Estonia Lost and Found: Kolga, a living museum of Estonian history (5/08)

 Special to In Time, ca. May 2008

If any of the thousand odd manors scattered across the Estonian countryside can be said to incarnate the country’s history, from the relatively benign period of Swedish rule right down to the blight and neglect of the Soviet one, it is Kolga, the somewhat bedraggled, but still impressive eight hundred year old estate located on the western border of Lahemaa National Park, near the north central Estonian coast. .

It also happens to be a wonderful place to spend the weekend.

–Unless, that is, you believe in ghosts. Personally speaking, I am skeptical of specters and the like. Or at least I was, until I went on a tour of the normally locked second floor of the towering house, where the Stenbocks, the distinguished Baltic German noble family with Swedish roots which lived there for the better part of three centuries—and which repossessed the woefully neglected estate in 1993–maintained their private quarters.

The specially arranged tour was conducted by Ulvi Meier, curator of Kolga’s museum, which is located on the partly renovated ground floor of the aged but imposing square meter manse. Accompanying me were my Estonian friend and fellow adventurer, Anti Sarap, and his girlfriend, Anna.

Gingerly making our way up the normally closed balustrade that leads to the second floor, where the Stenbocks maintained their private quarters, my friends and I quickly understood why that level is locked. For one thing, it isn’t very safe. The three of us found ourselves stepping on some fairly creaky floorboards as we wended our way through the cavernous twelve hundred square meter area, which encompasses fourteen different rooms.

Also, frankly, there isn’t all that much to see. In the corner of one vast, hangar-sized room stands a towering porcelain stove that served the Stenbocks and guests; in the next, a sturdy, if somewhat chipped settee. Other than that, well, there was just a lot of empty space and piles of wood and plaster.

“I suppose this place is haunted,” I asked Ms. Meier, looking around. “Absolutely,” the helpful if stony-faced curator responded.

Just as Anna and I were exchanging indulgent smiles, there was an odd rustle in the next room.

Anna’s eyes opened wide. Perhaps Ms. Meier was right. Perhaps Kolga was haunted. Had I been dining all weekend with ghosts?…

Seventy two hours before I had arrived from Tallinn on the tail end of a business trip in a state of high exhaustion. My mission: to spend a weekend at a “typical” Estonian manor house—and to relax.

In the event, I wound up having a positively edifying and relaxing time lolling about the Stenbock manor, one of over 1,000 private, church-owned, and state-operated manors scattered around Estonia.

Of course, that was before I found out about the ghosts…

Indeed, I wound up falling in love with Kolga. To be sure, more luxurious accommodations can be had at other Estonian manors—including Palmse, Kolga’s spiffed-up, state-protected fellow estate, which is also located in Lahemaa. The 20 room guesthouse, once upon a time the manorial stablehouse, with its spare rooms, narrow beds, and solitary communal TV, can most generously be described as quaint. However what the guesthof lacks in creature comforts, it more than makes up for in down home Estonian hospitality. Regina ____? , a bespectacled, 23 year old hospitality studies major with an endearing smile and pleasant front desk manner proved the perfect host of Kolga that weekend.

When my laptop crashed Regina allowed me to check my email on the office computer while she did the ironing. Now I was more than a guest: I was a friend. Snugly ensconced in this cozy world-within-a-world, I slept like a king that weekend—or should I say, a lord.

I also dined exceedingly well at the exquisite, white-walled Kolga restaurant located just a hop, skip and jump away on the ground floor of the main house. I recommend the duck. The peaceable, nearly deserted restaurant, with its picture windows overlooking the lawn, also proved an ideal place to bone up on the history of Kolga.

There was a lot to read up on. Like Estonia itself, Kolga has a long, convoluted history.
One of the oldest manors in Estonia, Kolga traces its origins all the way back to the 13th century, when Northern Estonia was under Danish rule and the flat, coastal region of the sparsely populated country was a benefice of Duke Canute, the son of King Waldemar the Second.

Duke Canute, in turn, sold Kolga to the Cistercian monastery on the Swedish island of Gotland. The Cistercian monks were the first to actually build on the land, erecting a convention house and several other household buildings for the benefit of its spartan fold. Kolga’s monastic period lasted until 1519, when the estate passed into the hands of several successive Danish owners.

Following the Livonian War, Kolga fell under the rule of the Swedish crown. In 1581, King John the Third bequeathed the vast to his noted army commander, Pontus De La Gardie, a Frenchman. Alas, the fighting Frenchman, who drowned in Narva River in 1585, didn’t have much time to enjoy his bequest. The first lord of Kolga is buried in Tallinn’s Dome Church.

In 1602, the De La Gardie estate was invaded by the Polish army, which fired most of the buildings remaining from the Cistercian period. Construction on the half-ruined manor began anew under the supervision of Pontus’s equally renowned and feared son, Count and Field Marshal De La Gardie, who John’s successor, Gustav Vasa, appointed governor general of Estland, as Estonia was then called, in 1619, and later governor general of Livonia, as well as Lord High Constable.

