Prison Tourism – Eastern Europe

Travelers to Estonia or Latvia on the Baltic Sea may want to do something different on their vacation by visiting an old Soviet prison. The chaotic history of Latvia and Estonia is one of deportation, refugee camps, imprisonment, and genocide. Occupied by both the Soviets and the Nazis, both countries eventually gained final independence in 1991. Since then, this part of Eastern Europe has become a popular tourist destination.

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and a World Heritage Site, is a busy seaport, a well-preserved medieval town, and a center for culture and IT development. Patarei (battery) prison in Tallinn originated as a fortress by the sea built by Nicholas I in 1840 and later used as a prison primarily for political prisoners during the years of the KGB. Walking through dark hallways of peeling paint and rotting floors into the hanging room, operating room, cells, and exercise yards past old posters and newspapers on prison walls reminds us of the harsh conditions imposed by the old USSR “Gulag.” Gone are the mournful cries of inmates locked away in dreary cells reading and re-reading torn books and magazines while serving endless time or awaiting execution. With the last prisoners being transferred to the city of Tartu in 2002, Patarei prison today has been transformed from a dungeon of decay into a tourist attraction and entertainment complex. Joyful sounds of laughter, music, and people having fun now reverberate within the same stonewalls that once housed only grief and sadness. Wild and crazy dance parties, often referred to as raves, concerts, exhibitions, and other events are held here each year in indoor and outdoor arenas. Within the barbed wire enclosure, visitors can relax by the sea in the sauna or beach pub, open during the summer.

Museum Hours: Wed – Sun, 12 Noon to 6pm, 3 Jun – early Sep. Admission: $3

Guided Tours (reservations needed): 1-hour – prison history & folklore, $9. 3-hours – incarceration process, meal, & beverage, $60. 3-hour tour of prison & KGB buildings in the Old Town, $37. Another interesting tour simulates a jailbreak where visitors are treated to a picnic after a successful escape.

If you like harsh reality, extreme adventure, and TV shows such as Locked Up Abroad, you’ll find it at Karostas Prison in Liepaja, Latvia about 242 miles south of Tallinn. The northern part of the city, Karostas (naval port) with a small population, is located about 6 miles from the center – a $4 taxi ride. Formerly a secret Soviet military town until their final withdrawal in 1994, evidence of war remains, but efforts are ongoing to restore Karostas as an art center and tourist destination. A visit to Karostas would not be complete without exploring the old prison, once managed by the KGB. For many Latvians, Karostas was a sort of way station in 1940 before deportation by the Soviets to labor camps in Siberia. Heavily guarded, no one ever managed to escape from this prison nightmare. If you’re looking for unconventional interaction with the tragic side of history, the prison offers a 24-hour stay, a “Stag” tour, where you undergo similar conditions as existed during Soviet control. After check-in around 9pm and signing an agreement to respect and obey the rules, you are subjected to a cursory medical exam, simulated interrogation, and a mug shot. This is followed by a chunk of rye bread and weak tea before being escorted to your cell. Dressed in Soviet uniforms, most guards are actors, but a few were actually former guards. You can leave at any time before 7:30 am, if you choose, but keep in mind there is no refund on this tour. Supposedly, the “Stag” tours are very popular with young men and business groups, and strangely enough, seem to offer some sort of bonding experience. We can’t dispute the reasonable cell room rate and tour of about $20, which includes the handcuffs. The prison also offers a hostel type accommodation with an iron bunk and meager prison rations, if you prefer.

Open: 1 May – 1 Oct, 10am to 6pm.

Guided Tours: Can be arranged throughout the year. Surprise tour, 1 hr, no agenda in advance, $6 – $15. Behind the Bars, 1 to 2 hr reality show, $10 – $18.

Assuming you’re looking forward to spending the night in comfortable surroundings and enjoying the rest of your vacation in Eastern Europe, there are a number of hotels in both cities. The Old House Hostel/Guesthouse in the medieval Old Town of Tallinn, $90 for 2 people; fully equipped apartments rent from $140 – $300. The Baltic, L’Hermitage, and Meriton Grand Conference & Spa Hotel have rates from $126 to $178; the Radisson Blu and Savoy Boutique are $120 and up.

The upscale Swissotel Tallinn received a world travel award for Estonia’s leading hotel. It offers luxurious rooms and suites, equipped with personal espresso machine and mini-bar, onsite spa, 3 restaurants, indoor pool, and fitness club. Rates: $182/night, $197/night includes breakfast.

Another option in Tallinn is the Sokos Hotel Viru, built by the Soviets in 1972 and now owned by Finland. Its size and height made it an ideal spot for Soviet intelligence, with the 23rd floor used for KGB surveillance. Guests and staff were constantly monitored on video, and hidden microphones recorded their conversations, in many ways a prison in itself. Today, visitors can climb stairs to the small museum on the 23rd floor and view photographs and propaganda promoting the hotel to celebrities and political leaders. Avg rate: $108/night.

Nearby is the Museum of Occupations, which houses items from the Stalin era including a vintage Volga limo owned by the Estonian chief of the KGB and an old wooden boat used by Estonian refugees to flee to safety, as well as a number of statues and other small artifacts. The museum offers a video in Estonian, English, and Russian of authentic scenes and interviews with survivors from Soviet occupation.

Hours: Year round, 11am-6pm, Tues – Sun. Admission: $3, $1.50 – students.

In Liepaja, some popular hotels are the Promenade, $200/night, the Hotel Vilhelmine, std dbl $70 w/ breakfast, and the Europa City Amrita, $97.

Getting there: International flights, by train, bus, or car. Ferries from Helsinki or Stockholm (2-hour crossing from Finland to Tallinn, several times a day, $37).

Ferries from Germany to Liepaja also.

Our curiosity satisfied, we can now reflect upon what we’ve seen, appreciating freedom, and knowing that infamous prisons such as these are, for the most part, a thing of the past.

Sharon L Slayton

Filed Under: Grief tourism

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