The old town was beautiful and magical, but it wasn’t the only part of Tallinn that I had wanted to see. The Tallinn that I had read about was a Tallinn on the rise, a country that in its short 29 years of re-independence freed from the Soviet Union in 1991 had managed to turn its fortunes around and become a rising star of the Baltics. I wanted to see the Tallinn that was home to the locals, and not just the Tallinn of a mystical past.
And to do that, we had to get out of town, somewhere that would show us what life used to be, and what life is changing to become. So off we went to the district of Kalamaja in the northwest, along the Tallinn Bay. Kalamaja was fascinating for two reasons, one its history and architecture, and two its present and future. The english translation of Kalamaja is fishing house, and apt name for what the district was all the way till the 18th or 19th century – Kalamaja until the 18th century was a fishing village, dominated by fishermen and fishmongers whose catch would then be sold to the people in nearby city (Kalamaja wasn’t too far from Tallinn).
The fact that a fishing village in the Baltics however invited prying eyes for a completely different reason. Because it was accessible to the rest of Europe, and presented a harbour that the Russian Empire lacked for both trade and defense purposes, the Tallinn Bay became geopolitically important for the growing Russian Empire.
This was however only an item that practitioners of realpolitik would appreciate, something that may or may not have been present when the Russian Empire began its rise. Tallinn and the Tallinn Bay were merely nearby objects of conquest to express the imperial ambitions of the Tsar. It was was not something that the Russians realised during the Great Northern War. They however still took over Tallinn, Kalamaja and the whole of Estonia at the end of the war as part of imperial ambitions.
What the Russians did realise though was that Tallinn was a great place for trade and industry. So when Tallinn was connected to St Petersburg by rail in 1870, a whole host of factories were set up in the area of Kalamaja. The fishermen were replaced by the working class, who swamped the area in search of work and a better life. Even more wooden houses were built to accommodate the workers in Kalamaja, and it was these wooden houses provided Kalamaja’s architectural heritage to Estonia.
It was a major setback for the Russians in 1905 that brought into focus the vital role of the Baltic Sea and the Tallinn Bay to the defense of Russia. The major event in 1905 was the loss of the Russians to the Japanese in the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War.
This was not just a military loss. For the first time in history, a superior European power had loss to a perceived inferior Asian race. I do not put any quotation marks on the idea of superior because it was a fact that such a perception existed in the early 20th century. To defeat the Japanese, the whole Russian Baltic Fleet was sent to Tsushima, but instead of crushing the Japanese, all of the Baltic Fleet was destroyed. This left Russia open to invasion from its European front.
Noting the precarious position the defense of the Realm was under, Tsar Nicholas II on the advice of his strategists ordered the building of the Naval Fortress, aimed at blocking naval access directly into St Petersburg, then the capital of the empire. The fortress was built along the narrowest entry to St Petersburg with four lines of defence, the main one between Helsinki (including Suomenlinna) and Tallinn.
A naval base was further constructed in Tallinn.
This Great Naval Base was never completed because of the outbreak of World War I, the declarations of Independence by Finland and Estonia and the eventual collapse of the Russian Tsarist Empire.
The industries eventually died as did the harbour with the collapse of the USSR, as no one in the western world wanted to buy products from Estonia and Kalamaja district underwent a period of decay and decline.
Things have changed vastly now, today, the naval base that was built in Tallinn, has been converted into a museum, the Lennusadam Seaport Museum, the most popular museum in Tallinn too.
While the wooden houses are still standing in place, creative and urbanne types moved in to create a new bohemian neighbourhood with a seaview. You can see many modern houses with creative touches inspired by the wooden house past of Kalamaja.
The Kalamaja district and (later on as we will see the Teliskivi Creative City) draw in artsy and creative types, but unlike Berlin and Oslo (and here) the hip artsy types do not seem to include the anarchic types. This same lack of anarchic sentiment can also be felt in Vilnius hilarious Uzupis Republic. A part of me would think that this has to do with the historical past of these places – Berlin despite being part of the former East Germany is today the capital of one of the most important economies in Western Europe, Oslo is likewise a Western European capital. On the other hand, Tallinn and Vilnius are the capitals of countries that were once under the far-left socialist-communist control, and anarchism has political left overtones (though those more educated in political science sometimes argue otherwise). That’s my uneducated guess anyway.
ON THE MAP (Kalamaja District)
ON THE MAP (Lennusadam Seaport Museum)