After Estonia regained her independence, a group of former political prisoners sought support to convert the place where they were introduced into the Soviet penal system into a museum. As high school students they had been active in a patriotic underground organization, Blue-Black-White. KGB viewed that as a serious threat to Soviet authority, and promptly rounded up the suspects. Boys and girls were sentenced to serve long terms in prison camps in Siberia. A large modern building in Tartu had served as KGB headquarters. Its basement was used to hold “enemies of the workers” while they underwent interrogation. It was a small but nasty place.
Financial support for the museum came from the Estonian American Fund that deemed the project worthy of support from the bequest of Tiit Lehtmets. Mr. Lehtmets wished to honor the memory of his father, Elmar Lehtmets, who perished in the GULAG. His crime? He had been a member of Estonia’s parliament.
Ardi Siilaberg, curator of the Museum Dungeons of the KGB, told the museum’s story to the Washington Estonian Society and to the Estonian Culture Days held at the Estonian House in New York at the end of March.
The Museum was opened in October 2001. Tartu city government hailed it as one of the three major achievements of that year. It was a nice political gesture, but hollow because there was no financial support from the city. The museum is the only establishment of its kind in Estonia that is located in the original space. Presently it attracts almost 5000 visitors annually. Among re-cent visitors were the ambassador of United Kingdom, cadets from the Swedish Defense Academy, student groups from Sweden and Finland, and individual tourists from abroad. Estonians from outside Tartu have yet to discover it.
For visitors from abroad, the museum is the nearest direct source of information on the repression practiced by the Soviet Union, to learn about the crimes that the totalitarian state committed against the peoples it subjugated.
Plans call for more research as more crime sites are discovered. Additional space and equipment has been acquired to accommodate large group lectures. As for support, the Estonian American Fund hopes that other organizations and individuals will join in the effort.
The museum’s web site: http://linnamuuseum.tartu.ee/?m=2