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The Dream of the Estonian Sakhalin: the Story of an Unfinished Project

Numerous codes of laws of the Russian Empire, including criminal codes, remained in effect in the Republic of Estonia that was established in 1918. These codes only started being adapted to local conditions in the 1920s. Work began immediately on formulating a new criminal code at the start of the 1920s, yet since it was believed that Estonia lacked the strength to create a new code, Russia’s New Penal Law of 1903 was adopted as the basis for the new criminal code. The plan for the general part of the criminal code was ready by 1922, and the adaptation of the Imprisonment Act to contemporary times was awaited. This is because the condition of Estonian prisons was poor and arising from this, the Ministry of Justice was anxious to take concrete steps to renew the prisons.

The fact that forced labour had been left in the new criminal code as one type of punishment made the situation more complicated. Yet the Estonian state did not have a separate forced labour prison and there was no longer any suitable content that could be given to such a punishment under the new conditions. Such a situation arose from the fact that since the country broke away from the Russian state, Siberia was also lost, which is where for a long time, persons convicted of more serious crimes had been sent. Until that time, this had solved both of the above-mentioned problems.

The little Kesselaid Island, with a surface area of less than two square kilometres, in the Suur Strait near the western coast of Estonia, arose in the sphere of interest of Estonia’s Main Administration of Prisons in 1922. This island was to become the site for Estonia’s new forced labour prison. This article focuses on the discussions that took place concerning the Kesselaid prison project in 1922–1924, and on the bottlenecks that could ultimately have become decisive for the success of the project.

The stoutest supporter of building a prison on the island was the head of the Main Administration of Prisons Andres Strandmann. Professor Aleksander Poleštšuk, a scholar and the chief architect of the Main Construction Administration, who simultaneously advised the Main Administration of Prisons, also supported the Kesselaid project. The island interested Poleštšuk because of its rock formations: according to his assessment, Kesselaid dolomite could be used not only as a stone for stairs and façades. It could also compete with Italian marble judging by its properties.

Opposing voices plagued the project from the start. Some of those voices came from within administrative agencies: the island was too far away and the whole project would cost too much because in addition to the prisoners, accommodation for living on the island also had to be provided for prison guard personnel and their families. There were people who saw greater potential in the island as a tourist destination. Additionally, the fishermen’s families that lived on the island would have to be moved to the mainland in the event of the construction of the prison. Yet these families started demanding greater compensation for their relocation than the Main Administration would have been able to pay. Although Strandmann struggled vigorously against the criticism that emerged with ever increasing frequency in the press, it appears that a lack of political will ultimately decided the fate of the project. The new Minister of Justice who took office in the autumn of 1923 did not see any perspective in building a prison on Kesselaid, and the project’s budget credit that had been set aside for the following year was quickly annulled. In the following years, the focus shifted to developing Harku Manor as a prison in place of Kesselaid.