Mystery hatchway may give access to Maarjamäe obelisk interior

The Maarjamäe obelisk.
The Maarjamäe obelisk. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Old blueprints found in the course of amassing information on the Maarjamäe obelisk – a Soviet-era memorial located in the Pirita district of Tallinn – revealed a previously long-forgotten concealed hatchway leading inside the structure.

Next spring, excavation work will begin to locate this entryway, amid political controversy in the run up to next spring's general election and surrounding the fate of the many Soviet-era monuments, memorials and other installations dotted around the country.

Most of these are in less prominent places than the Maarjamäe obelisk is, however.

The obelisk commemorates the supposed evacuation of Russian warships during the German invasion and occupation of Estonia starting in 1941, which had been preceded by several months' occupation by the Soviet Union.

By the end of the 1950s, however, the Soviet propaganda machine had recast the incident into a heroic tale of rescue, and three men involved – Aleksander Ilves, Adolf Tamm and Joosep Marjan – even outlined their escape from the Germans, via a radio broadcast.

One of the men recalled that: "There was no ice-free water at all between Tallinn and Helsinki; everything was frozen-over."

Another added that: "As a result of that, the 80km, which is the distance [across the Gulf of Finland, between the two capitals], took three days."

For a third, the trip took even longer: "What a ship I sailed on, we only got to Helsinki on the sixth day," he said.

The 36m-high Jääretke obelisk, the structure's alternate name, was unveiled in the three men's honor, during the depths of the Cold War, in 1960.

However, in the intervening time, the obelisk, made of dolomite quarried on Saaremaa, has, like other Soviet-built parts of the Maarjamäe memorial complex, started to crumble.

Tallinn Deputy Mayor Vladimir Svet (Center) said: "Pieces of it are falling straight down."

"In order to preserve it and not let it disintegrate for all time, project work on how it can be conserved needs doing," Svet added.

The City of Tallinn had already hired private sector firm Roadplan last year, to design the renovation of the entire Maarjamäe memorial suite – a nearby structure which is in even more of a parlous state than the obelisk. 

However, ERR reports, the city opted to put this work on hold after a few hundred thousand euros had already been spent on it.

Part of the issue related to the fissure between decisions relating to the city government, and those which are the responsibility of the state, in this case via the Land Board (Maa-amet).

Svet said: "As of today, it is clear that no decisions will be made by the state in this regard. For this reason, we decided that within this scope, which concerns objects that remain in the city's ownership, we will continue the conservation design."

Concealed underground hatch

Up to now, experts have been rummaging through the archives and examining old documents, for some time. "From the plans, it looks like this obelisk is actually hollow on the inside," Svet said.

Not only that, but also the presences of a hidden entryway which should lead right inside the obelisk has been found.

The hatches' location is not yet clear, though it is likely covered by several tonnes of earth. When the grandiose memorial ensemble was built at Maarjamäe, the lower part of the obelisk remained buried under earth and gravel, meaning the hatch, hidden for decades, sank into oblivion.

Now, however, Roadplan says it intends to located and open up this point of entry.

"In order to access the hatch and get inside, a series of approvals from state authorities was required," Svet went on.

The company requested permission to do so from the Land Board (Maa-amet) for permission at the start of November; the board's officials pondered this for a few weeks, justifying the extra time taken on the grounds of the issue's complexity.

In the meantime, in October, Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform) declared the entire Maarjamäe area a war grave zone, due to the remains of soldiers fighting on the German side during World War Two thought to be interred there.

This change of status means the memorial must be treated differently from those with no associated human remains, not least in now being a matter for the state rather than local government.

Roadplan were thus finally referred to the Ministry of Defense, but ultimately got permission to start excavation work – to concentrate minds, the task must be completed within a 10-day period.

This work will need to wait until the spring thaw, however.

The project managers have nonetheless been encouraged in the task by a rather prosaic aspect, ERR reports; namely, once inside the obelisk, a study of how it was erected would be easier to conduct.

The condition of the blocks making it up could also be established, and a decision made on how and to what extent construction reinforcement work could be carried out.

Deputy Mayor Svet has pledged to keep Tallinn residents informed on the progress of the search for the entryway, in a timely manner. "Naturally, the expectation is that the conservation design work will be completed next year," Svet said, though could not give a date by which the refurbishment work might be completed.

"Of course, I will not lose hope that once the Riigikogu elections are over and the emotions subside, it will be viable to discuss what the future of the memorial might be, in a much calmer environment and involving specialists," Svet added, referring to the controversy over the manner and extent to which Estonia's Soviet legacy, in terms of memorials, architecture, cityscapes etc., has been dealt with by the Reform/Isamaa/SDE coalition since it entered into office in mid-July.

The situation is complicated by the fact that most of the memorial is located on unincorporated state land. 

Nonetheless the Land Board as provisional landowner is ensuring the public safety aspects of the now-dilapidated memorial site.

Tiina Vooro, head of the board's state land management department, said that in addition to the obelisk, the viewing platform stretching towards Pirita tee, a major thoroughfare which was constructed in time for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, whose watersports events Tallinn hosted, is also at risk of collapsing. 

"There is loose masonry at the edge of the observation platform, and if you were to move to the very edge, these could break and you would essentially just take a plunge," Vooro said. "In exactly the same way, loose blocks on the steps on both sides of the viewing platform mean people could trip, fall and injure themselves," she went on.

Iron fences to remain for some time to come

Two years ago, the Land Board fenced off the Maarjamäe memorial complex, at a cost of around €3,500 in installation – the fences are made of iron, but themselves have been subject to deterioration, mainly the result of vandalism.

"These fences have also been knocked down a couple of times; they have been vandalized, and hurled from the edge, while it will cost around €3,250 to repair them," Vooro said.

The Land Board is soon to sign a new agreement on the site; meanwhile, the daily rental fee rose by only 14 percent with the new procurement. 

A separate issue is how much the fencing helps, since, regardless of the agency's efforts, members of the public ignore the boundaries and traverse either side of the fencing.

"We can't ultimately guarantee that people will behave rationally and reasonably," Vooro said, adding that the board is doing everything it can. "We have demarcated the dangerous areas, and we have also installed signage there.But if a person really wants to get in there, in defiance of any dangers, then there's nothing we can do. No one is going to conducted surveillance on the spot there."

The Soviet-era memorial site is wholly unrelated, other than in broader cause and effect terms, to the nearby Memorial to the Victims of Communism, a dignified structure unveiled a few years ago and reminiscent in its design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Barbara Oja

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