Latvian’s say that the Corner House, an old and worn building just outside old town Riga, is that it is so tall that one can see Siberia from there. It’s sarcasm of course, for during the Soviet occupation of Latvia, the Corner House was in famous for being KGB’s headquarters and a one-way ticket to frozen hells of Siberia.
Under the USSR, it took little to be labeled a traitor; owning the book, ‘Gone with the Wind’ was sufficient. Such ‘traitors’ would be imprisoned in this building without trial and then deported to Siberia. Neighbors were made to spy on each other and a spiteful neighbor or coworker could easily get others in trouble with a false complaint.
We could feel the terror of this building on the guided tour since it was so hands on. It made for a very chilling experience. We relived KGB’s process of registration, interrogation and incarceration. We walked uneasily down the same halls, locked ourselves in the same claustrophobic cells and sat on the same rackety beds, behind the very doors that held Latvians during the Soviet Era.
Our guide explained that the cells were meant to hold about 10 prisoners but they were packed 5-6 times over. The prisoners were kept awake by turning on high intensity lights – which he did. The heater was turned up really high making the cramped space ever more miserable. It was so hot inside, the prisoners would always be partially dressed. New prisoners entering the cells for the first time thought they were being led into a hot shower.
To keep the prisoners calm, the walls of the cells were painted light green and the prisoners were allowed a visit to a tiny ‘exercise’ yard once a week. That was the only time they saw the Sun! I locked myself in one such cell all by myself; it reminded me of Ashhutsecn, concentration camp in Austria. My wife wouldn’t dare try it. It’s a miracle that the survivors of this prision remained sane!
The tour saved the worst for the last – the garage – which was never used for any vehicles! It was actually an execution chamber. The soviets would keep a truck running inside to drown the sound of the gun going off. Prisoners would be brought in 1 by 1, shot in the head and their bodies would be dumped in the back of the truck to be disposed at a location that has still remains unknown. About 180 such prisoners were executed here. Bullet holes from these executions are still visible on the walls. Latvians who are obviously very bitter about this, have outlawed KBG since independence.
After the Soviets left for good in 1991, the building was used as police HQ for a short while but was soon abandoned. Only in 2014, was the building reopened as a museum. Since then, Latvians who were imprisoned here have been coming back and telling their stories. The museum is very new & still finding its feet. We experienced a very ‘raw’ tour, perhaps that made our experience very real and therefore all the more nerve rattling.
PS – We arrived 10min late and missed our tour and there weren’t any more tours planned for the day. I am really thankful to the museum for arranging an extra tour just for the three of us – my son, my wife and I. Without this tour we would have missed out on a really important part of Latvian history.