Former civilian shelters in Estonia in poor condition, no new ones

Photo: Rescue Board

Exactly 30 years since Estonia decided to stop using the Soviet-era system of shelters, efforts to develop civil defense were restarted in light of the Ukraine war. Work to develop an early warning system and map possible shelter locations started immediately, with funding soon to reach apartment associations.

It is symbolic that the decision to stop using old Soviet shelters was made underground – at a government outing to a former ESSR government bunker in Kose, Harju County during the summer of 1993.

"Mart Laar was prime minister at the time, and the entire government was present. One of the more important items on the agenda was what to do with the bunker. In the end, it was decided to simply decommission it," said Tiia Rodi, member of NGO Valitsuse Varjend (Government Bunker).

The bunker that lies some 50 kilometers from Tallinn is a tourism object operated by NGO Valitsuse Varjend today. The structure, buried under a thick layer of concrete at a depth of six meters, covers an area of 2,500 square meters and its 147 rooms were meant for 200 temporary inhabitants. Important people were meant to last at least 15 days there – that is how long the food and fuel would last. A part of water tanks, generators, the communications center and the cafeteria, but also offices of KGB operatives have survived.

A government document from 1993 lists 280 shelters for 73,000 people in various places all over Estonia. Because civil defense responsibility fell to the Rescue Board where it was eventually neglected out of lack of funding and political decisions, many shelters ended up in private hands over the next 30 years and were repurposed or left derelict.

Despite a relevant Government Office study from 2018, Estonia lacks a proper overview of the state of old shelters. That is why ETV investigative journalism show "Pealtnägija" contacted a digger – the term for enthusiasts who discover and explore underground structures. Because the hobby sometimes requires trespassing, Ivan asked the show to only use his first name.

The guide first led the journalists to an unimposing door near the Skoone Bastion.

"That is the state of 90 percent of Tallinn's shelters. There was a fire here recently. The bunker was meant for 20 people. Soviet norms required bunkers to have one toilet per five people. This makes it possible to calculate how many people had to fit here," Ivan said.

"Talking about shelters built in Soviet days with special structure and solutions, utility networks and ventilation, very few have survived," said Sten-Patrick Kreek, advisor for the Rescue Board.

For example, a back yard near the Kosmos Movie Theater in central Tallinn gives access to underground catacombs.

"It used to be in very good shape for a long time, until some homeless people moved in. A tragic event also occurred here, a person caught on fire and died after which the bunker was sealed off. It was reopened some time later," Ivan said.

On the one hand, the average person doesn't even begin to suspect the kind of Cold War legacy we have under our streets and pavements. On the other, the situation is quite dismal and even dangerous in places. Old shelters still exist in a few places – under the Riigikogu building on Toompea Hill, the Estonian Academy of Arts or even in the basement of the ERR TV House, while these are at best used as storage areas. In most cases, fixing them up and repurposing them is no longer deemed sensible.

"All of these bunkers are over 60-70 years old. They have become unusable. It would be simpler to demolish them and even just use the old designs to rebuild them from scratch. It will be much cheaper using modern technologies than it was during Soviet times," Ivan proposed.

"It also depends on the size of the bunker, while we're still talking about tens of millions of euros," Sten-Patrick Kreek suggested.

Therefore, when civil defense landed back on the agenda with the Ukraine war, faster and simpler solutions were sought first. First, public alarm systems were installed in major settlements to accompany an emergency SMS messages system. Second, the Rescue Board started marking public shelter locations for which a special map application was developed. There are 140 such locations in larger settlements, with room for an estimated 90,000 people. However, it needs to be kept in mind that these are not bunkers meant for extended periods of stay.

Estonia's emergency siren network will span at least 22 cities. Source: ERR News

"Public shelter locations serve the purpose of protecting people who are out and about from immediate danger. Talking about a military conflict, explosions, shockwaves and flying debris. They are not meant for extended use," Kreek said.

Such shelter locations can be pedestrian or vehicle tunnels, such as the one under the Viru Keskus shopping mall, or the cellars of easily accessible establishments, such as the Ugala Theater in Viljandi. Concerning shelters where people might have to stay longer, no nationwide network is planned, with private initiative relied on instead.

According to Kreek, apartment associations will receive recommendations for turning their basements into suitable shelters in April, with €1.2 million in relevant grants to be distributed at the end of the month.

"The idea is for people to stay in their own building, their home in case of an emergency, instead of venturing out in search of public shelter locations."

Curiously enough, while the outgoing interior minister has proposed creating shelter places for 700,000 people by 2034 on which €15 million would need to be spent annually, funds have not been earmarked even for keeping the warning sirens going into next year as things stand.

Estonia's first emergency siren was installed in Viljandi on February 14, 2023. Source: Rescue Board


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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