The Dark Side of Tartu 0

By Steenie Harvey

Tartu, Estonia

This is a city worth going out of your way for: A colorful town hall square with a fountain of lovers kissing under an umbrella...the classical-style University and Art Museum complete with student lock-up (previous detainees were guilty of "aimless wandering in the streets after dark" and, in the case of any misbehaving faculty, "roistering with students")...St. John's church with its hundreds of terracotta statues...Toompea Hill with its Angel and Devil Bridges...what's rumored to be a pagan sacrificial stone...

I'm in Tartu, Estonia's second city (pop. 100,000), in the southeast of the country--Russia is just across Lake Peipsi.

With so much to see, you probably wouldn't think of venturing into Tartu's less historic quarters. But walk up Riia Street, and you'll notice a dark, gray apartment block. During the 1940s and 1950s, this gloomy building served as the southern Estonian headquarters of the NKVD. They later metamorphosed into the KGB, the Soviet Union's feared security service.

Prisoner cells, torture closets, and a chair with stirrups whose awful purpose doesn't bear contemplating. The KGB Cells Exposition is a grim experience, but it gives you an understanding of Estonia's struggle to regain independence. Known as "the Gray House," 15b Riia Street is the country's only original NKVD/KGB site restored to reflect its grisly purpose of interrogation and imprisonment.

The NKVD took over the building in 1940, deporting the owner (Oskar Somermaa) and his family to separate Siberian prison camps. Mr. Somermaa never returned. Between 1940 and 1941, around 10,000 Estonians were sent to the gulags. Conditions were beyond harsh--some 6,000 of them died there.

Wax figures often look crass, but not here. In the dimly-lit corridors, the figure of a uniformed Soviet interrogator emerging from behind a maroon-colored steel door looks scarily realistic. So, too, does the poor sod crammed into an impossibly small cubicle--prisoners were given half a liter of water on days one and two of interrogation. If they survived until day three, they got half a liter of broth.

July 9, 1941 was a particularly bleak day. With the Stalin-Hitler pact in tatters, the German army had crossed Estonia's border two days earlier. Before retreating eastward into Russia, the NKVD shot almost 250 detainees in the Gray House courtyard and Tartu prison. Bodies were dumped in makeshift graves and the prison well.

After Estonia's brief period of Nazi occupation, the communist terror returned in the fall of 1944. The Red Army had marched back into the Baltic states, Estonia was a Soviet Republic--and the NKVD/KGB were again the masters of Tartu's Gray House.

The museum details both Soviet occupation and Estonian resistance. Numerous photographs show conditions in Siberian gulags and members of underground movements such as the Forest Brothers. Almost all exhibits have English translations; displays include plans of deportation operations and objects from the camps. (Imagine trying to survive a Siberian winter with home-made wooden shoes.) One touching exhibit shows five locks of blonde hair pinned to a handkerchief--they belonged to schoolgirls who joined the underground and distributed resistance leaflets.

You'll find the KGB Cells Exposition at 15b Riia St., Tartu.

Opening hours Tuesday-Saturday, are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., admission 5 kroons (40 cents).

Steenie Harvey
Roving Editor, International Living

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First Published: Feb 04, 2006

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