The Tallinn Collector is a website that showcases Soviet-era tourism guides and brochures to the Estonian capital, Tallinn. It gives its readers a glimpse of what life was like in the 70’s and 80’s, and a taste of Soviet propaganda. It is a great example of how cultural objects from another era can be preserved, re-used and shared with a wider audience. Here, we talk to Tomas Alexandersson, the Swede behind the project.
1. How did your fascination with Soviet era tourist guides of Tallinn begin?
It started in Tallinn back in 2005, when I lived there. As a hobby, I started to collect old travel guide books. I like to look at old pictures inside the travel guides to see what Tallinn used to look like and compare the locations to what they currently look like. While browsing through images, I noticed how interesting the actual tourist information was. Everything from history to what to do in the Soviet Union (and more importantly, what not do) and bits of propaganda. These things made me very interested in travel guides as historical material and is the reason behind The Tallinn Collector.
2. How do you source your material? And what are the quotes that go along with the images about?
Basically, I’m collecting the material for own interest and use. It’s just a hobby – no commercial use really. What I show on The Tallinn Collector is just snapshots of how exciting the material is. Quotes that go along with the images are what appears with the image.
3. Do you think that being Swedish gives your collection a Western European interpretation of Estonian history?
I hope not. I don’t put my own opinion when showing pieces of the material on The Tallinn Collector. I hope visitors understand this. I also want people to see, think and analyse the posts on their own. So basically I don’t really put any own values in the material.
4. I would imagine that your Soviet era memorabilia may raise a few hackles in Tallinn. Is this true? And how do you circumvent political sensitivity?
People have been very positive about the project. I think (hope) they understand my aim. With The Tallinn Collector, I’m not really trying to tell people what to think or how to interpret the material. I’m very aware of the different political opinions and experiences from Soviet era. It’s rather just about showing how the travel guides, content and images actually looked and provide basis for the discussions about what it was like through the filters of the Soviet propaganda machine. In any case, I’d like to encourage people to come up with their own analysis and opinions about all this.
5. What would you pick as the key events of the era that your collection represents (eg USSR’s rise and fall, independence)? And then, could you please pick one item for each event that illustrates this, and explain how it does this?
Good question! I think there are lots of different key events. One great one is the overall tourism development of facilities and range. They are clearly shown in the travel guidebooks. For example, if you compare the travel guidebooks by year, you can always read and follow the development with new hotels, attractions and events. They are always proudly presented and the words ’ new’ , ’modern’ or ’future’ are side written. Another key event is of course Tallinn being part of the Moscow Olympic Games 1980. You can really tell this was a proud happening – Tallinn being part of an international event. And during the event, Tallinn got new hotels (like Olümpia), new tourist attractions and so on. The opening of legendary tourist hotel Viru in 1972 is also very proudly talked about in the tourist guidebook. Also the events at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, as well as the urban expansion of the city – from Medieval Old Town to modern suburbs.
6. Do you know if people have used these guides to do a nostalgia tour of Tallinn? Do you have pictures comparing the then and now?
I know there are so called ’Soviet nostalgia tours’ in Tallinn. But I’m not really sure if they use any of the older tourist material for inspiration. The Tallinn Collector is for sure one of a kind – only focusing on retro Tallinn tourist material online. Right now, I do not have any then-and-now content. But I’m actually working on it. I hope I will make it happen.
7. If someone invented a time machine, where would you go in Tallinn based on your content? The quirkiest, most interesting place you have come across? And why?
I’m still very fascinated about the Viru hotel and its ’tourism power’ back in the day. It was the first international hotel in Tallinn and the place to be for tourists, I think it would have been amazing to stay there a night or two. I heard about amazing parties there and variety shows in the 80s. I would then also sneak inside the so called Tallinn Service House (Teenindusmaja) close to the hotel – a huge complex full of services such as shopping, hairdressers, photo studios and much more. Very exciting way of putting all the services under one roof and one place in the city.