I recently spent some time working remotely in Tallinn. In the booming Estonian tech hub, you won’t see any traces of the country’s Soviet past. Curious as I am, I wanted to find out whether that’s the case in the entire country – or just in the West. In the middle of Estonia’s icy winter, I headed east. What I found in Eastern Estonia was the complete opposite of what you see in Tallinn: pure Sovietness. Here’s the story of my trip to Eastern Estonia.
Why Visit Eastern Estonia?
Any Estonian will tell you that there’s no point visiting the eastern part. Tallinn and Tartu are picturesque cities, and the most stunning national parks and beaches are in the western regions.
As a consequence, not many people visit the East.
There is, however, one overriding reason to consider heading to Eastern Estonia.
It’s the same reason why Bald and Bankrupt visits unknown Ukrainian villages (he also went to Eastern Estonia at some point). It’s the reason why people have a fascination with Chernobyl and Transnistria.
In short, you visit Eastern Estonia because you want to see Sovietness. You want some reminders of what life was like under communism.
Estonia has done better than most former Soviet republics. The country built a new economy on tech and digital services. As a result, Estonia now has much better living standards than most of the former eastern bloc.
Likewise, they have done a thorough job of erasing every trace of communism in the country.
That’s all well and good, but what if you want to see the communist past? What if you are a geek like me who enjoys weird brutalist architecture and Soviet symbols?
You go check out Eastern Estonia.
My Story of Visiting Eastern Estonia
I spent one full day in Eastern Estonia and didn’t regret it. If you want to see remnants of the country’s Soviet past, you have to head east.
The closer you get to Russia, the more the scenery changes – both in architectural and cultural terms.
Here’s my story of exploring Maardu, Toolse, Sillamäe, and Narva.
If you’re in Tallinn, you have two primary choices. You can rent a car or take a train to Johvi or Narva. I chose to hire a car.
I got my car at 8 am from a company called NU Rentals. They were cheap at 75 EUR for one day, full insurance included. It was a Toyota Yaris without any creature comforts, but it had heating and some proper winter tires – something I soon realized would be vital.
I left central Tallinn at 8.15 am and started heading east. It was a freezing January day – with temperatures around -10°C (14°F).
The sun only rises around 9.30-10 am during the winter months, so I drove off in complete darkness.
The center of Tallinn is a medieval gem with modern embellishments. Once I reached the eastern outskirts, however, I got my first glimpse of Estonia’s Soviet past.
The Outskirts of Tallinn – Natural Beauty and Early Reminders
The center of Tallinn doesn’t have any Soviet architecture, but on the outskirts, there are still lots of “commy blocks.”
They aren’t as gigantic as in Kyiv, for example, but they’re still there. There is nothing particular about them. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see that even in the tech hub of Tallinn, brutalist apartment blocks are still home to many people.
I followed the highway – direction Russia, and around 20 minutes later, I reached Lake Maardu.
I stumbled upon this lake by accident and had no idea how stunning it was in winter. The sun started to come out, and I stopped at the shore. Completely frozen, you could easily walk across the lake.
I saw people digging holes into the ice. They would later stick their fishing rods inside. It felt like Siberia – and yet, we were still on the outskirts of Tallinn.
A Soviet Submarine Base and the Fortress of Toolse
My next stop should have been Hara Submarine Base, one of the best Soviet locations in Estonia. Finished in 1958, the Russians used it until 1991.
Today, it’s an abandoned site with a lot of graffiti.
The structures remain, but the subs are obviously gone. It’s nowadays a popular urban safari location, but like a complete amateur, I didn’t do my research.
The site is only open on weekends during the winter months, so I didn’t get further than the entrance gate.
Gutted, I drove on to Toolse, a medieval fortress on the Baltic Sea.
Built by the Teutonic Order, the stone fortress dates from the 15h century. It’s a beautiful location in the middle of nowhere and worth a stop if you’re driving from Tallinn to Narva.
