From the ashes of the lost empire

After following the events concerning a certain bronze Russian soldier, I gave myself the task of developing an observer’s approach to the efforts being made to build a new Estonia, where past and present can live together in peace. With this in mind, I decided to join the MA students of Urban Studies at the Estonian Academic of Arts on a one-day trip to the forgotten city of Paldiski, on the peninsula of Pakri. As a part of their curriculum, the students are doing a project on urban management in Paldiski. The idea is to offer four possible scenarios in which architecture could help in the redevelopment of the area. 

Approximately 50 km from Tallinn, Paldiski is an important Baltic Sea port located in south-western Estonia. Its history goes back 300 years, when the Russian Tsar Peter 1st started construction of a port. Paldiski’s status as a port has since dictated its entire destiny.  

During the 20th century, the Soviets began moving the local population away from the town in order to establish a navel base. 16,000 men of nine different Soviet army units were located in the city and its vicinity. Paldiski’s status as port reached its summit when a training centre for nuclear submarines was opened in 1968. The city then became a no-go area, where the presence of non-soviet military was forbidden. The city remained closed until 30 August 1994, when the last Soviet warship left.  

{mosimage}Welcome to hell
At 9:04 am a small bus left the Estonian Academy of Arts, located in Tallinn’s city centre. Three students, the leader of the project, a bus driver and myself were the participants of the expedition. After one hour of travel, we arrived in Paldiski. On the outskirts of the city some ruins began to appear. Towards the centre, the landscape changed: colourful soviet apartments, which somehow looked out of place for such a small city.
 

Our first point of call was to the northern point of the peninsula, were the limestone cliffs and the lighthouse are located. There the visitor can find about eight windmills that are part of the state’s efforts to produce renewable energy. When returning back to the centre and seeing the town by foot, I realized that the ruins and empty buildings are everywhere. Images of inhabited homes with a ghost neighbour are common. 

We were then led to a meeting room in the City Council House (Linnavalitsus). There, the City Councillor Jaan Möller and another representative were waiting for us. The idea of the meeting was to find out about the specific plans for the area. Councillor Möller, who has been in office for 13 years, constantly mentioned the appeal of the ports, as the most important factor in the development of Paldiski as a integrated city. His objective is to increase the population from 4,000 to 7,000 by attracting immigrants, offering opportunities for work at the port as well, as in the industry.  

With a huge map of Paldiski and the peninsula on the table, he showed the group the plans for attracting the new residents to the city. The allocated areas, far away from the ruins and abandoned buildings, are a clear attempt at remodelling the city. In order to achieve this, the city must attract private funding. However, he Möller was sceptical about the development of Paldiski as a tourist destination. He claimed that business is the future of Paldiski, even though it is a well-know place for hiking due to the cliffs of limestone.  

 

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Estonians and Russians 

In contrast to the recent events, Mr Möller emphasised that in his 13 years of service he has experienced just one case of friction between the Estonian and the Russian population. Apart from that “we haven’t had any problems”, he added.  

Baring this in mind, we went to visit the local police chief, Madis Melzar. He affirmed that the relations between the Estonian and the Russian population are peaceful. And it was noticeable on the streets too that there was no threat, visible or otherwise. 

After being at the Police Station, we went to the south port in order to have a guided tour. Inside the terminal port building one could notice a different atmosphere that made you doubt if you were really in Paldiski at all. From the inside one can look through a big yellow window, which somehow tries to erase the label of a “grey city”. When walking inside, I noticed that a huge cargo ship was just delivering a great quantity of new cars. 

It is clear that everyone has a common goal: the development of a new, economically and socially prosperous Paldiski that escapes the label it has been given. Now it is up to the students to start their investigation, which will hopefully see the rebirth of Paldiski from its ashes.

 

Photos by Mauricio Roa