18 June 2014: Tallinn, Estonia

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Two Millennia of Ups and Downs

The penultimate port call on our superb cruise in the Baltic Sea was Tallinn. On this cruise we had just about everything: history, culture, art, music, great food, and good company. The only thing we lacked was a touch of summer: we finished our tour in near-wintry temperatures and winds.

Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[whohit]-Tallinn 18Jun-[/whohit]

Over the centuries Estonia has been assaulted, occupied, liberated, and reoccupied by: Crusaders, Danes, early Germans, Swedes, Russians, Lithuanians, the Soviets, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union again, modern Russia, electronic pirates of the Internet, and tourists.

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The Lower Town of Tallinn on Toompea Hill. Photo by Corey Sandler

Estonia was on the front line during the Livonian War of 1558-1583.

Combatants included the armies of Ivan the Terrible of Russia, Denmark, and Poland. The winner was Sweden, but battles with Poland continued for decades.

The Swedish period in Estonian history was a time of great cultural advancement. The University of Tartu—still in existence—opened in 1632.

In the Great Northern War—the same conflict that led Peter the Great to found Saint Petersburg—Sweden fought Russia, Denmark, and Poland. Russia claimed Estonia in 1710, and for the next two centuries its people were powerless serfs to the Tsars.

The Russian empire brought its own customs, architecture, and the Russian Orthodox religion.

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The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the upper town of Tallinn, a reminder of the Russian presence in old Estonia. Photo by Corey Sandler

Peter I began building the magnificent Kadriorg palace in 1718. Nicolo Michetti (who later designed Peterhof in Petersburg) created a Baroque version of an Italian villa for the Russian Emperor.

Kadriorg: Catherine’s Valley.

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Kadriorg in Tallinn; across the park is the elegant Swannery. Photos by Corey Sandler

It’s not always possible to start out with a palace; sometimes you need more modest accommodations during construction.

Peter bought a little cottage nearby. The house, with a kitchen and four rooms, is pretty much the way it was when Peter used it. His extra-tall chair dominates the tiny dining room.

Outside Kadriorg is Swan Lake. Some of the trees were supposed to be replanted in gardens in Saint Petersburg. After the death of Peter I, the horse chestnuts and the swans stayed in Kadriorg.

In the 19th Century came the National Awakening, spread by schools, literacy, books, and newspapers.

In Tartu in 1869, a song festival launched a movement to revive the Estonian national identity.

Tsar Alexander III, the repressive ruler who took the Russian throne in 1881 after the assassination of his father in Saint Petersburg sent troops to Estonia to enforce Russification.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is Tallinn’s largest and grandest cathedral. The richly decorated Orthodox church was built on Toompea Hill in 1900.

Taking advantage of the chaos in Russia caused by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, Estonia declared independence on February 24, 1918.

That did not last long. Within days, Germany took over. And then in November of the same year, Germany capitulated and the Soviets moved back in.

But the Estonians fought back while the Soviets tried to sort out their own internal conflicts.

In the Tartu Peace Treaty, signed February 2, 1920, Soviet Russia renounced claims to Estonia and Finland “for all time.” In 1921 the Republic of Estonia was accepted into the League of Nations. Social and political reforms were enacted and the country became a presence in the Baltic.

But as war again raged across Europe in 1939, Hitler and Stalin engineered the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact, carving Eastern Europe into spheres of influence between Germany and the Soviet Union.

On June 16, 1940, Stalin accused the Baltic states of aggression and demanded the right to occupy them. Elections took place in July, with Soviet-approved candidates.

The peace between Hitler and Stalin ended abruptly on June 22, 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and its occupied states. Germany held Estonia for three years.

Soviet forces began air attacks in March of 1942, seriously damaging Tallinn in an attack two years later. By September 1944 the Germans retreated.

Estonia declared itself an independent Republic once again on September 18, but Soviet forces reached Tallinn four days later.

Few Estonians speak well of the Soviets, who exercised tight control over almost every aspect of life.


