10 December 2010

The KGB Cells of Tartu

On a blizzardy day when all seemed bleak and cold, we visited the KGB cells museum in Tartu. It was a strange, disconcerting place that we didn't feel like lingering in.
The entrance to the museum was hidden in this inconspicuous block of storefronts, flanked by a vacuum cleaner shop and a cell-phone business. There were stairs down to the basement from the entryway and a small sign pointing to the cells.
There was, unfortunately, very little information in English. The museum focuses more on the general deportation and repression of the Estonian people during Soviet rule than it does on the history of this specific location. We were left to make our own interpretations of the menacing strap-chair and dark, solitary-confinement chambers. How much of the horror was imagined, though, and how much of it was left out of our English guides? The building itself was used as the South Estonian center of KGB operations, and is quite large and municipal-looking. There aren't many cells. While eerily-lit and painted, it was difficult to gauge exactly how awful a place this was.
The history of the occupation in Estonia is a dark one - tens of thousands of people were deported to Siberia or killed. In 1941, ten thousand were deported in a matter of days. In 1949, a second wave sent twenty thousand Estonians to central Russia - which was about two and half percent of the total population at the time. Many more were killed or disappeared under suspicious circumstances. In Tartu, people disappeared into the infamous KGB headquarters, referred to then as "the grey house." Somehow, despite being used until the 1980's, the cells have retained more of the previous era, an aura of a pre-cold war past that is more distant than recent. It is almost as though the museum was set up to evoke images of Stalin and to gloss over Chernenko and Gorbachev - which is strange, considering that the people of Estonia have such an intimate understanding of the occupation and the KGB as modern, recent parts of their life.
Traveling in these Baltic states as a foreigner has made me feel as though something is being hidden from me - history, maybe, or some sense of what begat the present era of prosperity and freedom. Estonia in particular has felt very Western European - by that i mean that they have large shopping malls and the roads are filled with recent Japanese car models. This is not a "developing country," however one would like to define that term, but rather a "modern," thriving democracy. Whatever traces of Soviet occupation that remain are hard to find and interpret - it's bewildering considering that the history is so recent. This is a region that has changed so much in my lifetime, but it also feels as though that change has been covered over and obscured. It is strange to find the need to question familiarity, to look for a history that is guessed at more than learned or experienced.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much, the crimes of communism should not be forgotten!