Terrible Beauty: the Eerie Charm of Stalinist Urban Space in Estonia

by Oliver Orro

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The design and layout of the Town Hall Square of Otepää refers to prior plans of the town becoming a regional centre. The same blueprints were also used for the administrative buildings of Orissaare and Vastseliina. [Image: Oliver Orro]

As is well known, the late 1940s and early 1950s were a difficult time for Estonian culture. The atmosphere of fear at the zenith of Stalinism, persecution and repressions, reporting people to the authorities and the concomitant distrust in communities, the forced ideologisation of all areas of life and the requirement of socialist realism as the only correct creative method – a great deal has been written on all this and naturally, this dark pressure also heavily influenced the world of architecture. At the same time, next to the turgid pomposity and fake scenery of the built environments of that time, there is also genuine grandness and dignity. The Stalinist residential areas still seem surprisingly inhabitable, paradoxically constituting one of the most ‘city-like’ architectural layers in our cities. In several places they have become rather popular residential areas over the past decade with a strong sense of community, which is reflected, among other things, in real estate prices. In addition to the design of houses and large-scale urban planning, a lot of attention was paid to the layout of spaces between houses during that period. Namely, the totalitarian age wanted to design the spatial environment totally as well, so the green belt, decorative elements, fencing, pavement and the structures of the street and courtyard had to form a whole, which, in addition to offering aesthetic enjoyment, had to express the social and artistic ideas of the era, symbolically conveying the arrival of the country and its people into an entirely new, Socialist period. Therefore, the spatial planning, including the planning of outdoor residential space, was clearly a political and rhetoric process at that time. It is unlikely that another period has seen the designing of outdoor residential space in Estonia in such a conscious, earnest and systematic manner as during that horrible, yet exciting era. In addition to restoring the buildings, the elements of the street and courtyard milieu are also in need for considered, sustainable and professional care, and generally this aspect needs to be given more attention to.

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A lot of Stalinist districts are facing a trend of ageing inhabitants. The social space functions despite this. [Image: Oliver Orro]

One of the most common planning techniques in the comprehensively planned Stalinist residential plots was to align the houses along the street in a perimeter around the central courtyard. The built environment in Estonia was generally open; imposing metal fences on stone pillars were placed between houses as notional extensions of the facades facing the street, and here, the example of the Empire style of St Petersburg has clearly been followed. The spacious courtyard between the buildings that was formed in this way was designed as a common environment resembling a park, with playgrounds, swings, arbours, squares for drying laundry, and in some cases even fountains and sculptures. This type of spatial design, with great common courtyards, was in distinct opposition to the prewar private plots where each house was accompanied by a strictly defined garden, and the aim was to suggest a collective way of life befitting of the socialist society being created. In Estonia, this kind of a courtyard can be seen in its purest form at the buildings of the Dvigatel military factory on the Tartu Road (behind the so-called house with a tower) [1], but also in the Pelguranna and Uus Maailm [2] districts, as well in several cities in Ida-Viru County.

In most places, a large portion of the planned attractions were never built in the courtyards, and the green areas were also executed only partly. In these blocks, often built in old areas that were damaged in the war, the buildings themselves also do not have the perfect layout and rhythm; due to the post-war shortage of shelter, among the new residential buildings dripping with neoclassical style, some earlier wooden or stone houses that are in better shape and survived the war still stand and slightly unsettle the Stalinist fake paradise. In that sense, the residential areas planned on plots that were previously without buildings are more flawless. In some parts, not all buildings have been lined next to the street; some have been set back slightly, so that classical antecourts are formed in front of them. In Tallinn, this technique has been used in Vana-Lasnamäe [3], and it has also been used in several places in Ida-Viru County.

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Buildings receding from a street front is a design element used mainly in smaller towns but also in Tallinn. The hedges were one variation of the layout, in other cases the separation was made with low wooden fences. [Image: Laura Mirtel]

Today, these block-focused common areas have become extremely problematic. The plots formed for separate houses in the wake of privatisation were cut up rather irresponsibly; in some cases, the entire inner part of the block is divided into pieces between the surrounding houses, and in others, it has become an unprivatised no man’s land. The danger lies in the enclosure that completely ignores the entire space and the architectural concept (especially in places where some buildings are a bit more administratively capable and have already managed to restore their facades and completed other maintenance works, and now wish to visually separate themselves from the surroundings that have ‘fallen behind’ and are dirty), but even more frequently in creating parking places on former lawns, often chaotically and without any sense of symmetry or proportions. In the early part of the Soviet period, there were very few private cars, which means that there were almost no designs for organising parking in these blocks. Naturally, the most common problem is still deterioration, becoming overgrown or conversely, deliberately destroying greenery without much thought being put into it. The former central plan, strictly symmetrical and separated by hedges, borrowed from the classicist park architecture in a simplified form, is still visible in many places, becoming especially distinct in the winter. Often the barriers along the street are also in a very poor state; sometimes matters have been made worse by incompetent repairs. The original gates have been removed almost everywhere, because they hindered cars driving into the courtyard. Sometimes, the destruction was started as early as the 1970s and 1980s, building the former common courtyards full of garage boxes or workshops, which have by now been privatised separately and are impossible to get rid of.

