Saturday, September 17, 2016

the Corner House

So on the afternoon of Day One in Riga we went with a small group to the KGB headquarters known as the Corner House. This is the location where the secret (but not really) police brought suspects to torture them until they confessed to crimes they likely never committed (mostly acts against the communist government or associating with subversives etc.)

The place has all the hallmarks of a location built to instill terror in its prisoners- and here is some background on it from the Internet-

The Corner House, a project by the Occupation Museum, provides the opportunity for the wider public to gain insight into the former KGB, or ‘Cheka’, headquarters in Riga by preparing an exhibition on the institution’s operation in Latvia and a tour of the building.

Visitors are able to view jail cells, dungeons, strolling areas, the lift for the interrogated and office workspace. It is a revelation for the young generation and foreign tourists as well as a memorial for those who suffered within these walls.

The KGB building, or the Corner House, became the most vivid symbol of the totalitarian regime during five decades of Latvian occupation; it remains a potent reminder of the last century - a time of large-scale wars, mass repression and genocide - and a relict in 21st-century Riga.  Learn about the lives and the experiences the building's walls witnessed, acknowledging, understanding and reinvigorating them.
The city of Riga came under Soviet control in 1940, and the brutal new leaders brought with them the dreaded KGB secret police. Setting up shop in the Corner House, a secretive headquarters in the middle of the city, the KGB began summoning people to uncertain fates within the depths of the building. "Undesirable Elements" could be picked up for crimes as small as having "anti-Soviet conversations" or "instigating panic." Many of the people captured by the KGB were executed in a killing area in the basement of the Corner House. Still others were crammed into cells with dozens of other prisoners, and made to sweat and go mad with thirst as the basement was kept at around 85 degrees. 

When the Nazis drove the Soviets out of Riga during World War II, they opened the doors of the secretive house to garner trust from the population by showing them the horrors the Soviets had created. After the war, the Germans left the country and the Soviets came right back, continuing the secret police practices as they had before. 

Latvia finally regained its independence in 1991, and the Corner House was simply closed off so that the country could move on. In 2012 some of the space was reopened as a museum and visitors can now see first hand, the secretive headquarters of the brutal KGB. Most of the official documents are still kept hidden away, but just being able to see the location itself is a haunting reminder of a dark period in the city's history.  
On 17 June 1940, the regular Soviet armed forces entered Latvia together with specialised internal military units that established the activities of the Cheka. The Cheka continued actively working in Latvia until 1991. It is responsible for deaths of thousands of Latvian citizens, as well as for physical and mental suffering.  The operation of the Cheka in Latvia was closely associated with the building on the corner of Brīvības and Stabu streets. Already in September 1940, soon after the occupation, work started in order to adapt the building for the needs of the Cheka. The building became a place where Latvian citizens suspected to be in opposition to the occupational regime were held in custody, interrogated and in 1940–41 also executed. The charges were most often based on Article 58 (“Contra-Revolutionary Crimes”) of the Criminal Code of Soviet Russia.

From June 1940 to June 1941, at least 3355 political criminal proceedings were started. Bodies of many detainees were later found in common graves in Baltezers, Babīte, Dreiliņi, Stopiņi, and in the yard of the Rīga Central Prison. At the end of June 1941, when National Socialist Germany attacked the USSR, the Cheka employees hastily organised the transfer of about 3600 persons from Latvia’s prisons to prisons and labour camps deep in the USSR. Less than 1% of them were able to return to Latvia.  All together, the Soviet political persecutions of 1940–41 directly affected around 26,000 Latvian inhabitants.

Persecution of opponents of the Soviet regime continued also after World War II. It was directed against Latvian national partisans and members of anti-Soviet movements. In the post war period, investigations were conducted in the Corner House, but executions were performed in the Rīga Central Prison. After the death of Stalin in 1953, the activities of the Cheka changed – physical torture was often replaced by psychological pressure. During the following years, when active opposition to the Soviet regime was essentially suppressed, physical repressions were only used in rare cases. However, the Cheka was still controlling society and keeping it in a state of fear. Due to the incomplete documentation, the activities and methods used by the Cheka in Latvia cannot be studied in full detail. Investigational files and external agent cards are in Latvia, but staff lists and in-service documents are located in Russia, out of reach of the Latvian government and researchers.

Well you get the picture-

and here are some pictures that I took during the tour-

the building itself was once a showplace- and still decades later has details that show its luxury beginnings-

The intake room- leave your valuable behind - get useless receipt you will never get to swap it out for your stuff-


the "exercise yard"

halls of cells - where prisoners were kept in large numbers with no facilities-

 memorials to some of the victims of the regime that worked here-

it was off this courtyard where the executions were done - in a small sound proofed room- the victims were shot point blank in the back of the head - the bodies dragged away and the room sluiced with water and to clear the worst of the blood and the next victim brought in.

Then we met with a woman whose family was taken away when she and her sister were children and they basically had to raise themselves and their mom didn't return until they were grown up. She had been taken to the Corner House and then after a period she went to Siberia for many years. A heart wrenching story of two little girls- secondary victims of the KGB Corner House horrors.

a view of the exterior of the Corner House

This was a place with a horror story of immense proportions and an unending depth of evil.  What is hard to comprehend was how overwhelming the totalitarian state was that even with massive numbers of people who desired freedom they couldn't create the revolution to get there for so long- hence our admiration and respect for Lech Walesa - who stood up for freedom and for the people of Poland.

Worth a visit and we were lucky to get there as this is only a temporary exhibit of the bigger Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991.  They don't know how long they will be able to keep it open.

Next we leave for Tallinn Estonia - where we have perfect weather and a lovely day including an incredible meal from a noma alum stay tuned...

Riga Redux!

Day Two began with our trip to the Synagogue - we made our way on foot from the shuttle bus stop through narrow streets to the synagogue to meet the guy who will show us around- Mischa.

from the synagogue we walked to St Peter's Church and made a quick visit inside before going on the the Museum of the Barricades from the period of protests against the Soviets -

the interior of the Museum of the Barricades -

then it was off to lunch at a well respected place right in Old Town-

outstanding bread basket and mushroom soup! we both ordered it!

Phil had a nice fish plate whose photo has gone missing and I ordered a club sandwich-

then it was back out on the streets for us-

back to the meeting point and then the ship - we set sail for Estonia late this afternoon- we had hoped to get back to the massive dirigible hangers that now serve as the Central Market but ran out of time-