TALLIN, Estonia – It seems impossibly cramped and somehow elegant at the same time. Inside the Estonian submarine Lembit, pristine maroon curtains made of a velvet-like material cover the tiny officers’ quarters. Wood paneling separates the sections of the sub from plump, cushioned chairs that sit in front of wooden tables, one with a leather-bound book on it.
Then at the bow, sit two torpedo tubes, one loaded. This is a warship, after all.
The nearly 200-foot-long Lembit, currently housed in a converted seaplane hanger in Tallin, Estonia’s impressive maritime museum, was the oldest submarine still afloat when it was pulled from the water in 2011.
The ship was built for the Estonian Navy in 1936 in Britain, and the ship’s decor clearly reflects the time period of fedoras. It looks like something Indiana Jones might’ve hijacked.
In real life, in the 1930s Estonia and Finland had agreed to secret military cooperation, in fear of Soviet incursions. The Lembit was part of Estonia’s contribution to joint exercises, according to the official story. The secret agreement, known only to the “highest national defense leaders,” was to use “cannon boats” and submarines from both the Finnish and Estonian coasts to “deny passage to Soviet ships.”
Despite the military measures, however, the Soviet Union occupied Estonia beginning in 1940, and the Lembit was requisitioned by the Soviet Navy for its Red Banner Baltic Fleet. Under Soviet command, the sub undertook three successful attacks during the Second World War.
Following the war’s conclusion, the Lembit became a training vessel for the Soviets and was not returned to Tallin until 1979. It essentially “retired” in 1985 when it became part of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet Museum at the Pirita Harbor outside Tallin. It was finally pulled from the water on May 21, 2011. It was 75 years old.
To walk through the ship, ducking through its tiny porthole-style doors, is to travel back in time and to marvel, that people actually lived in these things.
A photo book left on one of the tables in the officers’ quarters proves it, though. The black and white photographs show past crews manning their various posts, peeking through the periscope and entertaining high-powered guests in the modest, but still fancy, galley.
Another photograph shows a group of sailors posing for the camera — some with stoic faces, some bored, some curious and at least one that’s silly. Some things never change.
Lee Ferran is a freelancer reporter based in Europe and the founder of Code and Dagger.