“This is a place where coming generations will be shown what once was—but also what will never be again.”
Prison doors, inside the Occupation Museum.
Ritso and Estonia’s new Occupation Museum.
Olga Ritso, then 20, rarely slept at home at night because that’s when jack-booted Stalinist police typically burst in to spirit their victims away.
Later, bombs cascading nearby, she narrowly escaped the Soviet regime that deported and killed thousands, including her own father.
Sixty years and a successful career as an ophthalmologist in the United States never dimmed those memories, so she did something that awed and moved her homeland: She donated, with her husband, the full 2 million dollars it took to build a new museum chronicling both Soviet and Nazi atrocities.
While Estonia has largely revived its economy, it remains cash-strapped and the
Museum of Occupations would still be a figment of imagination without the Estonian-American’s gift—the largest one-off private donation in Estonian history.
“I just wanted to do something worthwhile. I wanted to show the world what this country went through,” the soft-spoken Ritso, now 83, explained after recently opening the modern, glass-and-concrete museum in Tallinn. “It was such an awful, horrible time.”
The museum corroborates that awfulness with filmed eyewitness testimonials, and with hundreds of photographs and artifacts—from tattered prison uniforms to solid-iron prison doors that once slammed behind terrified inmates.
One display case shows dissident anti-Soviet literature that had been typed on wispy paper and secretly passed from one reader to another—at the risk of jail, even death, if caught.
Replica locomotives, one stamped with a swastika and the other
with a red star, loom in the main hall as a reminder of the human cargo shipped to and fro during a series of 20th century occupations—first by the Soviets in 1940, then by the Nazis and then again by the Soviets.
Soviets exiled at least 35,000 Estonians, including children, in cattle wagons to Siberia. During 1941-44 Nazi rule, 1,000 Estonian Jews perished; 20,000 Jews were sent from elsewhere in Europe to die here. Russians returned in 1944 and stayed until the USSR unraveled 50 years later.
One film aired in the breezy, sun-drenched museum shows Jewish bodies stacked like logs on a pyre in Klooga, not far from Tallinn. Victims had to climb atop the pile themselves and stretch out before being shot—saving executioners the bother of later having to lift unwieldy corpses on their own.
Ritso’s first brush with the horrors of the age goes back to when she was just two. Her father was arrested by secret police while he was in Moscow. She never saw him again.
When Stalin annexed Estonia 18 years later, her uncle was deported to Siberia—dying en route.
“The Soviets started killing everyone who was anyone,” recalled Ritso, a medical student at the time. “There wasn’t a single family that didn’t have a relative or friend taken away.”
She figured it was a safe bet she’d be on deportation lists, too. So during the 1940-41 Soviet occupation, she evaded arrest by staying over night with different friends.
After Nazi rule, with Red Army tanks rolling back into Tallinn and parts of the city in flames, she rushed aboard a refugee ship. As it plied the Baltic Sea, Soviet planes appeared, bombing and strafing hers and a sister ship. Hers survived. The other was fatally hit and, with hundreds trapped inside, sank before Ritso’s eyes.
One museum exhibit is a wooden boat used by other Estonians
to make similarly perilous escapes. The outer walls of the main room are lined with battered brown suitcases, symbolizing the hasty departures made by nearly 100,000 Estonians.
After living in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, she settled in the United States in 1949 and became a U.S. citizen. She married Walter Kistler, a prominent space scientist; they still live at their home in Seattle, Washington.
Debates still break out in Estonia, as in the other Baltics, about whether more could have been done to resist the occupations and, most sensitively, about the degree of collaboration under foreign rule. Discussions about who did what to whom and about who is to blame, or who should or shouldn’t apologize can, on occasion, still degenerate into shouting matches—even brawls.
“The past,” historian Anatol Lieven wrote about the Baltic states in his 1994 book
The Baltic Revolution, “has a way of walking around in the present, behaving as if it were alive.”
But emotions are less raw today after concerted Estonian efforts to come to terms with the past, including by rewriting Communist-era textbooks, by establishing a Jewish Holocaust Day and even by prosecuting several elderly ex-agents for Stalinist deportations.
This museum, though, is the most ambitious effort yet.
The importance accorded to it is indicated by its location, a minute or two stroll downhill from parliament; the state donated the plot of prime real estate on which the museum was built.
There have been some complaints.
None other than Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the museum had a political bias and worse, at least in Russian eyes, “equated fascist Germany and the USSR.”
Even some Estonians struck a critical note.
Recent President Lennart Meri, deported with the rest of his family when he was just 12, said he would have preferred a more upbeat name for the facility, suggesting
The Freedom Museum.
Others grumbled that the museum is too low-key, that it doesn’t capture the full terror of the times—and that some artifacts, like old vodka bottles and phones, contribute little.
Curators say they always intended to add more displays along some of the still-bare walls over time. And they say they wanted to avoid sensationalism—that, despite Russian accusations, their aim is to educate Estonians and visitors from abroad with the cold, hard historical facts.
The best indication they’re doing something right may have been the crowds pouring into the museum after it opened in
July, 2003. Several children—all born after Estonia regained independence in 1991—stood mouths agape before archive films showing mass graves of Soviet and Nazi victims.
“This is a place where coming generations will be shown what once was—but also what will never be again,” said Estonian Prime Minister Juhan Parts at a dedication ceremony.
He also turned to thank Ritso, bowing to her as she sat among legislators, ministers and ex-political prisoners, her hands folded across her black, flower-plaid dress.
She and the prime minister (top
photo) then formally opened the museum by jointly gripping and pulling together a pair of wire cutters—slicing through a strip of barbed wire.
CITY PAPER-The Baltic States
The museum is located at Toompea 8 (J-1); it’s open every day except Monday, from 11:00-18:00. You can get more information at its website,
Among other feartures on this site related to the Soviet- and Nazi- occupations, see
Timeline, Jailed and
Top photo by Rauno Volmer/Postimees.
Others by CITY PAPER.