The Almost-Abandoned Former Soviet Uranium Mining Town
The next stop was the city of Sillamäe, a genuinely mind-blowing place.
During Soviet times, it was a “closed city.” Scattered all over the Soviet Union, people living in these cities couldn’t leave – and no one from the outside could enter.
Most of these towns remained “closed” because they held a strategic industrial or military site.
In the case of Sillamäe, it was a uranium mine. The mine supplied various nuclear power plants as well as Soviet weapons programs.
The citizens of these closed Soviet towns usually enjoyed higher living standards than the rest of the Union. As such, Sillamäe had lots of pompous neoclassical buildings, cinemas, and Western-style supermarkets.
Today, Sillamäe is an almost abandoned, decaying city. The neoclassical architecture is still visible, but the buildings are in disrepair.
In short, the town of Sillamäe epitomizes the fall of the Soviet Union.
Young people have long gone. The only ones left are those who live on pensions. Many of them remember the “good old times.” The city is 95% Russian-speaking, as Moscow sent thousands of ethnic Russians to the Baltics. Most of them didn’t return to the new Russian Federation in 1991.
Sillamäe is a bewildering sight. Once a glorious industrial hub fueling Soviet nuclear weapons, it’s now a decaying town without any youth.
In this region, we are lightyears away from the pro-European, 100% digital, and super-efficient city of Tallinn.
Narva: the City on the Russian Border
After my stop in the spooky yet captivating town of Sillamäe, it was time to continue east toward Narva.
Narva is the third-largest city in Estonia, but it looks and feels like Russia.
The river Narva is the natural border between Estonia and Russia, and the main bridge is one of the busiest crossings in the Baltics.
I almost drove onto the bridge but then remembered that I didn’t have an E-Visa. No day trip to Russia today.
The people who live in Narva and Ivangorod (the town on the Russian side of the river) have a special visa-free regime and can cross at any time. That special regime, however, doesn’t apply to the rest of us.
Small wonder that you see people walking the bridge on foot. It’s undoubtedly quicker than a bus. Both the Russians and Estonians will search it, and you’ll spend at least an hour before getting across the bridge.
I headed to the river promenade and stopped for a moment.
This place is pretty incredible.
The small bridge is the border between the European Union and the Russian Federation.
Both entities aren’t exactly BFs at the moment, symbolized by the conflict in Ukraine. And yet, I stand here, looking at people crossing on foot all the time. How can two neighbors have such a bad relationship?
Narva – like Sillamäe, is a Russian-speaking city, and most people here are ethnic Russians. You don’t hear any Estonian, and the city is full of Soviet architecture.
Aside from Sovietness, there are other things to do in Narva. You can visit castles, head to the Narva Museum, and stroll along the beautiful river promenade.
I headed back to Tallinn just before sunset (around 4 pm) and got a nasty surprise. The roads were covered in a mix of snow and ice – and unlit.
I had driven on ice before, but this was a different level. The wheels spun a few times, but fortunately, the winter tires did their job. Thanks, little Toyota.
Needless to say, the 2.5 hours it took to get back were nerve-wracking. Luckily, I made it back to Tallinn in one piece after my excursion into Estonia’s Soviet history.
Conclusion on Visiting Eastern Estonia
Narva’s tourist sights weren’t my priority. I wanted to see Estonia’s Soviet past, and the area didn’t disappoint.
Right on the Russian border, the country feels Russian and post-Soviet. On a similar note, the region of Narva is a far cry from the modern and bustling capital city of Tallinn.
Eastern Estonia still feels like a post-Soviet limbo country. It isn’t as derelict as Moldova, but it oozes Sovietness.
I realize that this article isn’t exactly a helpful travel guide, so I will at least answer one question:
Is it worth checking out Eastern Estonia?
Well, if you’ve had enough of world-class internet, beautiful medieval buildings, and modern technology – and crave something Soviet, head to Narva.