It’s easy enough to walk past this innocuous building on a bustling street lined with shops and restaurants.
But the benign yet beautiful exterior masks a dark past.
The KGB Building in Riga, Latvia – or the Corner House, as it is also known – was originally built as an apartment block with shops on the ground floor, before it became a government building in the 1920s. But during the Soviet and Nazi occupations of the country, it was adopted for a darker purpose, with those who opposed the regime taken there to be interrogated, tortured and even executed.
The building only reopened as a museum very recently. In fact, it’s frightening to think that it was still operational under the KGB during my lifetime – as Latvia only regained independence in 1991.
Prisoners would be quietly arrested and taken to the building, brought inside via an internal courtyard that would shield them from the eyes of passers-by. These people weren’t criminals, but ordinary people. Their pictures line the walls: publishers, farmers, academics.
Once inside, they had their possessions confiscated and were strip searched. When they were eventually given their clothes back, guards would remove all buttons, zips and hooks with a large knife, making it impossible for the prisoners to properly secure the garments.
They would then be taken to the overcrowded cells where they were subjected to torture: bright lights would keep them awake for days at a time, unable to even close their eyes; the temperature was kept high, while the prisoners were deprived of water. Then they would eventually take their turn in the interrogation rooms.
This was one of the most surprising rooms we saw in the museum, with its floral wallpaper and chintz covered chairs it could have been an ordinary living room, were it not for the two way mirror located ominously in the corner.
As the tour moved on, we descended lower, through the cells and out into the exercise yard where prisoners could occasionally snatch some fresh air and glimpse the sky.
The tour ends at the execution chamber.
When visiting Riga, you can’t help but be struck by Latvia’s dark past. Many of the city’s museums are dedicated to war and occupation, but the KGB House is particularly chilling.
Much of the museum is untouched, allowing visitors an insight into this dark period in history.
Visit the museum: Brīvības iela 61, Rīga