Riga’s KGB Corner House – A bitter reminder of the Year(s) of Terror

I had so many beautiful memories in Riga, the capital of the Baltic state of Latvia. There is no doubt that one of the main highlights of the 4-day escapade was the visit to the KGB Headquarter, aka the Corner House, located in Brīvības iela 61, about a kilometer away from the Old Town. Riga was recognized as the European Capital of Culture in 2014, and with that came the decision of the Latvian government to carry out a project named “KGB Building: File No. 1914/2014”. It meant that Latvia was opening the KGB Headquarter’s door to the public, exhibiting the bitter and gruesome witnesses – documents and files, photos, the actual prison cells, halls and execution room – of the Soviet Union’s reign over the country.

The KGB Headquarter's inner courtyard
The KGB Headquarter’s inner courtyard

For a long time, the feared KGB headquarters on the street corner stood empty and silent. Nobody wanted to go in there to avoid being reminded of the terror the country had to suffer under the Soviet Union regime. But in 2014, the government took the initiative to convert the building to a museum-sort of venue to give people a chance to learn about the country’s past and to help the locals move on. According to Diana Civle, director of the Riga 2014 Foundation, “In many countries, buildings that served such functions remain inaccessible, but in 2014, Riga has dared to open this one’s door, to consider what has passed here and what will be, to discuss the relationships between people and authority, our inner freedoms and restraints as we go forward.”

A view of the street outside the KGB building
A view of the street outside the KGB building

Just a quick historical background: The Corner House was home to “one of the most secretive organisations in the former Soviet Union, the Committee for State Security, known as the Cheka”. Built in 1910 and designed by Aleksandrs Vanags, it started as a “lavish six-storey apartment building”. In 1919, Vanags was shot dead by the Bolshevik Latvian SSR authorities for counter-revolutionary activities. For me, his death served as a foreshadowing of the gruesome, strict political regime that followed. The building, then, served as the main office of the Ministry of Interior. In 1940, Latvia was invaded by the Red Army, forcing the Ministry to vacate the building and causing the Commander of Latvia’s Border Guard, Gen. Ludvigs Bolsteins, to commit suicide. From 1940 until 1991, the building served as the headquarters of the Cheka, whose job was to arrest, interrogate, imprison, execute or deport people accused of collaborating with the German occupation regime and treason.

The year 1940-1941 was considered as Latvia’s Year of Terror, when between 22 000 to 23 000 Latvians were executed, arrested or deported for political reasons. But the terror continued until 1991, when Latvia gained full control over its sovereignty once again. The building remained standing, but most of the KGB’s documentation was sent to Russia, making it challenging for the Latvians to decipher what had happened during the repressive years in the hands of the Cheka. (More history here: http://okupacijasmuzejs.lv/en/kgb-building)

The ceiling on the entrance  hallway, ground floor
The ceiling on the entrance hallway, ground floor
Biometrics room for prisoners
Biometrics room for prisoners/the accused

The arrests of the accused happened anytime, may it be day or night. Usually, it happened on broad daylight, according to the information booklet given to us. People just went missing, and when they did, the relatives could go to the Corner House to inquire if they had been held captive. This scenario reminded me of the Philippine Martial Law, which led to the historic People Power Revolution.

Film showing about the occupation of Latvia
Film showing about the occupation of Latvia
A prison cell, usually it can fit 6 people, but prisoners filed up that 30+ were placed in one cell.
A prison cell, usually it can fit 6 people, but prisoners filed up that 30+ were placed in one cell.
The Cheka used psychological and physical torture. Prisoners were taked to the toilet once a day, the rest of the time, they used a bucket whic caused insanitization in the cells.
The Cheka used psychological and physical torture. Prisoners were taken to the toilet once a day, the rest of the time, they used a bucket whic caused insanitization in the cells. Lights are kept, and the guards made unecessary noised at night to keep the prisoners from getting enough sleep. 
Heavy padlocks
Heavy padlocks
The guide talks about the KGB policies and conditions
The guide talks about the KGB policies and conditions

Prisoners were also not allowed to talk to each other. They were monitored through a peephole on the door and through secret peepholes on the walls.

