Tallinn’s tourism agency touts the “best-preserved medieval center in all of Europe.” It’s not completely medieval, and that makes it interesting. Architecture in the old town runs from medieval through baroque and Russian empire style (the Tsar built a very “Alexander Nevsky” cathedral and an opera house in the old town) to Art Nouveau. The mix is what makes the Tallinn old town interesting.
Tallinn was founded by Danes (In Estonian, Tallinn means “Danish Town. “) German knights bought Tallinn from them and pretty soon Tallinn (Germans called it “Reval”) was in the Hanseatic League, acting as middleman between the Russians, Scandinavians and mainland Europe. Tallinn’s German aristocracy alternately sought protection from the Swedes and Russians. In 1710 the Russians, under Peter the Great, settled in for the long haul. (The actual annexation was in 1721). This affects Alaska history because Russian naval officers with German names, Wrangell and Kotzebue, were ethnically German, Russian citizens, who hailed from Estonia. They are celebrated in the Tallinn maritime museum. Wrangell had been a governor of Alaska.
When Estonia was independent between the WorId Wars it had a small Russian population. The Soviets moved Russians into Estonia when they took over again and by the time Estonia regained independence it had a Russian minority of 35%. The Alexander Nvesky Cathedral in Tallinn is the center of a dispute (this was in 2003). Ethnic Estonian Orthodox follow the patriarch in Constantinople. Ethnic Russians who are Orthodox living in Estonia follow the patriarch in Moscow. The question is to whom to return the church? The 13th century St. Olaf’s church in the old town started out as Catholic, became Lutheran during the reformation. It has the highest steeple in Tallinn at over 400 feet. When it was built it was one of the tallest buildings in the world. The Soviets took it over for the KGB because of its commanding view of the harbor. It was a good site for surveillance. The church was returned to worship in 2004. Russian Baptists, not the Lutherans worship there now.
The St. Nicholas (former) Lutheran church, also from the 13th century, is a museum and concert hall. We went to an organ recital there. The first half was JS and CPE Bach, the second, broadcast by Estonian Radio, was of a setting of 12 Estonian folk songs by Edgar Arro. The church was originally built as a sailor’s church, St. Nicholas being the patron saint of sailors.
This is an excerpt from an October 2003 letter. I posted earlier on Tallinn’s wooden quarter.