Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. A paraphrase of George Santayana’s quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
Some wounds should probably remain open forever so that people can never forget. This was my first thought as I opened the small wooden door of the Corner House – the headquarters of the KGB secret police in Riga, also known as Cheka. The imposing structure on the corner of Brivibas and Stabu streets seems just like any other art nouveau building in the neighborhood. It could be an apartment house, or an office building, or anything else.
The small waiting room with a single row of empty chairs on the right has an allure of abandonment. “Can I help you?” asks a faint voice that seems to come from nowhere. As I look around I notice a middle age woman behind a window in the left corner of the room. “I’m a travel journalist,” I repliy pulling out my press card. “I’m here to visit the KGB Museum. Is this the one?” I ask, not sure I am in the right place. “Yes, the guided tour starts at 10:30, but you can visit the display boards in the entrance area until then. That exhibit is free” the woman replies and closes the window abruptly, as if she has nothing else to say. So I continue through a small corridor towards the display boards.
The exhibits in this section are meant to help you make sense of what you are about to see in the Corner House. There are several panels with stories and photographs about the Soviet occupation in Latvia and about what happened in this building during those years. Reading these stories makes this grim place so much more real. I look at the faces of those who found their demise within the walls of the Corner House. They seem just ordinary people, like any of us. I imagine them doing their daily chores, minding their own business when they found themselves arrested or summoned here. It must have been horrific! Whoever was not considered loyal to the occupiers was arrested, killed or deported to Siberia. The “undesirable elements” could be picked up for crimes as small as having “anti-Soviet conversations” or “instigating panic.”
The Corner House was originally built in 1912 as an apartment building. Before World War II, the building was taken over by the Latvian government and used by a variety of agencies, including the Border Guards. The secret Soviet state police, the KGB, fist moved into the house in 1940 when the Soviet Union occupied Latvia for the first time. Between the two Soviet occupations in 1941 and 1944, the Corner House was used by a number of youth organisations.
After the War however, the KGB chose the Corner House for its headquarters and used it as a prison for those who were considered to be opponents of the occupation regime. The building’s many hallways and stairwells made it convenient for secretly transporting individual prisoners. Also, the cavernous basement was ideal for building prison cells. Indeed, thousands of Latvians have been imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, morally humiliated and executed within the depths of this building until 1991, right in the middle of Riga. It’s astonishing to realize that all these things were happening while we were leading our safe life in the U.S. or other free countries of the world.
As our tour begins, we move into the the upper part of the building. A couple of floors above, the atmosphere is very different. We pass by the administrative office where the prisoners were photographed and fingerprinted, the room for the duty officer who registered the detainees, and the interrogation rooms.
Then things begin to get worse. Narrow, dark corridors. Musty smelling rooms. Heavy metal doors. Some detainee cells (called boxes) measure about 1.6 square meters. Hard wooden boards for a beds and a filthy bucket in the corner for defecating are the only furnishings in the cells, that were kept at 85ºF year round.
“There were multiple types of torture,” the guide explains. From beating of the whole body, beating of particularly sensitive areas of the body, burning, hair pulling, to sleep deprivation and continuous interrogation for 8-9 days in a row. “It’s effectiveness in terror is mix,” she says. “It creates fear.”
The detainees were tortured and deprived of medical help. They were allowed outside of their cells only once a week into a small interior courtyard where they were asked to walk in a circle with their heads down. They were devoid of all contact with the outside world (family letters, books and newspapers), forbidden to have showers.
And then we move to the inner courtyard of the building. “Is this where the prisoners were executed?” asks one man in the group. “No, it’s right by the door to the yard. A truck would be parked outside with the motor running to mask the noise. Then the body would be put in the back and driven away,” she says .We are all visibly moved as she opens to door to the former execution chamber. For years and years, this was the reality of life for those living in the countries occupied by the Soviet Union.
For many years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the departure of the KGB from Riga, the notorious Corner House had just been left lying abandoned and empty. Finally, in May 2014 it the building finally re-opened its doors to the public as part of the Museum of Occupation of Latvia.
Although the Corner House looks now the same as it did in August 1991, when the KGB vacated it, its present appearance hardly resembles the prison in which in the members of the anti-Soviet resistance were tortured in the years post World War II. Over the years, the building was repainted many times and the number of cells was decreased from the original 50 cells to only 19.
The KGB building (or the Corner House) became the most vivid symbol of the totalitarian regime during the five decades of Latvian occupation. This place documents in great detail the atrocities of the Cheka in Latvia and it’s at the same time a powerful reminder of the mass repression and genocide occurred under some Communist regimes during the twentieth century.
Courtois claims that Communist regimes have killed “approximately 100 million people in contrast to the approximately 25 million victims of the Nazis”.
Not something we must ever forget – a piece of history that should never be repeated.