A Soviet Brigadoon
The strange history of Estonia’s Sillamäe

City street in Sillamäe, Estonia


Andrew Stuttaford

The old Swedish works had been destroyed during the war, but a new production unit — Kombinat no. 7, and a new town that was intended to support it — was built, much of it by the forced labor of convicts and POWs. The latter included many Balts caught up in the conflict between their homelands’ Nazi and Soviet invaders. More than half a century later, the facility’s new Estonian owners stripped away sheetrock in its administration building to reveal well-crafted brickwork. A section has been kept exposed as a memorial of sorts to those that worked — and died — here, often in appalling conditions. Just outside is a small Soviet-era monument to the Great Patriotic War, a war that Estonia was doomed to lose regardless of which of its totalitarian occupiers might prevail. History is a via dolorosa in this part of the world.


After the prisoners came yet more wreckage of war, those still remembered in Sillamäe as “the orphans.” As the plant — the USSR’s first fully operational uranium-processing facility — was completed, teenaged survivors of the siege of Leningrad were shipped in to be trained as additions to its workforce. Production started up, beginning with local material, but then switched to higher-grade ore shipped from all over Moscow’s empire. Some 100,000 tons of uranium were produced between 1946 and 1990 for both civilian and military use, a total exceeded in only two other sites in the whole Soviet bloc.

The town grew, but behind a cordon of secrecy, denial, and security. It slipped off and on the map. Sometimes it had a name, sometimes a code. It was a closed town. Access was strictly restricted. It was years before Estonians were allowed to work there (and only a handful did thereafter). For a while, the town was administered, not as a part of Soviet Estonia, but as an exclave of Soviet Russia itself.

There was something else that set Sillamäe apart. Narva, a larger city nearby, and once a jewel of the Northern Baroque, was brutally and slovenly rebuilt after the war as a generic Soviet settlement with a population to match. To be sure, there’s some of that in Sillamäe, but this was a town with a very special purpose. Those who controlled it understood that it would work better if its inhabitants — who included some highly qualified technical staff — were treated better than the Soviet norm. Sillamäe’s center is, I’ll say it, nice, a beautifully preserved showpiece for a Stalinist architecture that is, for once, neither botched, nor slum, nor Mordor. But in feel and former function, if not in appearance, it is also faintly reminiscent of the unsettling picturesque of the Village that housed The Prisoner’s Number Six.

This creates a vague sense of unease only underlined by the extent to which the past still lingers on here. This must be one of the few places in Estonia where the symbols of the old regime, the hammers, the sickles, the stars, can still be seen in public, discreetly incorporated into the pale, pastel facades of the buildings of downtown. That they are still in place speaks volumes about the attitude of the locals, and, rather more reassuringly, about the self-confidence of the re-born Estonian Republic, and the relative sensitivity with which it handles the ethnic Russian minority (reduced now to perhaps 25 percent of the country’s population) that remains the most troubling relic of Moscow’s colonial rule.