgotten, so much left unsaid.
We spent hours in Skrunda. When we were finished with one building, we headed to the next and eventually we had seen them all. We carried our camera gear for hours with us. Countless corridors, basements, roofs, apartments, and halls were saved to our memory cards. We also installed a Theta 360 set-up to the main street so we could capture the whole sight of Skrunda. We saw Skrunda in the sunrise and in the sunset. The town was ghostly quiet when we left, we were the only people in a whole town. The familiar sand road quickly disappeared into the dark forest along the town when we drove out. Skrunda was like an odd dream which left us somehow troubled. Maybe the camera could interpret what we had just seen.
Only for the past couple of years, Rummu has been favoured by scuba divers because the lake floor is covered with buildings, walls, and mining machinery. When I dived in Rummu for the first time, the place was unknown to many divers back in Finland. It is weird because Rummu isn’t actually so far from Helsinki, only about a hundred kilometers. We visited Rummu three times in the past six months and witnessed the Rummu lake bathing both in sunlight and in ice.
The prison of Rummu is located in Rummu (surprise) in Estonia. The original name of the prison is Murru and the name Rummu is affiliated with the area which is much larger that the actual prison area. The prison camp was founded just before the Second World War in 1938. The image of a prison with modern cells and cafeterias doesn’t quite add up because the prison resembles more like a labour camp than a regular prison like the Patarei prison for example. The reason for both the location and the moist fate of the prison lies in the booming mining industry of the time. The prisoners were the labour force of the camp and the prison employed over 400 prisoners for the mining. The largest buildings of the prison were constructed between the 1960s and 1980s. The first barracks were built from wood, the first actual prison cell was built in 1949. Just like in Skrunda, everything was made out of grey cheap brick and it covers both the structures beneath and above the waterline.
Mining of sandstone and slate filled most of the days of the prisoners but there was also a vocational school in the prison area where tractor drivers and metalworkers were taught. The groundwater of Rummu quarry was pumped through a long ditch straight into a pond in the center of Rummu town and was again used in farming. The mining came to a halt when the Soviet Union collapsed and Estonia became independent right after. The demand for the mining products quickly decreased and with the new republic, the idea of using the prisoners as miners didn’t seem so ideal anymore. The groundwater pumps seized and the area was partially filled with water. This is why today scuba divers can find buildings and remains of the vocational school underwater. The area is divided by a long wall in which old lamps are still attached. Slowly the lamps have turned green, just like everything else in the quarry lake.
The potholes of the dirt road were frozen. The road took us around the quarry lake, behind the huge sandstone hill. The sun was warming up the day and the winter had not gone so far that the quarry lake would have been frozen. Diving in open water was still possible, barely. Soon the lake would receive its icy blanket and diving would be much more difficult. We were planning to do only one dive this time because the water was freezing. Our small rental car was packed with both scuba and photography gear. We stopped next to the wall partially covered with barb wire. We put on our dry suits and assembled our underwater gear. Next we climbed from a little hole in the wall with full gear which warmed me up nicely for the icy water. There was some walking up ahead before we reached the waterline. The gear started to feel pretty heavy but soon the water took the weight away and familiar weightlessness of scuba diving was the dominant feeling when we descended to the bottom of the quarry. The cold water shivered my lips. I could hear my own breathing through the regulator with a mechanical tone. In water, sound travels a lot faster but still, silence reigns.
We circled the largest building underwater, some sections of this particular building were above the waterline. The visibility in the water was fair but rays of midday sunlight revealed the walls and the shapes of the buildings in front of us. We swam inside from a large doorway inside the basement of a building with a partially collapsed roof. Some of the rooms were completely underwater. The rooms were full of concrete and darkness. Bars are still intact in the windows. Even though the buildings are grey, the penetrating greenness of the water brought warmth to the scenery. Nature has taken over this world a long time ago.
We continue our dive towards the next group of buildings. Large concrete elements have fallen over the building in front of us. The pillars are covered with green growth, some sort of thick mycelium is hanging everywhere. We enter a building swimming under one of the elements. Our eyes adjust to the darkness quickly. In the next room, rays of light are illuminating the scene from windows and a doorway. Our exhale bubbles hit the roof of the rooms trying to seek their way into surface. This dive is very shallow, my gauge is showing that we are only 6 meters deep, basically at the surface. From a narrow doorway we manage to squeeze inside the next room. The rooms are basically empty, no items are left. A single beer bottle is lying on the floor. We hover weightlessly from room to room. The peaceful state of mind is turning into coldness. The water is 4 degrees celsius. I am used to shivers when exploring the abandoned world but this time it is because I was actually freezing.
