A Soviet Brigadoon
The strange history of Estonia’s Sillamäe

City street in Sillamäe, Estonia


Andrew Stuttaford

It’s not easy to surprise Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s sharp and savvy president, but I reckon I succeeded. In September, I was in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, to interview him for National Review. In the small talk before we turned to the euro, economic recovery, Russia, the usual, he asked me where else I had been on this visit to his country. “Sillamäe,” I replied. The presidential eyebrows rose, just a bit. Maybe there was a word thrown in too, an “interesting,” something like that.

The author of the Lonely Planet’s 1994 guide to the Baltic States and Kaliningrad would have been blunter. After explaining that Sillamäe had been “built after WW II to support a military nuclear-chemicals plant,” an over-simplification that will do for now, he went on to tempt the tougher end of the tourist trade with this: “according to press reports, the plant’s waste dump contains several tons of radioactive and highly toxic wastes, surrounded only by an earth wall 10 meters wide and is already contaminating ground water and the Baltic Sea.”


It was worse than that. The waste dump, euphemistically a waste depository, was a large lagoon, a Leninist lake, toxic and vile, described by the man responsible for cleaning it up as a “uranium pond” hosting some twelve million tons of a sludge containing “uranium, heavy metals, acids and other chemicals.” A testament to Soviet environmental sensitivity, it was open to the air, set on far-from-ideal clay, encircled by a poorly constructed wall, and located just a few yards from the sea. It leaked, and the overspill after heavy rainfall added to the mess. In 1993 the International Atomic Energy Agency labeled the site a serious radioactive risk. Four years earlier the New Scientist had reported that many of Sillamäe’s children were losing their hair. The clean-up was finally completed in 2008. I was told that what’s left of the waste is buried (with other safeguards) under a man-made hill that juts out onto the Baltic shore.

“Will that do the trick?”

“Hope so.”  

Other traces of Sillamäe’s strange history remain well above ground.

A three-hour trip to Tallinn’s east on a bus that will end up in St. Petersburg, this sleepy, gently-shrinking, largely Russian-speaking town of some 14,000 people is located at a point just a few miles from the Russian border — and at a moment poised somewhere between Estonia’s painful history and its infinitely more promising present. Before the war, there had been just a few houses here, and a Swedish-owned shale oil processing plant. When Estonia’s Soviet “liberators” returned in 1944, the local variety of oil shale (dictyonema argillite, in case you were wondering) interested them very much indeed. Among the minerals that lurked within it was uranium, something which Stalin had — up to then — found rather hard to obtain, but wanted very badly.