Estonia Lost and Found: Paldiski (Spring ’07)

 Until recently, a foreigner asking for Paldiski, the former Soviet “forbidden city” located fifty kilometres west of Tallinn, which at one time was the headquarters for the once formidable nuclear-armed Baltic submarine fleet, would most likely have received second looks.

Paldiski? You must be crazy! Why would you want to go there?

To be sure, the question would have been valid. Only a nosy journalist, perhaps, seeking to experience the fifty year long night that Estonians refer to as “the Soviet time” would have had a rational interest in visiting the devastated former naval base.

Which is precisely why this writer, who specialises in writing about the Baltic, visited Paldiski in 1997. “If you want to understand what the Soviets did to the Balts,” a Finnish official who gave me a confidential briefing before I undertook my first visit to re-independent Estonia said, shaking his head, “go to Paldiski.”

And so one wintry day I took a taxi from Tallinn to Paldiski and found myslef in a place that reminded me of a cross between an abandoned Hollywood World War II — or should I say World War III — movie set and the far side of the moon: block after block of empty buildings, filled with floor upon floor covered with broken glass and decomposing Soviet ephemera. If you listened closely, you could still hear the sound of the enraged Russian soldiers and sailers who finally, reluctantly, evacuated their once cherished base in 1994, a full three years after Estonia regained her independence, smashing, burning, and removing everything they could.

And in the centre of this 20 square mile wasteland, rising above it all, was “the Nuclear Object,” the commissioned, but still quite live-looking nuclear reactor which had been used to train Red submariners through the darkest days of the Cold War.

A fitting monument to, and metaphor for, the horrors of “the Soviet time” indeed.

And yet, amidst the devastation of Paldiski I also found hope in the person of Paldiski’s young mayor, a dynamic, almost weirdly optimistic 28-year-old architect by the name of Arvo Täks. “I see a great future for Pladiski,” Täks said after he had led me around the worst parts of the former base, which then had a population of barely two thousand.

“You must remember that at one time this was the third busiest port in Russia,” he said, reminding me of the once great days of the former “Baltiskii Port,” as the Russians called it, which was personally picked by Peter the Great as the site for a deep water port after Russia wrested Estonia from Sweden in the Northern War (and where so many forced labourers died making Peter’s quixotic dream come true that the place became known — and feared — as Siberia II). Of course, this was true. Still, Täks’ optimism seemed somewhat unrealistic.

“Someday, Paldiski will be a great port again,” Täks said, looking out at the deserted port, which was desperately looking for business.

“You must also remember that Paldiski has some of Estonia’s most spectacular nature,” he said, after he finished showing me around “wasteland” Paldiski and he led me to some of the out-of-this-world, layer cake-like limestone cliffs at the end of the Pakri peninsula, overlooking the Gulf of Finland.

Also true. Still, would tourists be able to see past the wrecked buildings and Nuclear Object?

At best, Täks’ dream seemed more pipe dream than dream. Paldiski certainly had a fascinating, if somewhat spooky ast. But one had to wonder: did it have a future?

That was then. Today, I am happy to report, Täks’ once Pollyannaistic dream of a thriving, revived Paldiski port and city is on its way to becoming a reality.

Perhaps most strikingly, the once abandoned port has been transformed into a busy cargo entrepot and car ferry terminal from Tallinn to Sweden, complete with a sparkling supermodern harbour facility, with its own cafeteria, for motorists to grab a coffee and pastry before they roll on to their ship.

To be sure, there are plenty of scary artifacts from the Soviet time to scare you, if that is what you are looking for. The reactor, now safely secured and decommissioned, is still there. So is “the Pentagon,” the massive five-sided structure in the middle of the former base that served as headquarters for the Soviet training centre. Many of the abandoned buildings I saw on my first visit have been removed, but there are still entire apartment blocks in the eerie downtown area that have been written off. The barbed wire fence that once surrounded the base has been torn down, but there is still plenty of opportunity to re-experience the “Soviet time,” if that’s your cup of tea.

And yet, beyond the reactivated, thriving port, there are also real signs of change — of hope — in Paldiski. For one thing, the population has doubled to more than four thousand. There is a modern supermarket. And, of special interest to tourists, there is a small, but comfortable three star hotel, Valge Laev (The White Ship) with six rooms boasting the usual amenities, as well as a cozy restaurant.

Recently, another exciting surprise has come to Paldiski in the form of the Pakri Wind Farm, a 4 million euro Norwegian-owned project that Paldiski officials hope will lead the way in showing Estonia out of the “brown,” oil-shale past and onward into the sunlit, “green energy” future. “The wind farm is the complete opposite of what we had in the Soviet time, positive green energy, as opposed to poisonous, nuclear-powered, belligerent energy,” Regina Rass, of the Paldiski municipal government proudly notes. The farm currently provides the equivalent of one percent of Estonia’s electricity consumption. Developers are already planning to use the Pakri farm as a model for others to be built around Estonia’s electricity consumption. Developers are already planning to use the Pakri farm as a model for others to be built around Estonia. And of course, the wonderful nature is still gloriously there.

It seems that Täks — who happily remains vice mayor of Paldiski — after all, was right. Paldiski has changed. Paldiski does have a future, and an exciting one at that.

So I say today, if you wish to visit a place that is at once a symbol and metaphor for both Estonia’s “spooky” recent past and its exciting and inspiring present and future as the leader of the surging Baltic republics, go to Paldiski.