The Legacy of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in Tallinn: Soviet Architecture

The Moscow Olympics of 1980 were not just a global sporting spectacle; they were an opportunity for the Soviet Union to showcase its architectural prowess. Tallinn played its part in this grand narrative as the host city for the sailing events. Decades later, the legacy of those monumental Soviet architecture projects still graces the cityscape. Let’s take a journey through modern Tallinn to discover its intimate connection to the Olympic Games.

Featured Image: Estonian Architecture Museum

1. Pirita Yachting Centre

Aerial shot of the Pirita Olympic Centre (Ajapaik)

What better place to start than the Olympic Yachting Centre (Olümpiakeskus), the main hub of the Olympic games in Tallinn. This venue was specially constructed for the sailing events and remains largely unchanged today. The Pirita Olympic Hotel is probably the most striking part of the old Olympic village. It took around four years to construct and was the main accommodation for athletes and officials. From a distance, this complex almost resembles a giant ship, the Soviet-style balconies adding a touch of 1980s nostalgia.

In the modern day it is still possible to book yourself into the Pirita Spa Hotel for a Soviet-style getaway. I’m pretty sure the rooms have been renovated since 1980 though!

2. Moscow Olympic Logo

Yes, you read that right, a statue of the Olympic logo still exists in the Pirita Yachting Centre! It can be tricky to find, but search the territory carefully and you will notice that the Olympic logo was never removed. The logo itself was a distinctive and symbolic representation of the event. The logo was designed to capture the essence of the Olympics while incorporating Soviet imagery. The central column represents the Spasskaya Tower, one of the iconic towers of the Moscow Kremlin.

It may seem surprising that this obviously Soviet symbol has survived in modern Tallinn. However, many people have said that the 1980 Olympics is one of the only times Estonia actually benefitted from being part of the Soviet Union.

3. The Olympic Flame

Another iconic image from the Moscow Olympics in Tallinn is the cauldron for the Olympic flame. The torch travelled a long and carefully planned route through various cities and regions of the Soviet Union in the build-up to the Olympics. The aim was to showcase the unity and diversity of the countries. Tallinn, one of the host cities, was a significant stop on this route. Once lit, the flame burned here throughout the Olympic events.

4. Linnahall (V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport)

Tallinna Arhitektuurimuuseum

Probably the most striking remnant of the Moscow Olympics in Tallinn is Linnahall, an imposing concrete structure just a stone’s throw from Old Town. The original named was “V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport,” (very catchy). Resembling a futuristic fortress, this building featured theatres, a concert hall, and an ice rink.

Interestingly, Linnahall wasn’t actually needed for the Moscow Games but the extra money that was pumped into Tallinn gave city officials the opportunity to let their imagination run wild and get planning permission for projects that would normally never get off the ground. Today, Linnahall stands as the only abandoned building on our list.

5. Pirita Highway

Yes, the highway we all take for granted today was born in 1980. Pirita Highway played a crucial role in facilitating transportation to and from the Pirita Yachting Center, which was 3km away from Old Town. Most of us immediately go to the Brutalist Soviet architecture when talking about the Moscow Olympics but let’s not forget that Tallinn also received a huge upgrade in infrastructure as well.

6. Hotell Olümpia

1980 vs Today

By the Soviet standards of the 1980s, Hotell Olümpia was a futuristic masterpiece. When we look at those 1980 images today, perhaps it doesn’t look so futuristic. Nonetheless, this is another great example of surviving Soviet architecture in Tallinn today. While the Pirita Hotel became the hub for the athletes and officials, the 28-storey Hotell Olümpia hosted the international guests and fans during the games.

7. Tallinn TV Tower

Although not directly related to the Moscow Olympics, Tallinn TV Tower was added to the Olympic building projects to gain easier access to funding and materials. Consequently, official instructions diverted many of the construction materials meant for the Vilnius TV Tower to Tallinn instead. This ensured that the TV Tower was ready by 1980 but delayed the construction in Vilnius by a year. When opened in July 1980, Tallinna Teletorn had some of the most advanced broadcasting technology in the Soviet Union. Despite not being an Olympic building project, it’s proximity to the games has earned it a place in our list. Plus, let’s be real, it’s easily the coolest building in the city!

8. Tallinn Airport

Estonian World

Prior to 1980, the main terminal of Tallinn airport was the grey Stalinist structure that you can see next to the main building today. The new terminal was designed by the Moscow Airport Design Office and constructed in the late 1970s to handle the increase in international flights to Tallinn. Additionally, they included some swanky design elements to create a good first impression for the large numbers of first-time visitors to Estonia. The airport has been modernised several times and in recent years it has won several European awards.