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Bizarre secondary fences placed in absurd locations destroy the initial open public space idea of Pelgurand, Tallinn. [Image: Oliver Orro]

Other kinds of layouts of houses were also known, and one of the most interesting of the so-called alternative plans is the Laevastiku Street quarter in Tallinn. Here, too, the idea is about a central common space, but the buildings erected for the Shipping Trade Organisation are located in an even row along the street and around a spacious empty square, so that the area intended for joint activities is located in front of the buildings, not behind them. The central square was intended for playgrounds, sports facilities and recreational areas, but it was never fully built and still has not taken on a recognisable character. [4]

In addition to the classical square perimeter blocks, the most common planning technique was to design the street as an axis alley, lined by residential buildings with a larger or smaller setback and, depending on the character of the community, varying in height from two to five floors. The street wall may be rhythmed, i.e. smaller buildings may vary with taller ones; or some buildings may face the street with their side, others with their front. The end of the alley usually had to have a special kind of accent – a monument, a public building, a viewing platform. However, these often never materialised, so the spectacularly designed views end in ‘nowhere’. In several communities, the alley ends with a water tower. The strangest situation was in Valga, where the Stalinist central alley leads directly to the local Lutheran church – that also got heavily criticised as an ideological mistake. The alley could have several lanes, so that a wider green belt formed in the middle. This is the case with the central alley in Kohtla-Järve, Pushkin Street in Narva, Lõime Street in Tallinn’s Pelguranna district and, as one of the most spectacular examples, Rävala (formerly Lenin) Alley in Tallinn.

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The elegant central alley on Lõime Street in Pelgulinn has suffered from bad maintenance but looks impressive nonetheless. [Image: Oliver Orro]

The most commonly used trees were poplars, which, with their rapid growth, were intended to help create the illusion of meteoric progress; however, poplars are not linked to Stalinism alone – they were also loved for manor parks and in urban green areas during the imperial times and the first period of independence. At the same time, many other kinds of trees were planted on streets during the Stalinist period; for example, the birch alleys in several cities of Ida-Viru County are quite striking, as well as the whitebeam alley on Kotzebue Street in Tallinn, designed by the famous landscape architect Aleksander Niine, but traditional maples, chestnuts and lindens were also used, as well as mixed planting and even exotic imports. The central alley of Kohtla-Järve was thoroughly renovated few years ago, but despite the best intentions, the result is perhaps a little peculiar; all the fountains, imposing lanterns and specially designed street furniture indicate an approach in the spirit of Viollet-le-Duc, where renovating a site meant taking it to an idealised form it has never actually reached. However, this great effort in an otherwise backward and grimy city still deserves some praise.

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The Cultural Palace for Workers in Kohtla-Järve in the 1950s. Photo from the collection of the Estonian Film Archive

Sometimes there were no barriers between the buildings and the street, even when the setback was large; at the very most, hedges were used; in other parts, latticed wooden fences were used, surprisingly for that era, as they were more likely to give an impression of a bourgeois idyll than a radical socialist city. This can be seen in the cities of Ida-Viru County as well as in Asula Street in Tallinn, admittedly mostly now only in old photographs. [5] That kind of application of space represents the layer in the history of socialist realism that Linnar Priimägi called Socialist Biedermeier [6] in painting and which is also expressed in architecture. It is a world which tries to be safe and perhaps to appear nostalgic and timeless; in any case, it should not be interpreted as naively apolitical.

One of the less known layers is also the Stalinist garden city, which in Estonia can be found in its purest form only in Ida-Viru County. Namely, next to large apartment buildings, smaller 2–4-storey houses were built; often, a large number of small residential houses built after the same standard project were placed next to each other to make these uniform rows of similar buildings instantly distinguishable from the prewar private house areas, where every house had a different look, depending on their owners [7]. There are districts with plenty of green areas and often picturesquely arching streets in Vana-Ahtme, Kukruse, Kohtla-Järve, Jõhvi and other towns [8]; however, these environments, which have great potential, are often, sadly, in a bad state.

