Victims of Communism Memorial authors: Maarjamäe Memorial worth protecting

Victims of Communism Memorial (Ieft) and Maarjamäe Memorial.
Victims of Communism Memorial (Ieft) and Maarjamäe Memorial. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Architects of Estonia's Victims of Communism Memorial Kalle Vellevoog and Jaan Tiidemann find that the Maarjamäe Memorial's dignified landscape presence has potential both as a place of remembrance and a public park, while an open architectural contest is needed to find the best possible solution.

The Maajamäe Memorial in Tallinn, that has become the target of heated debates in recent weeks, started out as an ideological monument but its construction never got beyond the landscape architecture stage. Several planned symbols of Soviet authority were never completed.

The Maarjamäe Memorial, Victims of Communism Memorial and the nearby German military cemetery could be seen as a single field of memory.

The recently completed Victims of Communism Memorial was planned next to the German cemetery and the Soviet memorial by Allan Murdmaa and Matti Varik to form a single compositional and express whole. For example, the brightness of the Victims of Communism Memorial's apple orchard is highlighted in contrast created by the Maarjamäe Memorial's now tall spruces that cast their menacing shadow on the garden as a warning against history repeating itself.

Allan Murdmaa's landscape architecture masterpiece is worth protecting. Retaining the building complex is sensible and possible if we remove details directly associated with Soviet ideology and add new layers of meaning to the whole. Such a solution would also make it possible to avoid disturbing the peace of German and Estonian soldiers buried at the site of the memorial for a second time.

Several layers of cultural memory

The Maarjamäe Memorial area holds more than one meaning. It is also the site of a historical event described by Eduard Vilde in his novel "Prophet Maltsvet." In the early summer of 1861, several hundred people were standing in the meadow below Lasnamäe's Sukhrumägi, waiting for a white ship that would take them away to the promised land.

People spent weeks waiting for that miraculous ship and there were various interpretations for what it meant. Among the more extreme was longing for a white cloud that would take people to the biblical land of Canaan.

Another, somewhat more realistic hope was that the Czar would give the travelers ships to take them to fertile Crimea where they could start a new and better life. The wait for the white ship was based on a prophecy mixed with news from Crimea where the Russia-Turkey war had left several Tatar villages empty after deportations.

The prophecy of the Maltsvetians sect worked on hundreds of families who sold all their earthly possessions for passage to the promised land. The ship never came, while the hope for a better life stayed with people.

The role of the "white ship" was later, during the Soviet occupation, played by passenger ferry Georg Ots that sailed to and from the free world under the very eyes of Tallinners. The wait for the white ship became a symbolic and unique image for Estonians. It has recently manifested in Estonian rapper Nublu's song "Kastehein."

Ideology hidden in details

There have been plenty of suggestions for what to do with the Maarjamäe Memorial.

The initial ambitions for the memorial went far beyond what was completed. It was to have a large wall of honor for those who fought for the Soviet Union, complete with a bas-relief and quote from Lenin, as well as other cultural figures. Other reliefs and groups of sculptures were also to be added.

However, the memorial was never completed in the best Soviet spirit. Only the first stage of the landscape part of the pompous memorial complex was ever finished. Just a part of what the project set out to do was realized – the ensemble corresponding to the peculiarities and scope of the landscape, with the area functioning as a public park.

Only a few parts of the Maarjamäe Memorial now carry an ideological message, like the Baltic Fleet's Ice Cruise Monument or obelisk, the "eternal fire" that is no longer burning and granite slabs for Red Army units named after Tallinn. The latter were added years later and their removal would in no way damage Murdmaa's landscape work. It could have been done years ago.

The Ice Cruise Monument would likely spark more debate. The obelisk by Mart Port and Lembit Tolli that resembles a rocket was constructed separately and a few years before the rest of the complex. The architectural competition at the time recommended factoring in the existing obelisk but also allowed for is removal.

Removing the Ice Cruise obelisk could be a suitable compromise today to remove the memorial's ideological significance while keeping its neutral and valuable landscape architecture component.

Things are more complicated still when it comes to the location of the Eternal Fire Monument and the hands above it. Their fate could be decided through the architectural competition.

Rethought instead of demolished

There are plenty of examples of how landscape objects and buildings erected by totalitarian regimes have been given new meaning in Estonia and elsewhere. For example, the Estonian Foreign Ministry is housed in the former Central Committee of the Estonian Communist Party (EKP KK) building that used to have a statue of Lenin in front of it. We know that place as the Iceland Square today, with the building still very much there.

Another good example is the Estonian National Museum building constructed in the territory of the Raadi Manor as an extension of a former Soviet military airfield that gives the entire spatial situation a new and altered meaning.

Altered usage has succeeded in giving new meaning to city space or objects associated with totalitarian regimes elsewhere in the world. All signs of Nazi power have been removed from the Berlin Olympic Stadium the grandstand of which Hitler used to deliver his 1936 speech, with the venue now used for open air concerts and events.

The Maarjamäe Memorial's dignified landscape presence has potential both as a place of remembrance and a public park. Partial readjustment can free the memorial from its ideological legacy while keeping its artistic value, adding new meanings and uses. The best solution could be found in an open architectural contest.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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