9. Tallinn Old Town

Old Town in 1975 (Estonian World)

In the 1970s, Old Town was in rough shape. With the eyes of the world coming to Tallinn it was clear that officials needed to be done to improve the condition of its medieval centre. Expert restorers came to take care of the neglected Old Town buildings, adding more than just a lick of paint to their crumbling facades. Workers even converted tarmac roads back into cobblestones to add to the medieval aesthetic! All in all, the Moscow Olympics brought a much-needed facelift to Old Town. We are still reaping the benefits of the excellent restoration work today. Suur Rannavärav is a nice example of the restorers handywork.

Former KGB Headquarters

There are many remnants of the Soviet era still present in and around Tallinn. All of them provide a tantalising  but incomplete glimpse into Estonia’s very recent and repressive past but few instil the same level of fear and intimidation as the former KGB Headquarters. more “Former KGB Headquarters”

The Tomb of Kalev

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, with its famous ‘onion domes’, is certainly one of The Old Town’s most famous ‘postcard pictures’. Its association with the Estonian capital is very ironic, however, considering it was built during the reign of Alexander III (1845–1894) and is actually a symbol of the Russian Tsar’s attempt to phase-out Estonian culture through Russification.
Estonian folklore states that while the Russians were digging in Toompea to lay the foundations for this iconic cathedral, they stumbled across the tomb of Kalev – a mythological king in ancient Estonia, father of Kalevipoeg. The workers dug so deep into Toompea Hill that they struck an iron door, upon which was inscribed: more “The Tomb of Kalev”

Execution in the Old Town

In January 1695, the priest, Elias Christian Panicke, entered the ‘Riga’ Tavern in the corner of the Town Hall Square, sat at the bar and ordered an ale. When the drink was served, he took one sip and then immediately threw the ale to the floor in disgust; the drink was warm. He demanded another beverage to replace the drink that had just been wasted – the bar maid obliged.

After taking a sip of this second beer, the priest was outraged to find the drink was, once again, warm. In his state of rage, he threw the ceramic tankard at the barmaid who fell, cracked her skull on the bar and died. more “Execution in the Old Town”

The Danish King’s Garden

In 1219, Valdemar II, the Danish King, invaded Tallinn with his fleet. After initially overcoming the Estonian fortress without much effort, the King sat back and embraced the gifts bestowed upon him by the Estonian emissaries. Foolishly, the King saw this as a sign of surrender and declared the fortress conquered. While the Danish forces were celebrating that night, the Estonians unexpectedly unleashed an attack in which many Danish troops lost their lives.

The situation looked hopeless for the King as he and his forces had been driven back considerably by the unexpected nature of this attack. In an act of desperation, the King fell to his knees and prayed to the heavens for divine help in defeating the superior Estonian forces. more “The Danish King’s Garden”

Condemned Criminals escape through The Eye of the Needle

Although executions were not uncommon in olden times, there was a law that forbid any from taking place in The Old Town. Instead, the condemned prisoner would be paraded around the Town Hall Square for all to see before being lead down Harju Street towards their place of execution. As such, Harju Street became known as ‘the last road’ for those sentenced to death.

Unlike today, Harju Street used to be packed densely with houses and thus was far more slender and enclosed. Hidden between two of the houses houses was a very narrow street called Trepi that lead away from Harju and into St Nicholas Church. more “Condemned Criminals escape through The Eye of the Needle”

How a Tiny Deer gave Tallinn its Name

There are many different legends offering explanations as to how the Estonian capital got its name but one of the most popular stories is set around the time of the Danish King Valdemar.

Shortly after the King and his forces had conquered North Estonia and converted the population to Christianity the king was taking a stroll in his new grounds. In the upper quarters of the town he spied a tiny deer. Rather than hunt the animal, the new king ordered his courtiers to find and capture the animal so the king could keep him as a pet. more “How a Tiny Deer gave Tallinn its Name”

Dalai Lama Speech in Freedom Square

Back in 2011, thousands of people flock to Freedom Square to hear a speech from the Dalai Lama, who was on a tour of the Baltic region at the time. This image, taken from the hill overlooking the vast square, really gave a sense of scale. So many people standing in silence just to hear one man speak.

As Estonia continues to stride purposefully into the twenty first century such high profile visits serve primarily to cement the ever-growing reputation of this tiny Baltic country as a forward-facing and progressive nation. The glistening freedom monument towering proudly behind the Dalai Lama perfectly encapsulates this journey from Cold War oppression to self-determined destiny. more “Dalai Lama Speech in Freedom Square”

Linda Hill (Lindamägi)

At the top of Toompea Street on the upper side of the Old Town sits a tiny monument depicting a mythical figure – Linda. According to Tallinn folklore, Linda was the wife of Kalev, the man who founded the city. The statue depicts a very solemn figure of Linda with her head bowed, mourning the death of her husband.

This small monument is very important to the people of Tallinn because, despite the fact that the statue predates World War II, the residents adopted it as an unofficial memorial to loved ones that had been exiled to Siberia. Due to the fact that there was no official gravesite or memorial, locals would come and lay flowers by Linda, sometimes at great personal risk. more “Linda Hill (Lindamägi)”