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The Vana-Ahtme district of Kohtla-Järve in Ida-Virumaa. Picturesque winding pathways are often characteristic of Stalinist garden cities. The central “commons” in the middle of the layout are (in this case) privatized and separated by a tasteless “chicken coop” fence. [Image: Oliver Orro]

The most imposing city of that era in Estonia is naturally Sillamäe, where the buildings and alleys, benches, urn-like flowerpots and trash bins, symmetrical flower beds and neo-baroque balustrades with the design of streetlights and other things form an impressive whole. What is strange is the fact that the link to the sea, already weakened by the layout of the city, is almost totally lacking in reality in the Stalinist district of Sillamäe. The powerful street axis that begins at the famous great stairs admittedly takes you to the sea, but the beach was in dire straits until recently and full of random buildings, and there has never really been anything significantly better here. We have no seaside promenades in Estonia from that period, even though the genre was known during that era in the Black Sea resorts. However, perhaps the most charming decorative element is the honours board of progressive workers, which is not a board on a wall, but a separate stone construction. Other cities also had them: for example, one used to stand on the edge of Tammsaare Park in Tallinn, but all have since perished [9].

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This inner courtyard in the middle of the city of Ahtme is a typical example of so-called Stalinist city planning. The remains of the original symmetrical solution are still visible, but due to the rapid depopulation of the former mining and industrial city, the whole area is lacking maintenance. Some old ladies from the surrounding houses trim the hedges and grass, but only seldom. The sculpture or fountain that (according to the original plan) was to stand in the middle of the fountain was never constructed [Image: Oliver Orro]

Beautifully designed streetlight posts are important actors in the street milieu in other cities, including in several parts of Tallinn [10]. When these are replaced with standard ‘europosts’, as has been the case in several places, the city space loses some of its genuine historic touch and uniqueness forever.

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A late-classicist-style lamppost in Narva [Image: Oliver Orro]

Like all totalitarian regimes, Stalinist planning also loved the square as a part of the city space; our otherwise rather squareless cities immediately gained new, imposing places. This was made possible by the post-war situation; many new squares were built on destroyed blocks. There are even more squares that remained on paper alone, reflected in the first general plans of the Soviet period. Some squares were also left unfinished and were completed in the modernist era, which is why the initially intended composition has not survived. The best known case is the absurdly large central square designed for Pärnu [11]. Naturally, ceremonial buildings were designed to line the square, and in many cases, the most important one among these was the community centre. After all, the authorities had to demonstrate how the Soviet power was looking after the cultural needs of the workers. Several standard projects were made for the construction of community centres. In other parts, the central building of a square is some kind of an administrative building, usually the region, city or oblast committee of the party – after all, the square as a type of public space is already historically linked to the manifestation of power. Back then, curiosities like these various kinds of party and executive committees abounded also due to the administrative reform, which abolished counties and divided Estonia into three oblasts, which in turn were divided into small rural regions. Magnificent regional centres were built everywhere; Keila, Orissaare and Vastseliina managed to construct them more extensively, and in the case of the latter two, the standard design was also similar [12]. This administrative division did not last, but quite a few strange squares had already been constructed in smaller towns by then.

A typical technique saw the most important building, usually connected to governance but sometimes also education or culture, placed above the level of the square, as if to lift it out of the mundane environment and raise it up on a pedestal. Almost always, a larger sculpture was also planned for the square, often the fatherly V. I. Lenin; naturally, these have been removed by now, but sometimes the monuments were never erected. Thus, in many squares from that era, you get the feeling that the spacious place is missing something. The sculpture could be replaced by a central fountain, but these also were often not realised in reality; for example, a fountain was planned in front of the Sõprus cinema in Tallinn from the beginning, but it was built only in early 21st century, already in a modern key. Redesigning the squares began already in the 1960s and 1970s, when the classical axis designs were considered outdated and ugly. In the 1990s and 2000s, some of these squares and their surrounding volumes were restored quite well, some have been neglected, the latter usually in locations where the entire town is on the verge of dying out. A startling case is Jõhvi, where alterations have turned the former central square in front of an administrative building into a kind of strange two-storey parking lot.

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One of the characteristic spatial elements – an axial square towards a building to be highlighted – is still visible in front of Keila Community Centre [Image: Oliver Orro]

Stalinist parks are a separate phenomenon entirely. These cannot be covered at length here, let us just note that in the late 1940s and early 1950s a large number of all kinds of green areas were built in cities to mend war wounds and eliminate ruins when there was no time to construct new buildings. In most cases, these parks had a distinct regular layout, most of the techniques of baroque and classicist landscape architecture were used. More glorious Stalinist parks can be seen in Russia, where they were often called ‘cultural and holiday parks’; ours are rather modest compared to the grandiosity found over there. The Stalinist layout with two intersecting diagonals is still visible in the Tammsaare Park in Tallinn, where it is admittedly disrupted by the alterations made in the 1970s [13], but also in the strictly axisymmetric network of paths of the Politseipark or Police Park (the former so-called Pioneers’ Park), currently undergoing renovations, and Koidu Park in the Uus Maailm area, where it has become less visible and legible with each reconstruction.