The former KGB headquarters in Tallinn; a plaque out front tells passersby that this was at the core of the Soviet oppression. Photo by Corey Sandler

Over the coming decades, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians were sent to live in the Estonian territory: Russification once again.

A bit of perspective: the Estonians lost more people during the first years of the Soviet occupation than during the German occupation that followed.

And Estonia lost more Jews during the Soviet times than the German occupation. The Jews were doctors, lawyers, teachers; the Soviets considered them class enemies and they were deported, many to Siberia.

Estonia would not regain its independence for fifty years, a mostly unwilling member of the USSR until 1991.

On February 24, 1977 a small act of rebellion: the blue-black-white Estonian flag was briefly raised in Tartu to mark the 59th anniversary of the first Estonian Republic.

Ten years later, a series came a second National Awakening.

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The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn. Photo by Corey Sandler

In June 1988, more than a hundred thousand people packed the Song Festival Grounds, across the harbor from the heart of Tallinn. A few months later came the first public demand for independence.


The very avante-gard Kumu museum, near Kadriorg, includes a room full of busts with a hidden speaker system; they murmur to each other. Photo by Corey Sandler

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The very modern side of Tallinn, across from the old city. Photos by Corey Sandler

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo, please contact me.

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Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)

15-17 June 2014: Saint Petersburg, Russia

Cradle of Revolution, Capital of Culture

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Trick question: from the 9th century until the 19th century, which country was the big fish in the Baltic?

Not Russia.[whohit]-Petersburg 15Jun-[/whohit]

Not Germany/Prussia/Austria.

It was Sweden.

In 1240, Prince of Novgorod Alexander Yaroslavich led the Russians to victory over the Swedes in the Battle of the Neva.

He changed his name to Alexander Nevsky, meaning “of the Neva.”

The victory became symbolic of Russia’s fight for independence.

And Nevsky became a Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.

A Photo Album of Saint Petersburg. Photos by Corey Sandler, June 15-17, 2014

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The view from our ship of the Church of the Dormition, one of the lesser-known beauties of Petersburg. It includes ancient icons and fabulous frescoes; it is only now emerging from decades of Soviet abuse includeing a period of time when it was used for an indoor ice skating rink.

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Saint Isaac’s Cathedral,  left, and Kazan Cathedral (modeled after Saint Paul’s at the Vatican, an unusual adaptation of a Roman Catholic design for a Russian Orthodox Church.)

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The newly reopened Central Naval Museum, moved from the former Stock Exchange to a handsomely rebuilt old structure on the other bank of the Neva, includes artifacts dating back to Peter the Great himself.

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The Singer Sewing Machine building on Nevsky Prospect, a handsome shopping mall, and one of the many canals in what some call the Venice of the North.

Below Saint Petersburg: The Metro

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The Saint Petersburg Metro was actuall begun during World War II, but not completed until the 1950s. Because of the many canals and rivers, it is one of the deepest Metro systems in the world, and its stations amongst the most ornate. Photos by Corey Sandler

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Constantine Palace was already a burned-out shell when the Germans occupied the suburbs of Petersburg. It was only rebuilt and reopened in 2003, as a personal project promoted by Vladimir Putin as a showcase for international summits including the G20 and the G8 when Russia was still welcome as a member. We went out to make a visit and saw Putin’s empty pride. All photos by Corey Sandler


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The grave of Piotr Tchaikovsky, upper left.  All photos by Corey Sandler

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Not on the usual tourist path: The Russian Museum, with a fabulous collection of homegrown art. At right, a work by Ilya Repin. Photos by Corey Sandler

In 1613, the second and final Russian imperial dynasty began when the Romanovs took power.

In 1682, Peter the Great was crowned at the age of ten in an arrangement brokered by Sophia, one of Tsar Alexei’s daughters from his first marriage.

Peter cared little for intrigues of court.

He was much more interested in playing with his toy soldiers, and later his real soldiers.

Peter’s goal was to open trade with Europe. At that time Russia’s only outlet to the sea was at Arkhangelsk on the cold White Sea.

