After securing a 2 night break with flights for £100 each, I researched 'things to do in Riga'. Compared to other European cities such as Berlin or Paris, the list of things to do was relatively short. The one thing that caught my eye was the KGB Building or the 'corner house' as it's known in Riga. From the outside it's a beautiful art nouveau building and you wouldn't be able to comprehend some of the atrocities that took place inside it. The outside of the building has been freshly redecorated as our tour guide informed us that the building is currently up for sale. If you were walking along the street you wouldn't be particularly drawn to the building or the exhibition as it isn't widely advertised, nor where there queues outside. The entrance is located through a small doorway located on the corner of Brīvības and Stabu Iela.
Once inside, there is a free exhibition on display or you can pay a small fee (€5 for adults, €2 for students) for a guided tour of the ground floor and basement of the building. We opted for a group tour, with an English speaking Latvian tour guide. The house was originally built in 1912 and used as apartments, however, it was taken over several times for different uses. The main use discussed during the tour was during the 1940s when Soviet Armed Forces moved in and established the building as the headquarters of the KGB or 'cheka'. Anybody in Latvia who was deemed to be working against the Soviet state were arrested and brought here. They were interrogated, tortured and more than 200 people were executed on the premises. Today the cells look dark and dingy, but our tour guide informed us that bright lights were used a lot of the time to disorient the prisoners and to not allow them to sleep. Some cells were shared by 25 people at a time, with 1 bucket in the corner to use as a toilet. The KGB would turn the heating up so the cells were hot and humid, often over and above 30 degrees. These tactics were used to try and make prisoners produce signed confessions of crimes they hadn't committed. The KGB would inform them that if they signed a confession they would be able to leave the prison and see their loved ones. Furthermore, they would threaten prisoners that if they didn't sign the confession then the KGB would arrest and torture their children, husband/wife and parents. This was enough for some to sign a confession, though instead of freedom as promised, they were executed in an assigned room where they were shot.
We were shown the outdoor courtyard where prisoners were allowed a set amount of time to exercise outside. By exercise, they simply meant a brief period where they had to walk around in a circle in the courtyard with their heads down, arms behind their backs and in silence. Guards would patrol from above with their guns in case any prisoner disobeyed the rules.
On the walls of the courtyard, there was a display that reproduced some of the engravings found left by prisoners inside the building. When it snowed during the winter months, the courtyard was cleared of snow on a daily basis before the prisoners were allowed to exercise, to avoid any prisoner writing a note and placing it in the snow for someone else to pick up and read.
We then went downstairs to look at more cells and to also look at the kitchen area, before exiting outdoors. Once in the central courtyard we could see the grand scale of the building. A few of the windows have bars on as several people committed suicide by jumping out of the windows following interrogation that took place on the fifth and sixth floors. The tour guide mentioned that the building is currently for sale and there is talks that several of the top floors could be turned into luxury apartments. Oddly enough I don't think I would like to purchase one.
In the corner of the courtyard was a large entranceway big enough to fit vehicles in. This area was used for the execution room. KGB workers would bring a truck through the large doorway and start the engine to drown out the sound of gunshots. Once through the doors, they made a small room on the right hand side. They lined the walls with plastic sheets and installed a drainage system with a plug in the corner so once they shot the prisoners they could just hose the walls and floor down of any blood. The practical approach to killing is perhaps one of the most chilling aspects of this building's history.
I would definitely recommend the tour to anyone visiting Riga. It lasts an hour and a half and for €5 each you gain a haunting yet realistic insight into a part of Latvian history that occurred not that long ago. The exhibition has only been running for 2-3 years and is renewed on a yearly basis, however it's not known how long it's going to run for.