Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/3 posted by hidden europe on

Tallinn's Bronze Soldier highlights the difficulties of rendering recent history. Visitors to Potsdam, a city in the former German Democratic Republic very close to Berlin, will find many informative notices that unravel the story of the old Hohenzollern palaces that litter the Potsdam landscape. For those interested in architecture, landscape design and imperial history, the park and palaces in and around Sanssouci are magnificent.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Modern Tallinn may have established its reputation as an awesome destination for young travellers in search of cheap drinks and rich nightlife, but, for those who probe below the surface, there is another side to the Estonian capital. Uncovering the legacy of the city's Soviet past may not be the first priority for the tourists who crowd the turrets of Tallinn's old town walls. But head east from the old town past the spectacularly ugly Viru hotel - a relic from Soviet times - to the Narva Kohvik at Narva mnt. 10, which is a perfect throwback to the past. Yes, that same dour service, and yesterday's pierogi served on table-cloths that haven't been changed for a week. For travellers who somehow missed out on the Soviet Union, or for those who knew the USSR well, and just want to enjoy an hour or two of happy nostalgia, the Narva Kohvik is a gem. Long may it survive!

Russian Tallinn is on the wane however, and the news these past days that even the famous Bronze Soviet Soldier may be moved is indicative of the current mood. The Bronze Soldier is a Tallinn landmark on Tonismägi - just by the Estonian National Library. The monument, now sixty years old, was erected as a tribute to the Soviet soldiers who died in "liberating" Estonia from fascism. Nowadays, the text under the memorial is less overtly pro-Soviet than it used to be, and reads simply: "For those who fell in World War II". But for many Estonians, the Bronze Soldier is a reminder of a deeply unhappy period of their country's history, and last Thursday the Estonian President Toomas Ilves signed legislation that paves the way for Tallinn's last Soviet soldier to be dismantled. It is said that the remains of many unknown Soviet troops are buried under the memorial, and they too will be removed. Not before, it is said, Estonia's substantial Russian population have one last chance to have their annual fling at the memorial on 9 May this year. Victory Day remains important to Estonian's Russians. Whether the Bronze Soldier actually will be moved remains to be seen. Monuments are a touchy subject in Estonia.

Potsdam's 'forbidden city'

Tallinn's Bronze Soldier highlights the difficulties of rendering recent history. Visitors to Potsdam, a city in the former German Democratic Republic very close to Berlin, will find many informative notices that unravel the story of the old Hohenzollern palaces that litter the Potsdam landscape. For those interested in architecture, landscape design and imperial history, the park and palaces in and around Sanssouci are magnificent. Thousands of tourists also make the pilgrimage to Cecilienhof. It is a mock Tudor mansion, a crazy folly of lattice windows and complicated chimneys more suited to the English Home Counties than the manicured parklands of Potsdam. Cecilienhof is where the Potsdam Peace Conference was held in the summer of 1945. On their way to Cecilienhof, most visitors pass through the Neuer Garten ('New Garden') - but few tourist guides make mention of the curious recent history of this Potsdam suburb which was, from 1945 until 1994, a remarkable 'forbidden city'. It became a Russian enclave, with road names written in Cyrillic and access reserved only to senior military personnel and members of the KGB. The KGB maintained an interrogation centre and a prison in the Neuer Garten. The full story of the Neuer Garten is told in the current (ie January 2007) issue of hidden europe - through the eyes of one woman, Marlise Steinart, who lived in the Neuer Garten with her three children. Marlise worked as an translator, until, one day in 1948, she found herself detained in the KGB prison. It is a chilling tale.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.