Kolga passed into the hands of the Stenbocks, a Baltic German family with Swedish roots which had risen to prominence in the service of Gustav Vasa, in 1652 when Jacob’s daughter, Christina, married Gustav Otto Stenbock, Admiral General and Field Marshal of Sweden. The Stenbocks pretty much left Kolga the way it was for another century. The manor house began taking on its current, stately shape in 1762, when the wealthy descendant of Gustav, Carl Magnus Stenbock, decided to use the income from the estate’s increased grain growing activity and distillery to finance an ambitious renovation. The main house was now endowed with a baroque central section, along with a high roof.

In addition to the changes to the main house, the Stenbock manor comprised a storehouse, two long stablehouses—one of which is now Kolga hotel (I could swear I could hear a horse whinnying in my sleep)—a malt cellar, a smithy, a greenhouse, an ox stable. It even had a pond for washing coaches. Carl Magnus’s monogram is still visible on the carved staircase of the main house.

The so-called golden age of Kolga now began, an era that would last until the end of the 19th century and which would see the carefully-tended Stenbock property—which at its apogee comprised over 50,000 hectacres—become the largest manorial complex in Estonia. The main building grew yet another layer. A new hall was built in one of the wings of the main house. An atttractive greenbelt, modeled after England’s stately woodland parks, was carefully planted by the Stenbock groundskeepers.

Just as during the Swedish time, Kolga became a frequent stopping off place for the Russian imperial family, who continued to allow the Stenbocks their privileged status. Carl Magnus’s grandson, who also was named Magnus, who served as police chief of the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod while keeping tabs on the family estate, was a key protégé of Alexander II.

Because of the sudden death of his son, the estate passed into the hands of Magnus’s grandson, Eric, upon his death in 1885. A decidedly different sort of creature than his upright grandfather, Eric, an eccentric, Oxford-educated writer of macabre fantastic fiction and putative drug addict, presided over Kolga for a year and a half before returning to England (presumably to the staff’s relief.) So the Stenbocks had their prodigal son, as well.

At the end of the 19th century a posh seaside summer residence was built in Tsitre, seven
kilometers from Kolga. The posh compound, which is depicted in an impressive series of old photos that hang on the walls of the guesthouse, included a bathing house, a salon, and a theatre, as well as a pier for passenger ships where steamers sailing to and fro Tallinn used to stop by. All roads, it seemed, led to Kolga.

The long run of the Baltic German nobility, including the Stenbocks began to come to an end after Estonian independence in 1920. Although the Stenbocks retained ownership of the manor proper, the once duchy-sized estate shrunk to a hundredth of its former size as the Stenbock lands were redistributed by the new democratic government. The last lord of the manor, Count Gerhard Stenbock, died in 1931, leaving Kolga to his wife and daughters, who ran the rump manor until 1939, when, joining the great Baltic German diaspora which preceded World War II, they fled to Sweden.

Then, in 1940, the Soviets invaded and Kolga was nationalized. A year later the Germans invaded, turning the main domicile into a military hospital. Then the Russians returned and the long Soviet night enshrouded Kolga again. The once majestic main house, now reviled as representing “the architecture of the exploiters’ class”—was allowed to fall apart, along with the other buildings on the estate.

The Soviet period wasn’t an entire blight. In 1980, the managers of the Kirov fishery collective, then headquartered in Viimsi, outside Tallinn, converted one of the stablehouses into the extant Kolga hotel.

Then in 1993, two years after Estonia regained its independence, after the original Stenbocks, who had since moved to Finland, were able to prove that Kolga belonged to them, the still formidable-looking, if visibly aged main house was returned to its rightful owners by the Estonian republic.

“We were happy to have Kolga back, of course,” says Anders Stenbock. “But we were also shocked at the state into which it had fallen. Sixty years of neglect can be very upsetting.”

The Stenbocks have done their best to fix the place up, installing the Kolga restaurant and museum, and modernizing the guesthouse. However, as Mr. Stenbock, concedes, Kolga still needs a lot of work—which he would prefer to leave to its next owner.

The asking price for Kolga? Twenty nine million crowns. According to Mr. Stenbock, there have been several inquiries from possible buyers, but none of them “have their financials”in shape. Anders, the great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of Gustav, estimates that any new owner would have to invest at least another three million euros in order to restore it. In the meantime, the Stenbocks are content to remain abstentee lords of the storied estate.

“So,” I asked Ms. Meier, as we toured the vacant second floor, where Carl Magnus and his sons and their sons used to dine and dance and cavort. “Just how many ghosts does Kolga have?”

“At least thirty,” the curator deadpanned.

I am not sure whether I believe quite that.

But, I am happy to say, I am a firm believer in Kolga.

This is the fifth installment of “Estonia: Lost and Found,” an occasional series of articles by Gordon F. Sander, a journalist and historian who frequently visits and writes about the Baltic area.