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Travel

Stopping by Latvia's Former KGB Torture Chambers

Latvia wasn't using its old KGB headquarters anyway, so they decided to open its doors and let sightseers in. We visited the rooms where Latvian dissidents were interrogated, tortured, and shot.

by Joost Knaap
Jul 16 2014, 11:30am

Thanks to its thriving sex industry, cheap beer and even cheaper accommodation, Riga—for tourists, at least—is synonymous with the kind of bro holidays that end in black eyes and disorderly conduct convictions. Understandably, people in the Latvian capital aren't too happy about this, which is possibly why the city has opened the doors to a building that will attract a very different kind of visitor—the former KGB headquarters, which haven't been accessible to the public for the past 20 years.

If you didn’t know what had taken place inside the building you’d probably pass by its taped-up windows without suspecting a thing. But it was a place that provoked fear from thousands during the time of Soviet rule in Latvia; for more than 40 years, this was where those who were thought to have defied the state were imprisoned, tortured and, in the worst cases, killed.

Latvia claimed its independence in November of 1918, but it was barely four months before Soviet forces had captured the majority of the country, allowing the Communist Party of Latvia to take control of Riga. The architect of the "corner house"—the building that would later become the KGB headquarters—was one of the first victims of this new regime, shot dead after he was deemed subversive by authorities.

However, gradually—and with the help of German soldiers—occupied Latvia was re-conquered, and Russia were forced to sign a peace treaty in August of 1920. 

It wasn't until 1940, after the USSR had deported Latvian President Kārlis Ulmanis and occupied the country again, that the KGB decided to base themselves in the corner house, condemning it to be the focal point of Soviet-inflicted horror for the next four decades.

“Everyone in Latvia had a certain connection with the building," says 57-year-old Anna Moeka, press officer for the tours. "For example, people had relatives imprisoned here, and anyone traveling abroad at that time had to report to the KGB first. There was also a mailbox in the lobby where civilians could snitch on neighbors or colleagues, and it was where arrest warrants were drawn up."

One of the many subjects of these warrants was Anna's father. "Fortunately he was at camp when the KGB stopped at our door,” she says.

From the 13th to the 14th of June, 1941, more than 15,000 people were deported, with a further 42,000 banished on the 25th of March, 1949. By that time Anna's father was on a boat to Sweden, seeking shelter while his friends and family were left behind in Riga.

The building feels like a strange blend of prison and home, hints at its old function—padlocks on the doors and mug shots on the walls—juxtaposed with floral wallpaper and large mirrors in the lobby. Back when it was under KGB ownership, the building was carpeted to muffle footsteps and painted red to mask blood stains. 

Much of the KGB’s past has been well preserved, from the black painted walls on the ground floor, where people were taken to be shot, to the detention center in the basement. Even the bunks in the cells are still there. The interrogation rooms are scattered throughout the building, but primarily located on the top floor. The doors are covered in a thick layer of dust.

"If people were lucky, they could hear the bell of Riga cathedral. That would reassure them that they were still in Riga,“ says Anna as we walk through the courtyard, before adding that prisoners would be blindfolded and had their ears plugged whenever they were moved from cell to cell. There are still nets in the stairwell that were installed to prevent prisoners from jumping to their deaths.

"I think I’ve been in this building too many times. It’s been roughly 40 times because of my job," says Anna. "We Latvians are, in general, rational people, but I must say that visiting this building has had an effect on me. When I first came here I was impressed, but after a while it started feeling normal. Lately, the building appears frequently in my dreams. It feels as if the building is striking back. I feel sorry for the people who have to work here every day."

Anna tells me that it's not Riga’s intention to present the building as a tourist attraction. “It's important that we see the building as part of our history," she says. "That we learn how to live with our history, our past—and how to talk about it.”

The KGB building in Riga is open to the public until the 19th of October, 2014.