The door where prisoners go out to get fresh air. They line up, walk with their heads bowed down and their hands crossed at their back
The door where prisoners go out to get fresh air. They line up, walk with their heads bowed down and their hands crossed on their backs
Where the prisoners get fresh air
Where the prisoners get fresh air
Where the prisoners get fresh air
Where the prisoners get fresh air
Where the prisoners get fresh air
Where the prisoners get fresh air

If the cells and halls and vacated office rooms were not terrifying enough, here’s a photo of the execution room. During an inspection in 1991, “traces of 94 shots and 240 expended cartridges” were found, although nobody knows how many actually were murdered in the building. Hallways were covered with thick, red carpet to drown the sound of footsteps and to hide drops of blood. Creepy.

The execution room
The execution room
Another view of the street facing the KGB headquarter
Another view of the street facing the KGB headquarter

I managed to talk to a Russian who has been living in Riga for many years. He told me that even up to now, there’s tension between Latvians and Russians. For instance, good jobs are reserved for the native Latvians, while Russians who migrated to the country get the lesser compensated jobs. The wounds are still open, but with initiatives to learn and analyze history in a logical manner, I’m sure Latvia will manage to move forward!

Thanks to Couchsurfing, I learned about the opening of the KGB building. The annual event Riga Good Times is organized by Couchsurfers in Riga, offering meet up activities like museum visits and tours around the city! Two other activities arranged are the Puke Balle (Flower Ball) and the River Cruise. More about them in the entries to come!

Couchsurfers at the KGB Building in Riga
Couchsurfers at the KGB Building in Riga

After an info-overloaded tour, I’m sure one would enjoy authentic Rigan beverages! So refreshing! 🙂 Cheers!

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Where the prisoners get fresh air
Where the prisoners get fresh air

 

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10 thoughts on “Riga’s KGB Corner House – A bitter reminder of the Year(s) of Terror

  1. What you posted give me some goosebumps like the World War II. This post makes me a creepy one but I admired on what thet took care of the history of the bulding although it is a prison the view of now i a scenic one. I hope some day I can visit the KGB Headquarter also known as the Corner House.

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  2. First time to hear about Rigas and obviously I have no idea about their connection with the Russians too. It’s good to know some stories like this, not a typical Latvia travel I mostly read from others. What struck me is, correct me if I’m wrong, this is only open for couchsurfers? I am a couchsurfer, I host as well.

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  3. I have heard about Riga because of your post. I left a comment on one of your posts about the place. As for the recent war that had happened in the place, it is so saddening. Why can’t people just live in peace? 😦 Anyhow, I am hoping that everything will heal, in time.

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  4. I haven’t heard of Riga before. But thank you for taking the time to give us the historical background. It made me learn something new and be interested in visiting the place in the future. I love backstories such as this one.

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  5. Haven’t heard or read about this until now. Looking at the photos gave me an eerie feeling. Reading about it really ignites the feeling of Martial Law. Even if I personally did not experience it, learning about it through history is really eye-opening. I hope that the tension among the locals and the Russians would be healed soon.

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  6. That must have been pretty impressive. So much history. And by looking at it you can just imagine how it must have been. It’s a pity there’s still tension between Latvians and Russians. It will take some time to heal and find trust again.

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  7. So interesting. I think Riga and Belgrade (where i’m from) have a lot of similarities. I would definitely want to visit it. P.S. I love posts like this one, after reading i can say i learned something 🙂

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  8. I recently read about Riga somewhere. It wasn’t this detailed but I was intrigued by knowing about the place. Such past stories sure upset me bit I am glad to know about it. I will look into more details for it. Thanks for sharing this information 🙂

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  9. Hey, you posted. I was waiting to read up on your tour of the former KGB headquarters. It will take a few more generations for wounds to heal. The horror of the war and the times before, during and after, is ghastly. Think about the people who once walked in there, kept prisoner there, and tortured. Death couldn’t have come more quickly.

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