This Swede Is Nuts About Soviet Estonia
Tomas Alexandersson knows all the best bars in Tallinn – as long as they existed before 1991.
Tomas Alexandersson is a Swede whose hobby is the collection of travel guides, postcards and pamphlets from and about life during Soviet rule in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. He regularly posts any paraphernalia he gathers on his website, the Tallinn Collector – which has now turned into a virtual travel guide of Tallinn's past. It's filled with information on literally anything – from where to eat to what the best clubs are – as long as it existed before 1991. In July, Tomas' collection of Estonian tourist information during the USSR will be exhibited in Tallinn (obviously). I called him up for a chat.
VICE: How come you're so fascinated with Estonia?
Tomas Alexandersson: I've lived in Estonia and just recently moved back to Stockholm. I was born and raised here, but moved to Tallinn after graduating from secondary school. And then I lived there for almost 10 years. I started collecting this material during my time there. And then I got this fantastic idea of turning it into a blog. It's my hobby.
How did all that start? What was the first thing you found that made you want to start a collection?
The first thing I found was a travel guide from the 1970s. There were nightclub photos in that guide from different places in Tallinn. Also, the previous owner of the guide had left nude photos inside it. It looked like those photos were from a sauna party or something like that. I thought that was so much fun – especially combined with the guide texts and small notices of where the owner had been. I was like, "Damn, here's someone who's had a great time in 1971 Tallinn." So I started collecting more of them because it was fun to read. And it all became a nostalgia trip.
Where do you find all that stuff?
At second hand shops in Tallinn. They're everywhere, usually on top of some pretty dusty shelves. No one cares about them. I think I'm the only one who thinks they're fun.
Do you have a favourite?
As a Western tourist, you could only stay at three different hotels in Tallinn during the Soviet era. So I have a couple of really festive pamphlets with photos from the nightclub and restaurant from this one hotel, which look totally "gala" when you look at them today. They have all these heavy curtains and stuff that might not look so fun today, but at the time it was "the thing". Everything party-related is what I like the most.
There is a section on the website, called "Tallinn By Night"?
Exactly. They are only photos from evenings, which I find very festive.
Do you have any examples of things that really capture the feeling of the USSR era?
I'm very careful with references to that because some people in Estonia have misunderstood the blog and thought that I'm pro-Russia, which is completely wrong – particularly if you look at the current situation with Ukraine. I'm trying to make it as clear as possible the my only aim is to show how beautiful everything in Tallinn and Estonia used to be during the occupation.
I avoid posting material with certain symbolic references and statues that are still in Tallinn, such as the Eternal Flame. It's located at a graveyard where Russian soldiers are buried, and there are tons of pamphlets from that area that I don't necessarily upload on the blog, because it's still a pretty sensitive subject matter.
I get it. Are people contacting you with guides and pamphlets that they want to add to your collection?
Yes, a lot of people are. People are even getting in touch to say, "Hi, I have a TV from 1969 that you can have." I get tons of emails about those kinds of things, which is really sweet. But I'm merely interested in pamphlets and postcards.
Tell me more about Hotel Viru.
It was built in 1972 and it was the first proper big international hotel in Tallinn. It had all kinds of modern facilities for the time. And it stayed like this all the way to the 90s. It has been incredibly symbolic for Estonian tourism.
What's going on there now?
It's still there and it's still a hotel. They've obviously refurbished it. But there are a lot of crazy stories and legends surrounding the building. It used to be a black market for plastic bags smuggled in from Sweden and Finland. It was the place where you could get hold of chewing gums, which were forbidden at the time. You could say that the Viru was the key to the West. But then again, I obviously romanticise a lot around this, having grown up in Sweden. I mean, when I was eating rice from Uncle Ben's, my friends in Estonia were smuggling in bananas from Finland.
Have you spent a night at the hotel?
No. But I've been to the KGB Museum on the top floor of the building. There used to be a wire centre there, which was discovered in 1995. KGB had wire-tapped certain guests of the hotel.
Have you ever considered visiting all the places you have postcards from?
No. But there's this one guy who seems to be a fan of my website, who sends me photos every other week or so in which he shows me how places that I post about look today.
Does he have a blog?
No, he just sends me photos from these places. I've told him that I'd love to post his stuff, because he manages to capture crazy details such as someone walking by in a jacket that looks like the one from the original postcard. But he wants to wait with publishing these, cause he wants some photos to have better light and stuff. Or maybe he just does it for fun. I don't know.
Are there any items that are particularly difficult to get hold of?
I'd like to get hold of more photos from inside hotels and bars. It's still pretty difficult. Usually everything is from outside the buildings with kind of romanticised information about the areas.
Do you keep all this material in boxes or in bookshelves? I mean, you must have quite a lot of stuff lying around.
I got myself a scanner, a laptop, and did a course in media technology at Söderstörns University to get all this started. But since it's still only on hobby level, I have the stuff at home in piles. I just scan what I think is relevant for the day and upload it on the blog.
The Tallinn Collector – History of Tallinn Tourism in the Soviet Union will be at Telliskivi Loomelinnak in Tallinn, from the 9th of July.