A first-hand history lesson

Russian sign reads, “No Smoking” inside the basement of the corner house in Riga

RIGA – Russian-language signs adorn the walls of the narrow low-ceiling hallways that zigzag through a dirty, dusty basement under dim lights between tight cells in the most notorious building in Riga.

During the 50 years of the Soviet occupation that ended in 1991, the building on the corner of two city arteries housed the regional KGB headquarters, instilling fears into Latvians that no one dared to utter its real name.

Instead, everyone, including a Latvian writer Anita Liepa, called it “the corner house.”

Liepa spent several months in the basement in 1958, being interrogated for so-called “anti-Soviet activities” after the Soviet authorities arrested her for searching for missing relatives in Siberia.

The memorial to victims who suffered inside the KGB building

A modest, inconspicuous memorial outside on the street that used to bear a name of the Communist philosopher Friedrich Engels serves as a gruesome reminder of the torture, intimidation and humiliation witnessed by off-white, dirty and silent walls inside.

From here, the Soviet secret police tentacles squeezed lives and confessions out of people whom the communist authorities considered dangerous to their regime.

Following Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the state police moved into the building – originally built at the dawn of the last century as a hotel of questionable repute, state police employee and a guide through the under-layer Henrijs Rabkins says.

Rabkins himself born in Siberia after the World War II to the exiled Latvian parents. He was allowed to return to Latvia only after Stalin’s death in 1953. Russian is still heard there as Rabkin switches back and forth between Latvian and Russian, asking for help from two Russian men on the maintenance crew.

The building is designed to trip your senses. The labyrinth-like layout of the basement makes you realize you wouldn’t know where to run if you decided to escape. The three elevators inside located in such a way that you may never seen another inmate, or you wouldn’t even know you are being taken into the dreaded basement. Undoubtedly, the Soviet secret police improved on the architecture and design to suit its own needs and established a process to control the population.

Like many buildings in Riga – it looks larger from the inside than from the outside. But it still looked huge when I passed by it every day as a child. And each time I passed it with my grandpa, he’d say “Chebrikov’s boys work there.”

Chebrikov’s boys are long gone – taking away or burning most of the KGB archives in a large round stove in that basement.

The “corner house” still serves as a central state police office; a portion of the basement cells are used for pre-trial detainees. It won’t be for much longer as the police are preparing for a move into a newer facility.

Their moving out spawned a public debate about the future of the “corner house” and its unsafe conditions.

Inside, bits of wood, buckets, old furniture and tools are strewn as the crumbling messy remains of the overflow cells. Bits of graffiti on walls used, perhaps, to count off the days spent in the detention. The maize of the tight corridors make a healthy person claustrophobic, but certainly designed with an anti-Soviet element in mind.

A little peep hole set in between two cells to allow a guard to know what’s going on inside the cell where a door peep hole cannot offer a clear view.

While the walls keep silent of the atrocities they witnessed, former political prisoners tell the tales of what it was like to be imprisoned in the infamous “corner house.”

Anita Liepa, who lives in Daugavpils, spent a total of seven months in the basement in 1958. She thinks it should be converted into a museum dedicated to political prisoners, similar to Vilnius and Tartu.

Although precise information is not available, historians suggest at least 300 Latvians were processed at the corner house in the first year of the Soviet occupation.

Photos are courtesy of the Baltic Bulletin.

2 Comments

  • Irena says:

    You’re one lucky, guy, Aleks! And that story does renew my faith in Latvia.

    Just recently here in Amerika, someone pulled into a gas station, found an ATM card lying on one of the tanks, used it to fill up his car and then, threw it away! Out of fear, to allay his guilt…who knows!?

    Irena

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