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Menchikov Palace, along the River Neva across from the Hermitage. Photos by Corey Sandler

The Swedes held the Baltic Sea ports to the north. The Ottomans controlled the Black Sea to the south.

Peter visited Europe, sometimes in disguise, which is hard to imagine, since he stood about six-foot-eight-inches tall and sometimes included dwarves in his traveling court.

In 1695, Peter tried to capture Azov on the Black Sea from the Ottomans. After several attempts, he succeeded in 1698—but the port was useless because the Ottomans still controlled the exit from the Black Sea at Constantinople.

And so Peter launched the Northern War with Sweden in 1700.

On May 27, 1703 the Peter and Paul Fortress was begun on an island in the Neva. Several days later Peter built a wooden cabin, the first residence.

By 1712 Saint Petersburg was Russia’s capital.

After Peter the Great died in 1725, his wife Catherine briefly took the throne but not much power. Peter’s daughter Elizabeth became Empress in 1741, leaving most affairs of state to her advisors. She concentrated on art and architecture and Saint Petersburg blossomed.

Elizabeth ordered Peter’s estate at Peterhof remodeled, combining Italian and Muscovite Baroque styles. The Grand Palace and fountains at Peterhof were covered with gold and precious stones, a great expense for an impoverished nation.

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Yusupov Palace, along the Moika Canal, was owned by a fabulously rich noble–not a member of the royalty. It was here that Rasputin’s extended murder took place. The home includes a private theater, today used for small recitals. Photos by Corey Sandler

StP22 Pavlovsk StP1 Stock Exchange StP2 Rostral

Pavlovsk Palace out in the country, and the Stock Exchange (pre-Communist, of course) and the Rostral Columns on the Strelka across from the Hermitage. Photos by Corey Sandler

In 1744, princess Sophia Augusta Frederica arrived from the German principality of Anhalt-Zerbst (today’s Szczecin in Poland).

She came to meet her future husband, Grand Duke Piotr Fiodorovich. 14-year-old Sophia converted to Russian Orthodox and changed her name to Yekaterina.

They married in 1745; in 1762, her husband assumed the throne as Peter III.

Didn’t work out that well.

Six months into his reign, with Catherine’s consent or knowledge, he was overthrown by the Imperial Guard and killed.

That’s a cold marriage.

Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) set about turning Saint Petersburg into one of the grand cities of Europe. She decided to decorate the walls of the Winter Palace.

Thus was born the Hermitage, and the development of the handsome, European-oriented city of Saint Petersburg was well underway.

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Another less-visited gem: The Museum of Ethnography, begun by Nicholas II. It was completed after he was killed, but somehow managed to hold on to its fabulous collection through the Soviet years. Photo by Corey Sandler

Okay, that was just enough history.

In the Venice of the North there are something like 300 bridges, many of them works of art.

Our handsome, smaller ship Silver Whisper is able to sail almost right into town: along the Angliyskaya Nabererzhnaya, the English Embankment just downriver from The Hermitage.

Those monster cruise ships? They have to dock miles away, not quite in Finland but you just might be able to see Helsinki from their upper decks.

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Two means of transport: the Petersburg Metro, not quite as opulent as the Moscow subway but still an amazing system. At right, a display the Museum of Cosmonautics at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Photos by Corey Sandler

Here are some more photos from Saint Petersburg; some are ones quite familiar to visitors. Others are off the beaten track; most foreign visitors to Russia require a visa for any independent touring.

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The Big Three of Petersburg for most visitors: The Hermitage, the Church on Spilled Blood, and Catherine’s Palace. Photos by Corey Sandler

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Inside and outside the Hermitage. At times I have waited hours to be able to grab a shot without hundreds or thousands of tourists in the frame. Photos by Corey Sandler

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Outside and on top of Saint Isaac’s. The shaky climb is worth the effort but not for those with fear of heights. Photos by Corey Sandler

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Within Peter and Paul Fortress. Photos by Corey Sandler


All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a copy of a photo, please contact me.