The outlines of a wall is slowly forming into my retinas. Soon, I was hovering next to an old lamp which is still hanging from the wall. Years ago it lit the side of the wall but now it serves only as a reminder of the purpose of the place. Familiar growth is hanging from it and beneath I can see rolls of barbed wire. Tanja is circling around the wall taking pictures and effortlessly she points out where I have to move so we can take a proper photo. Underwater photography has its own set of rules. Photos are usually about scenes foreign to most of us and a figure of a diver helps the viewer understand the proportions in the picture. I inhale and ascend into the exact place where Tanja wants me to halt. After that, I can’t move a fin. I can see old wooden stairs below me as well as some handrailings, I turn just a degree or two. Tanja is adjusting the camera and I can see that it is getting harder and harder to take the shot. Her fingers are numb from the coldness.
We had been under the surface for an hour circling around the walls, buildings and rooms inside them. Coldness had taken the sense from our fingers and toes. It didn’t take much stiff hand signaling to get to an agreement about ending the dive. In water, coldness reaches the diver much more quickly than in surface. Water conducts heat much more effectively, especially in the winter when water is near its freezing point. The world under the surface is mystical and beautiful but at some point, coldness fills the divers mind. It was time to head to the surface, to a much more dry photographing environment. An hour in a weightless space seems like a deception. The gear feels like lead. We took off the fins and headed to our car. It was the end of only one dive. Rummu is a special place especially for Tanja. I could see a faint smile from her blueish lips.
The buildings rising from the green water form a bizarre sight. On a clear day, one can see the underwater structures, buildings and walls, easily from the sand hill next to the quarry lake. I’m not surprised why this place fascinates so many, including Tanja. Unfortunately, not much history remains from this odd place. Just like in Skrunda, documents of old photos are really hard to come by. I have never seen one photo from the active days of the Rummu prison camp. It seems like Rummu was born underwater, but still we can figure out that the place used to be very different. Again, pictures are formed differently for everyone, we can only rely on our imagination if we want to visit Soviet-era Rummu.
The retired coast guard officer seemed to lighten up when we asked what it was like in Paldiski when the Soviet union collapsed. The story made the listeners, us to be exact, focus on the details because we could only imagine what was to be found from Paldiski, a town which had successfully hid a nuclear submarine base. I take a sip from my coffee. I want to be on the road, exploring hidden abandoned places, and I want it badly. I don’t have to look into Tanja’s eyes, I can feel that she is taking the trip in her mind already. The feeling has led us to many mysterious places already. Places which are hidden and not easy to be found. Places that are long ago forgotten. The officer continued his story which had the same wondering which is an inseparable part of urban exploration. How was it possible that the Soviet navy left everything only to be found by the incoming soldiers. Rapidly shattered utopia extended everywhere in Estonia and in the Baltics. Utopia left behind pieces of truly weird history and shapes that fit well into our photos. One of those places was the coastal city of Paldiski, which is located in the north-west corner of Estonia. For a long time, the city was inhabited by young sailors whose iron coffins silently went ahead under the waves.
Peter the Great decided to built the largest harbor in the town of Paldiski. The Russian Tsar never witnessed the completion of the harbor which took place in 1768. The harbor town was built with the sweat and blood of prisoners. The maltreatment of prisoners was so wide that Paldiski was given a notorious nickname “the second Siberia”. Time passed and new technology brought new developments. The first railroads made Paldiski a port to the west but only for a brief time. The Second World War meant that Estonia was stripped from its independent position. The local Estonians were evicted from Paldiski in 1940 and the town received a military face lift. Barbed wire and guard towers were the new attractions for this coastal town.
A gentle winter breeze accompanied us on our trip towards Paldiski. The trip was quite easy because the town is only around 40 kilometers from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Our image of the town was based on the colorful history and our expectations were quite high. We were welcomed with a sight of modern faceless industrial buildings and quiet streets. The atmosphere was depressing but we knew that under all this, something interesting was waiting. The slogan for Paldiski, “A Town with a Future” was as plausible as the eternity of Soviet Union but hope is the last thing that a town can lose. Maybe Paldiski still had hope in the quickly evolving and democratic state of modern Estonia. I myself was willing to believe that this town could rise again from its dark history.
