Riga – Corner House (KGB Museum)

I booked a tour of the Corner House on-line a few days ago as I had read that it is closing in two days. It transpired that the building that the Corner House is in is being renovated into offices and apartments, so the ground floor museum has to close at the same time. They are hoping that the museum can re-open in the future, but they’re not sure yet.

The transformation into apartments might be lovely as the building has some considerable historic interest. But, there is a little problem, which is that the building was the home of the KGB and around 1,000 of its staff. The building has tens of interrogation rooms where violence was used against those supposed to have been critical of the regime. What a lovely place to live that would be….

The Corner House building is large and sprawling, but the public would only have been allowed into one small room. This was a reception room on the corner of the building and it was primarily where people could drop off messages about enemies of the people in a wooden box. The state encouraged people to report on others and the reports were taken very seriously.

For those who had friends or relatives imprisoned, it was also possible to drop food off or to leave a written message asking what was happening. It isn’t known how often the food would be received by the prisoner and whether or not the KGB wrote back to interested friends and relatives.

An interior corridor, which was once used by KGB staff and is now the way into the main hall where there is an exhibition about the building. There has been very little modernisation of the building since the KGB left it in 1991, so it felt like an authentic experience.

The building was constructed in 1912 and it was intended to house both shops and apartments. The original reception area, which would have been visible to passer-bys, was left unchanged by the KGB and was used as an entrance for their senior staff. The rest of the building was heavily modified and the original decoration has been lost.

A plan of the building’s ground floor.

One of the cells on the ground floor and this could take up to five people at its peak. Access to these cells today is only by a guided tour, but we were allowed to walk freely around these different cells. There are an identical set of cells which are in the building’s basement, but these have flooded and their use was stopped in the 1960s.

One of the interrogation rooms, with a rubber baton which was of the type which might have been used on prisoners. The chairs were also screwed to the floor to stop prisoners attacking the interrogators.

Another cell, with prisoners staying here from anything from a few weeks to as long as two years. The guide said that the prisoners would then be deported or executed, although I do rather wonder whether they really did that to every prisoner.

On that note, the guide was excellent and she was really enthusiastic about the whole tour and its content. She mentioned how her family had been impacted by the KGB and the secret services, but she added that a Russian family this week had called her a liar and said everything was a lie. There wasn’t much that I doubted about her ninety minutes of tour as it seemed to fit with what I’ve seen elsewhere.

The inside of a cell door and the cells were kept brightly lit to try and make the prisoners feel uncomfortable and oppressed. The cells were deliberately kept overcrowded and the toilet facilities were limited to a bucket in the corner of the room which was only emptied once per day.

The exercise yard, where prisoners were allowed once every ten days for a short walk. The prisoners weren’t allowed to make any noise as there were neighbouring apartments and a music school where residents might be able to hear them. A wooden roof was added to one part of the exercise yard in a bid to stop neighbours from seeing in, but they were reports that children could hear the torturing taking place.

The prisoners would sleep on the metal beds at night, but would then put them up against the wall during the daytime. The cells were also kept at a hot temperature to make the conditions even more intolerable.

The prisoners would receive meals three times a day, but they were of a poor quality and the food was deliberately left unwashed or was spoiled. The meals didn’t have enough calories to support the prisoners, which made them feel more tired and worn out.

The row of cells and there was once a thick red carpet along here, which had the dual purpose of muffling the sound of guards walking along and it also hid the blood.

The above two photos show the eye hole where guards could look into a cell, and what it looked like from the inside of the cell.

The inside of a cell door.

The execution chamber, which wasn’t used from the 1950s onwards, and was covered up by the authorities. The covering up was literal, they put wallpaper up over the bullet holes and then turned the area into a shop where staff could buy provisions. This was an important benefit, given that food and drink was often in short supply during the communist period.

The tour cost around £5 and lasted for around ninety minutes. I’m glad that I got to go on this tour before the building was closed for renovation, although I’m confident that the museum will re-open in the future. It would look appalling if the state, which owns the building, tried to cover up this period of the country’s history, and I can’t imagine they’d want to do so.