The Maarjamäe Memorial Complex in Tallinn dates back to 1960 but the history of its monuments and the people they commemorate goes back even further, some to the Russian Civil War of 1918. Since June 1940 Estonia was under the occupation of the Soviet Union until its independence in August 1991, an important detail in understanding the complex and its memorials.
In 1960 the first memorial, a 35 metre obelisk, was raised to commemorate those that had fallen during the 1918 Russian Civil War. This was, and still remains, controversial as the soldiers it commemorates had been fighting against Estonians at the time.
The area was expanded in 1975 with memorial graves to those who died in the Russian Civil War aboard the Avtroil and Spartak as well as the Soviet soldiers that died fighting the Nazis during World War II. A large amphitheater providing views over the Baltic Sea was added but at the time of my visit was closed due to the structure being deemed unsafe.
“Since Estonia gained its independence from Soviet rule in 1991, the Maarjamäe Memorial Complex has faced an uncertain future. Its symbolism goes beyond being merely pro-Soviet, to being, arguably, even anti-Estonian in meaning.”
Due to the controversy of the memorials the future of the area was uncertain. Instead it was decided to restore the balance of the area and commemorate the 75,000 Estonians (a quarter of the countries population) who were killed, deported or imprisoned during Soviet occupation. The Memorial to the Victims of Communism was completed in 2018 and consists of two parts, the Journey and the Home Garden.
I entered the complex through the Journey, a long sloping corridor lined by huge black walls. The newest addition to the memorials was dominant and impactful. As I made my way through I passed the names of those that were lost before appearing in the snow covered Home Garden.
Many Estonians were sent away to serve the Soviet Union or ended up in work camps, when they died they were often buried in unmarked graves. 22,000 individual honeybees on the wall of the Home Garden symbolise the victims that never returned home.
The area felt abandoned, maybe because it was winter and no one was around. On one hand there were the new and modern memorials that were an almost complete juxtaposition to the older Soviet ones. I could imagine that in the summer months the large snow covered spaces would be replaced with green grass , an idyllic place next to the sea to sit and enjoy a picnic.
A man walks under the bronze sculpture ‘Perishing Seaguls’.
Though some of the memorials remain controversial they are a testament to the Estonia people, a reminder of the troubles and suffering they went through, especially for the 50 years of Soviet occupation. Estonia has a complex history and in preserving this area it will be a continuous reminder to those visiting.