The introduction of nuclear technology meant a new military doctrine for the Soviet navy and it was decided that a training center for nuclear powered submarines was to be established in Paldiski. The first prototype of a nuclear submarine was put to use in 1968. It was called “Project 658, Echo II-class”. The training center in Paldiski was under a tight supervision of Moscow because the aim of the training was to strengthen the know-how of strategic and ballistic missile use in nuclear submarine warfare. The sailors were taught basic operational skills in nuclear submarine use like navigation, utilization of the reactors and of course launching of the weapons. The Finnish retired coast guard officer which we had interviewed told us many strange stories. One of them regarded an underground training facility built inland with no access to the sea. In this underground bunker, a complete operational nuclear submarine was kept in a huge pool of water for training purposes. He told us that no one seemed to know how this submarine had appeared there and the only logical explanation seemed to be that the enormous machine was built there, inside the bunker. He didn’t know where this installation was located and we could only imagine if it is still there somewhere, waiting to be found.
I was standing on a sandstone cliff. Under me, waves were hitting against the high wall which seemed shaky even without the power of the sea slowly eating the sandstone away. I was gazing at the Baltic Sea, which gave a me an demonstration of its powers even though it is a modest and a shallow sea. On a clear day, with a pair of good binoculars, I could see the outlines of my hometown Helsinki across the sea. The sea and how the events played out in the Second World War separated Estonia and Finland from each other. Tanja was adjusting her camera gear and we were soon ready to head to an abandoned military outpost hidden inside a windy forest. The light-colored two-story is beautiful, resting on its own apathy and peace. Trees had time to enclose the building from sights of people driving by on the small road leading to the tip of the cape. At the tip, the famous lighthouse of Paldiski was standing just like in a postcard. Sunrise just happened and the rays were hitting the walls of the building forming dark shadows to the cream colored facade. We were looking at one of the buildings which the coast guard officer had told us about. Like many abandoned buildings in the Baltics, this one was filled only with dust. The cyrillic letters on the doors didn’t mean anything to us but somehow I got the feeling that we were warned about something. The station was built next to the tip of the peninsula in a high position and in the wall facing the sea, a large opening was constructed into the building. From this plateau in the building, a soldier could have an excellent view to the huffing Baltic Sea. The mosaics covered the floors and this building was fortunately not built from the cheap bricks.
We climbed a metal ladder to the second floor where a familiar face was waiting for us. Lenin. The face was on a faint colored large painting with unknown punchlines and historic events. All the other movable objects were taken but it seemed that the face of Lenin had no resale value whatsoever. Bad memories and shame don’t sell like metal and electrical wires. This building used to be filled with electronics and communication devices when the coast guard officer had visited the place just after the retreat of the Soviet forces in the 1990s. Now the place was deserted like an eye looking at the end of the world. The place was a reminder of something that was once real but not anymore. This place was only a tiny part of the totality which was called the nuclear submarine base of Paldiski.
When the dust had cleared, it was time to pick up the heavy fruits of the collapse. Admiral Tshernav of the Russian Navy tried to ensure the Estonian government that the two nuclear reactors in Paldiski were in excellent condition and that the decommission of the reactors had started. After this, it took nearly two and a half years before the Russian troops retreated from Paldiski. The final seal was set in 30 of June 1994 when the governments of Estonia and Russia reached an agreement which stated that “The site with two sealed reactor compartments and radioactive waste storages shall, after decommissioning, be transferred to the Republic of Estonia by September 30, 1995 together with the completion of all relevant documentation”. Now, over 20 years from that moment, Paldiski is only a whisper of what it used to be. Maybe Paldiski is a step closer to the future it deserves. Once again, it is a gate to the west even though a dark shadow from the East is present.
A skinny dog is barking outside. We can see a scruffy looking old man sitting in a worksite booth. He notices us and comes outside to the cold but sunny day to see who the strangers are. Behind the booth, we see one of the old barracks. We spotted around ten similar barracks in the town but they were all boarded up tightly. They resemble the barracks of Suomenlinna, an old military island next to Helsinki which was used by the Russian soldiers before Finland declared independence in 1917. In Suomenlinna, the Russian styled architecture is still strongly visible. In Paldiski, colors of pink and cream mix in abandoned U-letter shaped two-storey buildings. They used to be the homes of hundreds of submarine sailors, now they are abandoned and windows and doors are boarded up. Only one door is open. The smiling old man limps to us and we greet him. The area is a junk yard. Metal bars, wood, old rowing boat. We ask if he speaks English and I would have been very surprised if he had. The Finnish and the Estonian languages are pretty similar and many times we can communicate if we speak slowly and clearly but in many towns, people talk Russian, not Estonian. The Russian language is totally different to Finnish I know only a couple of basic words. We try to signal with our hand about photographing and writing. He starts laughing and seems to agree - “Aa! Korrespondent!” We smile back and I reply with one of the few words that I know - “Da!”. He thinks that we are journalists. We are happy with this conclusion. The old man limps back to his booth and we are allowed to enter the barracks. Next to the front door, tires and bags of cement are lying around. The fate of the submarine sailors home was not extraordinary in Estonia, it was turned into a warehouse for junk.
