Last month we went on a two week long road trip, touring in a big loop around the Baltic States. We drove from our home in Northwest Poland, down to Warsaw, then up through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia- hugging the eastern borders of these countries- all the way up to Tallinn, where we turned back south, keeping west close to the Baltic Sea, until the tiny Russian – lets call it, “outpost”, though surely there’s an official title- Kaliningrad forced us inland, back across the top of Poland and home. With all stops in between. Eight of them, actually. We stayed in eight cities and towns over 15 days. With two very small children as our traveling companions. It might sound crazy, but we’d pass a sanity test. Promise. I’ll tell you all about what we explored and discovered in the Baltic States later, but first I need to give it some context.
I often feel inadequately equipped to describe and share about the places we go and experiences we have and this is especially true of the Baltic States. Their immense, complex histories have shaped today’s cultures that have been born of them. This cultural variety is what we most often travel to witness. An adequate portrayal often feels overwhelming. The food, the architecture, the attitudes and leisure activities, they’re all tied in to the past and give each place the uniqueness that we go to explore. Even many of the natural wonders we travel to see are protected and preserved because of the people who hold them dear and recognize them as precious. In the Baltic States, each culture is connected by common bonds, yet uniquely its own. As we travel, the complexities of each place unravels, and at the same time a whole new level of tangled history is revealed. The more I travel the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. And the more I realize I don’t know, the more I want to – need to – understand. Exploring quenches the desire for knowledge, and makes you thirst for more. A vicious cycle that could be one of the driving forces behind the term we so lightly call wanderlust. And thus, an explorer is born.
So I am going to start in the middle of our trip this time, because we visited an old Soviet Era prison in Tallinn and it really helped me grasp the width and breadth of the darkness that fell on the lives lived in these countries behind the Iron Curtain. The understanding I gained gave me a much greater appreciation for what I saw and experienced while traveling in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. But also for all of the countries who suffered under Soviet rule, including Poland, a country who has grown to be so dear to us. So before we explore the beauty and fun of the Baltic States, let me share the dark recent past that it has overcome, so that you too might have a greater appreciation for the light.
Patarei Prison is probably one of the most real museum experiences you can have anywhere. Originally built as a sea fortress in 1840 and used as a prison from 1919-2002, it has remained essentially untouched since. From May-September it opens as a museum (8euro for adults, free for children under 7, and the repressed) where you can get a glimpse of life under Soviet oppression. As you wander through narrow, dim hallways, in and out of cells with peeling paint, rusting doors and cracked cement floors, you’ll pass exhibit signs describing how Communism arrived in, and held its grip on the Baltic States. You’ll read victim’s chilling true stories, learn more about the horrifying international crimes committed by communist regimes, and the dark history of the prison. The walls are close, the doorways low, and a feeling of claustrophobic closeness prevails. If the stories aren’t enough to help you relate to the real life people held there, then certainly the experience of feeling trapped gives you a tiny sliver of the terror and misery they knew. It is a moving experience.
But as you depart, if you turn and walk under a large arched driveway, you’ll enter an expansive courtyard. Contained on all sides by prison barracks, but with colorful lounge chairs, umbrellas, fountains and sculptures. A starkly festive contrast to the dreary surroundings and experience you just had inside. A rebirth and bright outlook. Retrospect is important in order to move forward with positive change, and this scene makes for a nice place to reflect.
This is why travel experience is important. This is why I will continue to advocate for getting out there and bringing the kids. Because these are the things you don’t learn in school, that give invaluable context to the things you do. Lifelong learning fills in the gaps that formal education left open. It is fascinating to discover more pieces of the puzzle. Stay curious. Curiosity is a friendly beast. Feed it and it grows and wants more. In school I learned what communism is, how it operates, who operates it. I know phrases like “Iron Curtain” and the summarized version of where and how it came to fall across eastern Europe after World War II. I kind-of-sort-of knew what it meant to live behind it and how it was lifted. That the whole thing was bad, but maybe not fully understanding that all-important question which lingered, why? I’m not blaming an education system. Clearly not everything can be taught in a classroom, we know this, and if it was, there is a chance I was talking and missed it (whoops). I know some topics are just too complex for the average person to casually dive into, that’s why we have PhDs. I understand history can be dark and scary to tread on with young minds. But lets not use these as excuses to ever shy away from the truth, no matter how ominous it may seem. We know educations don’t stop at graduation and aren’t contained to schools. Keep exploring and be a lifelong learner.
Maybe its because my formal schooling began right after the Berlin wall fell and the secrets held hadn’t yet been revealed and recorded for the textbooks. Or maybe I was talking. But either way, my visit to Patarei helped to further enlighten that lingering “why?”. I never knew how many hundreds of millions of people Communism has historically killed. I never knew how thousands of people just up and disappeared for resisting the Communist state, never to be seen or heard from again; mass graves, lime pits, and hungry dogs concealing the dead. I never knew the dirty horrifying details, like how a farmer could be detained, interrogated and beaten for buying a new tractor, or a teacher tortured for secretly teaching true history. I knew religions were abolished, but not that hundreds of thousands of nuns, priests, monks, rabbis and other religious leaders were killed after WWII. I mean, when you think about it, it can feel like the survival or religions is nothing short of a miracle. Throughout Vilnius, we passed church after gorgeous church that was “used as a storage warehouse” during Soviet reign. Now, these churches are once-again used as places of worship, a powerful reminder of the strength in faith. I learned about how the famous House of the Blackheads in Riga (and Tallinn) held a group called the Brotherhood of the Blackheads who, from the 1400s, provided military protection to their cities, and later hosted societal events in support of the arts. They were abolished by the Soviets and sought refuge in Germany, then re-established themselves in Hamburg in the 1960s (where they are still an active group today!).
Its easy to take basic rights for granted. Going to church, spending your money as you will, educating and arming yourself with a set of knowledge you know to be true, writing a blog post about a part of history that is still denied by certain governments. Lifelong learning is crucial to give real meaning to these freedoms. To honor the past and learn from it so that we can remember and do better and, also to fully appreciate the rebirth of the cultures who were oppressed.The Baltic States were freed from the grip of Soviet oppression later than the rest. Held under Communism until 1991. It is incredibly moving to go through a museum like Patarei prison and learn about this history, then be able to more fully appreciate just how far these countries have lifted themselves over the last 30 years. I know I don’t understand it all, I never will. But I strive to. I have so much respect and absolute awe for the way the cultures have revived and the people have redirected their destinies. All the while preserving parts of history, so that we can remember, and understand, and know that these things happened. Patarei prison is a bold reminder of the past that we can learn from so the terror that occurred there might never happen again.
Plan Your Trip: Patarei Prison museum is located near the port of Tallinn and Kalamaja neighborhood. From Old Town it is a pleasant 1km walk. It is open May-September from 10am-6pm, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Cost is 8 Euro for adults. Creepy, but not graphic. Not stroller or handicap friendly, if you aren’t able to navigate inside, you could still have a meaningful experience in the cultural park outside, around the fortress. For more info and details visit the Patarei Prison website here.
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