Located on the coast between Kohtla-Järve and Narva, Sillamäe is a pleasant, rarely visited town with a tree-lined main street that functions as a living museum of Stalinist-era architecture. Planned by Leningrad architects, Sillamäe features grand, solid buildings with gargoyles and a cascading staircase ornamented by large urns. Around the central square, there's a town hall specially designed to resemble a Lutheran church, a cultural centre (constructed in 1949) that still has reliefs of Marx and Lenin on the walls inside, and a very Soviet-style monument erected in 1987 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution. This is one of few places in Estonia where the aura of the USSR still lives on, and it feels caught between two worlds.
The region's fate was sealed in the post-WWII years upon the discovery that oil shale contains small amounts of extractable uranium. The infamous uranium processing and nuclear chemicals factory was quickly built by 5000 Russian political prisoners, and the town centre by 3800 Baltic prisoners of war who had previously served in the German army. By 1946 the city was strictly off limits; it was known by various spooky code names (Leningrad 1; Moscow 400) and was often omitted from Soviet-era maps.
Only unfinished uranium was processed at the plant, though the eerily abandoned buildings on the city's western border are testament to Soviet plans to process pure, nuclear reactor-ready uranium; only the disbanding of the USSR saved Estonian ecology from this. The plant was closed in 1991 and today the radioactive waste is buried under concrete by the sea; fears of leakage have alarmed environmentalists. The Sillamäe Museum details the history of the area. But the real attraction of this town is wandering its classical alleys and leafy boulevards.
At long last it is possible to picture Sillamäe as it was in the 19th century when Tchaikovsky was just one of many Russian musicians and artists who came here during the summer. Natural colour is returning with its trees and flowers and the pastel decoration on the larger buildings has now recovered from 40 years of pollution. The wide stone steps down to the seafront are clearly modelled on the Crimea. On a hot summer's day it might be possible to think one is in Odessa. Architecturally, it is possible to use the word 'Stalinist' in a positive sense as the neo-Classicist buildings in the town centre all date from the early 1950s, although one has to mention that many were constructed by German prisoners of war held in the Soviet Union until 1955. Two buildings from that time, the cultural centre and the cinema, have preservation orders on them. Marx and Lenin look down on the audience from beside the stage in the cultural centre. The foyer in the cinema is as large as the auditorium, and full of chandeliers and broad pillars. Both buildings are usually open every day, and then in the evenings as well if performances take place then. The basement of the cultural centre was built as a bomb shelter and it may be converted into a 'nuclear' museum describing all the top secret activities that took place in Sillamäe during the Soviet era.
It was the construction in 1928 of an oil-shale processing plant and its massive expansion after the war that led to the horrendous pollution of the 1970s and 1980s. As uranium was processed here for the Soviet military, the town was closed, even to most Estonians, and it was removed from maps. The mining of uranium stopped in the 1950s but the processing of supplies then imported from East Germany continued until the 1970s. The plant now processes other metals. Adjusting suddenly to environmental concerns, to the free market and to Estonian as a working language has been very difficult, but from around 2000 progress has been clearly seen. The port is being developed, training colleges are being established and, although Russian grandees from St Petersburg are unlikely to return, there is no reason why tourism should not be promoted.
The museum gives a vivid and extensive picture of the town in Soviet times. It even has a 'red' room festooned with banners, tapestries and statues. Some exhibits go back to the 1930s and some of those from the 1950s are not all that different from what a British museum of that era would show - television sets with doors, wind-up gramophones and radiograms with legs. The population is Russian-speaking, although all signs are in Estonian. A few road names that would not be acceptable elsewhere in the country have been kept here, such as one that commemorates the spaceman Yuri Gagarin.
The Town Hall stands out as not being an obviously Soviet building, even though it dates from 1949. The Lutheran tower gives a slight medieval feel to it, although the vases with palm trees that line the entrance steps bring it back to southern Russia. (These trees are kept during the winter in glasshouses, so are firmly protected from the northern winter.) The tower should be open to visitors in 2007.