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Estonia: from Soviet occupation to the wired now

Meg Pier for the boston globe

Tallinn’s Upper Town boasts one of the world’s best-preserved medieval centers. Eight centuries are visible in its skyline, from the 13th-century St. Olav’s to the present.

TALLINN, Estonia - A day after landing here in the capital, I found myself in Patarei Prison. If I close my eyes, I am still assaulted by the nightmarish images seared in my memory: the rusted cast-iron cots crammed into cavernous rooms with moldy ceilings; the word “Pain’’ scrawled in red on the wall; the area labeled “SteriliseerimisRuum,’’ for which I needed no translation; the dimly lighted chamber marked “Hanging Room,’’ occupied by a lone ladder, below which a rectangle was cut into the faded linoleum.

Luckily for me, I was not living a future episode of “Locked Up Abroad’’ but roaming the halls of my own free will.

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Patarei has had several functions, most notoriously as a KGB prison during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Estonia, which ended in 1991. In 2007, the prison reopened as a Culture Park. Originally commissioned in 1828 by Russia’s Czar Nicholas I as a sea fortress, Patarei today is a powerful example of the Estonian spirit, a symbol of how its people emerged from a dark century intact.

At the prison museum’s entrance, I was greeted by an elderly woman who did not speak English. A 30-something woman appeared and began acting as our translator. Sille Oidjarv introduced herself and said she was here to see Patarei and suggested we explore together. Over the next three hours, we crept through the damp, disturbing monument to man’s inhumanity.

When we emerged from the chilling complex, we were befuddled by a vision of another sort. Exuberantly prancing around the grounds was a cadre of clowns, outfitted in brightly colored costumes, faces festooned with painted hearts and plug-on noses. I learned the members of the group were mental health counselors celebrating their organization’s 10th anniversary. They chose Patarei as a fitting place to honor their work dedicated to healing emotional wounds.

I spent the rest of the afternoon getting lost in the alleys of Tallinn’s Toompea, or Upper Town. The city has one of the best-preserved medieval centers in the world, and its skyline spans more than eight centuries, encompassing the spire of 13th-century St. Olav’s, the tallest building in the world from 1549 to 1625, and the 1900 onion-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

Throughout Old Town, the new millennium was very much in evidence. Trendy coffee shops teemed with young hipsters and white-haired matrons with PDAs. Estonia is one of the most wired countries - its independence aligned with the rise of the Internet. The nation embraced the openness offered by technology with such fervor it is nicknamed eStonia.

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Sten Tamkivi, an executive with the technology company Skype, who advises his country’s president on IT matters, said, “During the Soviet period, the quality of science education was very high with emphasis placed on R & D, given its strategic military importance. With such a high percentage of the society involved in science, there was a fertile platform for developing a high-tech culture.

“Estonians started with nothing,’’ he said, “and when given freedom, there was very rapid, agile development. In Estonia, Internet access is a human right.’’

To experience the Tallinn of the Cold War era, the next morning I simply had to roll out of bed in my hotel and take the elevator to the 23d floor.

In 1972, the Soviet government opened Hotel Viru in a bid to attract global tourism dollars. Its first two decades were spent largely under the command of the KGB. Preserved as the comrade officers left it in 1991 when they beat a hasty retreat, the hotel’s uppermost floor now serves as the KGB Museum and is filled with artifacts seemingly out of an old James Bond movie: floor-to-ceiling banks of tape recorders, a red phone, and newspaper pages from which glare images of Leonid Brezhnev.

Guide Jana Sampetova shared stories that drove home the reality of the times, and how the watchful eye of secret police was a part of the hotel’s everyday life.

She described how there was a “guardian lady’’ on each floor who had to write down all the moves of the guests, adding that some “were really nice people - they warned tourists about the microphones in the rooms.’’

She told of a Finnish man who stayed at the hotel in 1975. “His roommate went to the bathroom, from where he shouted, ‘They don’t even have toilet paper here!’ Five minutes later there was a knock on the door and there was an old lady with a roll of toilet paper.’’

Sampetova concluded the tour by saying, “Tallinn has a Museum of Occupations and no jokes are made there. But . . . we more want to show how absurd life was. And you have to tell about these things, because as time goes by, people already don’t believe that it was reality.’’

There is no uncertainty about the significance of song to the country’s collective identity. The Estonian Song Festival, held every five years, dates to 1869 and is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world, designated by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In 2009, more than 30,000 participants performed to an audience of 80,000.

On a sunny August morning just days before Estonia’s 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, I visited the Song Festival Grounds. Nestled along the Baltic Sea on the outskirts of Tallinn, the immense green expanse was largely empty. Even with the only sounds being the call of birds and ring of tools, the acoustics were impressive.

It was here the country’s break for independence culminated in a series of gatherings that became known as the “Singing Revolution.’’ Heinz Valk, a beloved figure and an activist, is credited with coining the name.

“I was one of the leaders in the People’s Front,’’ Valk said. “One of our main goals was the fight against censorship - that there would finally be a possibility for the Estonian people to speak openly about the Stalinistic terror and the extermination of . . . national culture. During the white Nordic nights people started to gather to our holy place - the Song Festival Grounds - and sang the national songs officially banned by Russians.

“Word spread quickly and the number of Estonians coming grew bigger every night of the so-called Night Song Festivals, when around 100,000 Estonians were ecstatically singing, dancing, crying, and laughing,’’ he said. “This was already a revolution! But a very unusual one, because usually revolutions are carried out via violence, hatred, and blood. Ours was done by laughing and singing.’’

While times have changed, small Estonia still has its eye on the future and big dreams.

“It already feels like the revolution was in the distant past,’’ Tamkivi said. “I don’t behave as I do because we were occupied. I behave as I do to make a difference to the world. There are much more universal motivations than our past.’’

Meg Pier can be reached at meg@viewfromthepier.com.

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