  1. Kalm, Mart 2011. Eesti 20. sajandi arhitektuur. Tallinn: Prisma Prindi Kirjastus, p 269.
  2. Kask, M., Lippus, K., Vihma, P. 2011. Uue Maailma lood. Tallinn: Uue Maailma Selts, pp 89–94.
  3. For more in depth information about this area see: Välja, Leele and Tallinna Kultuuriväärtuste Amet 2012. Stalinistlik maja. Kortermajatüübid ja säästev uuendamine. Tallinna Kultuuriväärtuste Amet, pp 13–14.
  4. Actually, some public buildings planned at the square were also never built: see the plan in Stalinistlik maja, p 8.
  5. Välja 2012: p 12.
  6. Priimägi, Linnar. Socialist realism and Soviet Biedermeier. Presentation on 18.10.2002 at the Tartu Art Museum, notes in the possession of the author. For a summary of the conference presentation by L. Priimägi, see the collection: Sotsialistliku realismi võidukäik? Eestis. Tartu Kunstimuuseum 2003. Priimägi also uses the term ‘Socialist Biedermeier’.
  7. Here, the Stalinist garden city means a collection of small houses constructed after a common standard project and a recognisable layout characteristic of the era, with each building housing 2–4 flats on average. At the same time, common individual homes were built all over Estonia after the war, but they were more likely an extension of the prewar building tradition and their exteriors bear no signs of Stalinism at first glance. See: Aavik, Mariette ja Tallinna Kultuuriväärtuste Amet 2014. Sõjajärgne individuaalmaja. Hoonetüübi areng ja säästev uuendamine. Tallinna Kultuuriväärtuste Amet.
  8. Ahtme, Kukruse and other smaller industrial areas were planned as parts of the Kohtla-Järve conurbation. The general plans were made by Russian architects in Union-wide offices in Leningrad. See Raam, Villem (editor) 1997. Eesti Arhitektuur III. Tallinn, Valgus, pp 172–173. See also: Sultson, Siim 2015. The Stalinisation of Estonian town planning: visions and heritage. Urban Design for Mussolini, Stalin, Salazar, Hitler and Franco During the Interwar Period: Cities in Europe, Cities in the world – 12th International Conference on Urban History. Portugal, Lisbon, 3-6 September 2014. Ed. C. von Oppen, H. Bodenschatz, P. Sassi, M. Welch Guerra. Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, pp 1−13.
  9. The archives have several projects for honours boards from that period, see for example ERA.f.R-1992- n.2–s.83.
  10. Orro, Oliver 2011. Vana hea linnamajapidamine. Kommunaalmajanduse mälestusmärkidest Tallinnas ja mujalgi. Muinsuskaitse Aastaraamat 2010. Tallinn, Muinsuskaitseamet, pp 76–81.
  11. Kalm, Mart 2002. Eesti 20. sajandi arhitektuur. Tallinn: Sild, lk 261.
  12. Hansar, Lilian 2013. Stalinistlik linnaehitus. Eesti kunsti ajalugu 6/1. Tallinn: Eesti Kunstiakadeemia. On regional communities see pp 228–230.
  13. Sander, Heldur; Abner, Olev. Tallinna väärikaimad pargid – Tallinna loodus. Tallinna Keskkonnaamet/MT. Loodusajakiri, 2010, 48. The park with the regular plan was created in 1947-48, and it brought the author of the plan, Harald Heinsaar, the Prize of Soviet Estonia. The sculpture of A.H. Tammsaare was installed only on the writer’s 100th birthday in 1978, and the colloquial name Tammsaare Park caught on. From 1955 to 1989, it bore the official title the Park of 16th October.

Header image: Laura Mirtel. The “Cultural Palace for Workers” in the industrial city of Kohtla-Järve was completed in 1953. As the original fountain planned in front of the building had been removed in later soviet decades, the new one was designed during the restoration process of the “cultural palace” and its environs some years ago. The idea of “modern stylisation” instead of exact copies (note also the benches and the pathway) is in itself interesting, although the implementation is clumsy.

Oliver Orro is an Estonian architectural historian

This article originally appeared in the Estonian Urbanists’ Review

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  1. There is an eerie charm about Stalinist architecture in Latvia too. I am thinking in particular about Daugavpils and Seda, which I visited a few months ago.

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