Opening My Eyes in the Depths of the Sea Bed

Deep Water


Ann Mirjam Vaikla

The bay of Paldiski holds exceptionally deep water for the shallow Baltic Sea, reaching an average depth of around 50 metres. This deep water, appropriated by various power structures, has become a fundamental part of an infrastructure that follows colonial imaginaries. Brian Larkin defines the politics of infrastructures as enacted via “physical networks through which goods, ideas, waste, power, people, and finance are trafficked”.[1] He writes: “Infrastructures are matter that enable the movement of other matter. Their peculiar ontology lies in the facts that they are things and also the relation between things. As things they are present to the senses, yet they are also displaced in the focus on the matter they move around.”[2]

Successfully contesting the supremacy of the Swedish Empire during the Great Northern War, Russian Czar Peter I arrived at Paldiski, which he envisioned as (another) “window to Europe” – after St Petersburg. He was triggered by the depth of the bay which prevented the ice from appearing, prompting the establishment of a naval base where large war ships were produced.[3] This attempt of his remains in the traces of a Dutch-style fortification cut into the limestone landscape, and the base of a lighthouse on a high point at the very end of the peninsula, both built by relocated forced labour. The latter is exposed to an imminent sea that will eat the lighthouse remnants up in the coming decade or so, as the coast keeps crumbling into the depths of the bay. In 1870, Paldiski became the westernmost point and the end station for the Baltic Railroad, connecting it to the Leningrad oblast of St Petersburg.

During World War II, when Estonia was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union, Paldiski, a small town located at the North-West coast, regained its geopolitical importance, serving once again as a naval base. In the sixties, the USSR navy’s training centre for nuclear submarines was established there. Soon after, Paldiski became a garrison town; it was closed down and everything – including its inhabitants – was withheld. Two land-based nuclear reactors were erected, turning it into the largest facility of its kind in the Soviet Union. Reactors, nowadays covered with concrete sarcophagi, and multiple barbed wire fences in and around the town still denote this secrecy, regardless of the town’s reopening to the public in 1994.

My grandfather (born in 1942) grew up on a farm in nearby Paldiski. He remembers helping his grandmother to load the horse carrier with fresh produce, and selling it in the town. He also remembers the main street which had a big well in the epicentre where the inhabitants could get their water. He recalls a memory of jumping off the submarines into the sea at the harbour, along with other kids during the summertime. The street is now covered up with various Stalinist apartment buildings initially built for the military units. A year ago, my grandfather moved into one of those buildings, to even his own surprise – he had previously withdrawn from the town, prompted by the trauma of it getting sealed up due to political ambitions, and in support of local farmers violently expelled from their households. It seems as though my grandfather embodies a living archive of the site – an entry point to redraw one’s focus.

1. Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure”. Annual Review of Anthropology, Aug 21, 2013, 327.
2. Larkin, 329.
3. Aivar Põldvee, Pakri ja Paldiski kogumik (Keila: Harjumaa Muuseum, 1998).

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