The building was luminous inside because there were many large windows around the walls. We walked through the downstairs corridors but could not understand what were all the rooms used for. The wooden gun racks confirmed that this was indeed a military installation. The rooms were covered in dust, only the first rooms were occupied by the construction materials. We found shower rooms, living quarters and other rooms with unknown purposes. We ascended to the second floor which has more murky corridors. A big hall is located in the middle of the building. Maybe a dining hall or a lecture hall. Thick wooden beams are visible through the rubble. I stepped on one of the beams and noticed that through the rubble the first floor is visible. I warned Tanja about the lightweight floor structures and continue my balancing over the beams. I reached the other side with a proper floor and discover old plastic cyrillic letters on the floor. Other small items and papers are on the floor as well. An old magazine is on the floor. In the cover, Stalin himself is posing with two young girls. The magazine is from 1991 and seems to be a some sort of satire. The oddity of the magazine is even more visible because one of the girls looks like a man. She, or he, is posing in a morning jacket. The quietness is penetrating and the atmosphere is deeply disturbing. The paint has been peeling off for a long time.
We continued through the large hall carefully not to step off from the wooden beams. The next part of the building was just like the other but with an exception, a small pile of junk was on the floor. We found a log book with cyrillic letters and numbers but could not know what all the figures meant. We also found negatives of old photographs. I lifted one between my eyes and a window and could see soldiers posing relaxed with their rifles. It seemed to be winter in the picture. The soldiers look like they are very proud of their occupation and maybe these photos were to be sent for their loved ones back home. The soldiers, young boys, don’t seem very worried about the future in the pictures. They are a part of the glorious Soviet navy which leaves the western world behind with its wits and strength! The future seems bright for these sailors.
On 15th of October in 1994, a heavily loaded cargo train glided across the border between Estonia and Russia in the town of Narva in eastern Estonia. The train cars were loaded with type TK-18 transport containers which contained nuclear reactor fuel. The moment meant a long desired relief for the Estonian government and the citizens of Paldiski but it also meant that Paldiski was now under the responsibility of the Estonians. It was going to be a long and painful process for all of the material to be cleaned from Paldiski. Only few people know that there is still one submarine in Paldiski today. It lies 50 meters deep in the bottom of the Baltic Sea. We didn’t find any newspaper articles about an incident which would have fit the description. We found a video which shows a dive into the submarine. It seems that a Whiskey-class (“Project 613”) submarine sank in Paldiski while it was towed to the harbour. Above the sea, the reactors have been covered with concrete and lead. Old training center buildings have been demolished. Only small parts of the history is still present, like lonely abandoned buildings with old photograph negatives.
We spent a single day in Paldiski. Our visit to the town seemed to be something new to the old people walking in the quiet streets. Daily things, grocery stores and baby carriages didn’t give a hint of the history behind the town. I am sure that two buried nuclear reactors in the backyard is not a successful marketing punch line for the town. Maybe all the residents don’t even know about them. When we drove out from Paldiski, I wondered how easily things get buried into the history. The buildings have new purposes and the rest is slowly hidden away by forests. Still, there is a small flame of utopia flickering under the surface which is kept up by urban explorers. The fire set by the Soviet Union ravages on in the Baltics, although most flames has been successfully extinguished. From the soot, the faces of Lenin and Stalin are looking at us. Outlines of hammer and sickle are still visible, even though their meaning is soon lost for good. The Utopia had been undisturbed for decades before the Soviet Union collapsed. It was the end of an social test as well as an era, which carried the name of the Soviet Union.
It was time to head back to home. Before arriving to Helsinki by a ferry, we are faced with the reality of modern life when we sit down and order some coffee in a cafeteria. Our everyday lives are filled with a familiar language and the social media. Our trips are intensive and sometimes exhausting but the feeling of freedom which raises from an open map and a possibility to find anything, easily wins a weekend on the couch. Often I wonder how our work and our exploration is seen by our followers on Instagram and on Facebook. How do the photos about abandoned places influence them (or you to be exact!). I guess many want to turn the page and never look back. We don’t salute the Soviet Union, we are looking for the places where the Utopia is still somehow present. We are looking for places which have been forgotten. Most important are the stories, which are hanging on the walls of the abandoned places without any particular meaning. It is impossible to write about urban exploration without wrapping the history around the abandoned places, no matter how painful the history is. Walls are nothing but concrete if they are not supported by the stories about what happened inside them.