The Story of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow

The embassy building is special for several reasons. Today, the embassy is located in the same building it occupied before 1940. It is also the only building consistently linked to Estonia from its founding up to the present day.

The Predecessor of the Embassy – The Repatriation Commission

The Estonian Repatriation Commission (Eesti kontroll-opteerimiskomisjon, KOPT) was the predecessor of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, and it began operating in May 1920, after it was allocated the building that currently houses the Estonian Embassy. The commission dealt with war refugees and people opting for Estonian nationality, as well as with transferring their assets to Estonia in accordance with the Treaty of Tartu.

The Creation of the Embassy

Although diplomatic relations between Estonia and Soviet Russia had been established in February 1920 with the signing of the Treaty of Tartu, it was only a year later that the Republic of Estonia appointed its first ambassador, when Western countries recognised Estonia de jure. The staff led by Tõnis Vares arrived in Moscow on 12 February 1921.

The Embassy of the Republic of Estonia was one of the first embassies in Soviet Russia and its new capital. Russia’s allies in the First World War had severed diplomatic relations with her after the red coup. The appearance of the first embassy in Moscow offered other states a way of communicating with Soviet Russia. This mediating role added international weight to the young Republic of Estonia.

Out of the two buildings in the quarter between the Malyi Kislovski and Kalashnyi pereulok, the embassy initially moved into the smaller one (the buildings were located side-by-side), because it was smaller than the KOPT. The commission had had a staff of 80 but when the embassy began working, this number decreased quickly. Some of the previous staff were employed by the embassy, some were released from office and in 1922, the embassy moved to the larger building where it is still operating.

The Elimination of the Embassy And the Permanent Representation of the ESSR

The embassy in Moscow operated until August 1940. After Estonia was incorporated into the Soviet Union, the archives and assets of the embassy were added to the balance sheets of the NKVD and the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs. They were subsequently transferred under the jurisdiction of the Permanent Representative of the Estonian SSR. The Permanent Representation of the ESSR to the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union began operating in the building of the former embassy.

Unlike embassies, the permanent representations of the council of ministers of soviet republics to the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union did not carry out diplomatic duties, and constituted, above all, residences of the party bosses of soviet republics in Moscow. In line with this function, a hotel, a canteen and several office rooms were added to the historical embassy building.

In 1991, Jüri Kahn, the first ambassador of the newly restored Republic of Estonia to be appointed after the war, assumed his duties. Adapting the facilities of the permanent representation to the needs of a modern embassy began, and among other changes, rooms were repurposed to meet the requirements of modern consular tasks.

The Embassy Building

The Estonian Embassy in Moscow is located in the historical centre, in the quarter between Malyi Kislovski and Kalashnyi pereulok, in the close vicinity of the Kremlin, the Arbat and the Conservatory.

The embassy building was constructed in 1903 after a design by architect Alexey Shcheglov as a city manor in early art nouveau style. The house was commissioned by the renowned publisher and bookseller Vladimir Dumnov.

The historical quarters of Moscow largely comprise these residential buildings of well-off citizens built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their transfer from former owners to foreign missions was a rather common practice at a time when the diplomatic corps was moving from Petrograd to Moscow. This is how this urban manor was allocated to Estonia.

The lavishly decorated interiors include eclectic and early art nouveau elements: chandeliers, stucco ceiling decorations and marble fireplaces.

After the restoration of the embassy, the administrative building of the ESSR representation with the hotel, the canteen and office rooms was rebuilt to meet the needs of the embassy.

Renovation 2014-2019

In 2014-2019, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with State Real Estate and the Telora engineering office carried out extensive reconstruction works at the embassy. The main design was provided by Innopolis Insernerid, and KAOS Architects (Toomas Adrikorn, Margit Argus, Margit Aule and Kaiko Kerdmann) conceived the architectural and interior architecture design.

The cost of the project totalled €20 million.

In the course of the works, the historical furniture of the embassy was repaired by the team of the conservation and digitalisation centre Kanut of the Estonian Open Air Museum, led by Viljar Vissel, head of the Paintings, Wooden and Metal Objects Conservation Department. Old artworks were also restored in collaboration with Alar Nurkse, a painting conservator of the Art Museum of Estonia. As a result of the art competition held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the best examples of modern Estonian art will decorate the walls of the embassy.

On 18 April, the President of Estonia will attend the formal opening of the freshly renovated Embassy of the Republic of Estonia in Moscow.

Memoirs of Diplomats

The walls of the embassy at Malyi Kislovski pereulok 5 in Moscow have witnessed Estonian history for no less than 99 years (the building itself is 113 years old). They have seen the creation of the embassy of the young Republic of Estonia in bolshevist Russia during turbulent times, the arrival and departure of ambassadors and diplomats, their work during easy-going as well as difficult times – suspicious affairs (Ambassador Ado Birk), and miraculous escapes (the last pre-war ambassador August Rei) from the NKVD. There are numerous exciting stories like these, but unfortunately, very few have been committed to paper.

Some of the memoirs of former ambassadors involving the embassy in Moscow include the book At the Mercy of Fate by Heinrich Laretei, and Oskar Öpik’s memoirs Between Two Wars, published in Stockholm in 1957 (under the pseudonym O. Mamers) and Woe to the Vanquished (1958). You can also read about the reopening of the embassy in the book Second Coming: the Foreign Representations of the Restored Republic of Estonia (2003), published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ambassadors Through the Years

1921-1922 Tõnis Vares

1922-1926 Ado Birk

1926-1928 Heinrich Laretei

1928-1933 Julius Seljamaa

1933-1936 Karl Tofer

1936-1937 August Traksmaa

1938-1940 August Rei

1940-1991 The Permanent Representation of the ESSR in Moscow

1992-1995 Jüri Kahn

1995-1999 Mart Helme

1999-2001 Tiit Matsulevitš

2001-2005 Karin Jaani

2005-2008 Marina Kaljurand

2008-2012 Simmu Tiik

2012-2015 Jüri Luik

2015-2018 Arti Hilpus

2018-         Margus Laidre