Photo by Frédéric Reglain
The Museum of Occupations, the first permanent visitor attraction to be created in Tallinn following Estonian independence in 1992, is the place to learn more about the Soviet occupation of Estonia.
Here, curator Dr Jean-Loup Rousselot explains the thinking behind the place’s layout and displays. “The museum tells the tale of Estonia between 1939 and 1991,” he says. “For these 52 years the country was continuously occupied, as were our neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, successively by Soviet Russia, by Nazi Germany and again by the Soviets. What we wanted to do here is let witnesses tell their stories. Visitors can hear people speak about their experiences, their memories and their thoughts about the events of that time.”
After all the medieval architecture, Tallinn's Occupations Museum is dramatically modern, both in appearance and the way it shares its message. As Rousselot points out, much of the story is told chronologically through video interviews with those who witnessed the events first hand. There are also numerous objects such as identity cards, photographs, soldiers’ helmets and a sinister-looking World War II era German motorcycle and sidecar that would once have patrolled the streets of Tallinn.
An even more dramatic back story surrounds a fishing boat that was used by one group of Estonians in a desperate bid to flee to Sweden before the Soviet army arrived in 1945. Elsewhere, dozens of old suitcases provide a reminder of some of those who stayed behind and were then deported to Siberia. Their letters home can also still be seen, written on bark stripped from birch trees because the prisoners had no access to paper.
“Our aim is to avoid nationalism,” Rousselot says. “Dictatorial regimes are condemned as the source of our compatriots’ suffering, but we don’t accuse either Russians or Germans of being responsible for the past. In fact, we often organize tours for groups of people from both those nations.”
The curator leads the way to a collection of Soviet-era statues that provide a reminder of the once-inescapable presence of Lenin and Marx in Estonia’s squares and streets. “Even for today’s audience these are still both impressive and oppressive,” he says. “Estonians are still deeply affected by their recent past. There are many, many people still alive who witnessed the Soviet occupation. This piece of history is just too close for them. They would rather get on with enjoying life now than think about what things were like back then.”
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