This place has a complicated history which calls for the introduction below – but you may skip straight to the photos.
The small island of Osmussaar (modern Estonia) was once practically in the middle of the Swedish empire. Swedes called it Odensholm – derived from Odin, one of the major Viking gods. According to a legend, Odin was buried here under a pile of limestone rocks. The first inhabitants were Swedish fishermen living off the sea: catching fish and stealing goods from ships in distress. Life was tough and simple: for several generations, the islanders lived a village they called “village” (“Bien” in Swedish), went to church every Sunday and tfended to their sheep. Central government left them alone as long as they delivered a few bags of dried fish on a yearly basis.
In 1710 Sweden found itself defeated by Russia in the Great Northern War and had to give up Estonia and Livonia (modern Estonia, Latvia and parts of Russia / Lithuania). Swedish nationals on Osmussaar became subjects of the Russian Empire – which didn’t really alter their lives in any significant way. The first substantial change came over 50 years later – when Russians built a lighthouse on the island, providing stable income to a couple of families. This was initially a laborious task: lighthouse keepers had to carry up wood and coal and keep the fire burning all night. The new line of work made an imprint on the local Swedish dialect: they started to call their lighthouse “måjak”, which meant “lighthouse” in Russian.
Two hundred years passed by – and then, shortly after Russian October Revolution in 1917, Estonia proclaimed independence. A war of independence against Germany and Soviet Russia was eventually won by the Estonians. By then Osmussaar had about 150 inhabitants, many of them still speaking Swedish. The remote island had several farms, a Swedish Lutheran church and a new lighthouse fueled by kerosene. The turbulent events in outside world didn’t force them to change their way of life, yet.
It all came to an end in 1939.
A “mutual defence” pact was signed between Soviet Union and Estonia in 1939, allowing USSR to rent a number of key islands and other strategically important places. War seemed to be the only alternative, and so 25 000 Soviet troops were allowed to enter Estonia – at which point they immediately started to build defense lines throughout the coastline. A separate treaty was prepared one year later, with more key positions to be handed over to Soviet Union. Osmussaar island was one of them – apparently, someone forgot to include it in the original list. The whole country became annexed by Soviet Union in August 6, 1940.
The second treaty was signed just 28 days before taking effect. The inhabitants of Osmussaar were not informed about this sudden breakpoint until two weeks before the land had to be surrendered to Soviet military. All civilians were then evacuated – they were supposed to take over empty homes on Vorms island that used to belong to local German descendants. The Germans were, in turn, sent to Germany.
Over 2000 Soviet soldiers and builders were sent to Osmussaar and began construction of numerous fortifications and artillery installations. They were still building one year later – only this time under German bombardment. After roughly six months of German attacks they were finally given orders to retreat, and so the island was abandoned on December 2, 1941 as one of the very last Soviet strongholds in the Baltic sea. Most military installations were demolished by engineering troops just before the retreat.
Some of the original residents tried to return to the island one year later – but at that point very little remained of their homes. Even the pile of limestone rocks that supposedly marked the grave of Odin was gone. Many locals eventually managed to escape to Sweden, others were killed during the war. No one managed to return following the end of WW2.
Two Estonian families live here today. The lighthouse is fully automated and stands in the middle of a sheep grove.
People-to-sheep ratio here is roughly 1 to 100.
Osmussaar is visible from many passenger ferries arriving to Estonia.
Old food cellar survived the test of time.
Very little remains of the old Swedish settlement. The old church was used as a storage facility by Soviet troops and was therefore nearly destroyed by the Germans. The steeple is the only thing still standing – and it’s about to be restored using money donations from Sweden.
The rest of the church:
The Swedish cemetery, what’s left of it. Most crosses were harvested by metal scavengers.
A new clock tower was built here using donations from Swedish expats.
This rock came to symbolize the island.
Food cans is not the only thing that Soviet soldiers left behind after being stationed here for 1,5 years. They also left approximately 300 tons of natural fertilizer in local toilets, which made the barren island greener than ever before.
Kitchen pot full of bullet holes
The bomb shelters were not especially well built: a direct shell hit would probably destroy them even back in 1941. They’re quietly disintegrating today, there are numerous odd cavities along the coastline:
Many ships were lost here over the years. The parts below are believed to belong to SMS Magdeburg, a German light cruiser that run aground 500 meters NE of Osmussaar in 1914. A German torpedo boat tried to pull it off the cliffs, but four arriving Russian war ships put and end to that. The captain of Magdeburg gave orders to abandon and blow up the ship. However, a few days later, Russian divers managed to recover hundreds of German documents from the wreck – among them two code books which helped decipher German navy radioagrams.
More on underground bunkers in the next post (coming soon…)