The Red Army arrived in Latvia on 17th June 1940, bringing with it the Soviet State Security. At that time it was known as the Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD), or the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. In Latvia and much of Eastern Europe it later became known as the Cheka and in 1954, by its best known name, the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti). Regardless of the name, it was the most feared arm of the Soviet regime, using surveillance, arrest, intimidation and torture of citizens to combat any activities that were deemed anti-Soviet.
During the Soviet occupation of Latvia, an individual could be arrested by the KGB under almost any circumstances and at any time. Indeed, many people were arrested for ‘crimes’ that they had committed before occupation, when Latvia was a free country.
Article 58 of the Penal Code of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialists Republic (RSFSR) was used to arrest those people who were suspected of counter revolutionary activities. It states:
“A counter-revolutionary action is any action aimed at overthrowing, undermining or weakening of the power of workers’ and peasants Soviets… and governments of the USSR and Soviet and autonomous republics, or at the undermining or weakening of the external security of the USSR and main economical, political and national achievements of the proletarian revolution”
This gave the Soviets free reign to arrest, execute and exile to Siberia, anyone who they deemed was engaging in anti-soviet activities. You could be arrested for talking to a foreigner, being a religious leader, having foreign currency, being a student or a teacher, copying maps, or engaging in any kind of Western culture. Essentially, they could arrest you for whatever reason they chose.
The population was constantly under surveillance. People were followed and even ‘befriended’ by KGB spies. Lonely citizens may suddenly find themselves with a new boyfriend or girlfriend. Prisoners may find themselves with a new cell mate with a sympathetic ear; ready to listen to a potential confession. Alcoholics would meet new drinking buddies and KGB agents would infiltrate cafes, bars and other institutions where free-thinkers might frequent. They even investigated their own ranks and checked their own agents’ family histories. No one could escape the omnipresent eye of the union.
These methods created an atmosphere of deep fear and mistrust, with many Latvians being reported to the KGB by their own friends and neighbours, because the non-reporting of counter revolutionary acts was also a crime.
Once people were arrested, they would be put into a vehicle and transported to the KGB building, that would come to be known as the KGB corner house. They would be driven through the iron gate, into the courtyard and right up to the registration room, where the first of many interrogations would begin.
Once registered, detainees would have all their possessions confiscated and would be ordered to undress. All their clothes would be searched for hidden items and any belts, shoe laces, zips or buttons would be removed or cut. They would then be subjected to a full cavity search before having all of theirs and their family’s details recorded. They would then be allowed to get dressed, have their photos taken and be escorted to a cell.
Originally, the prison was designed to hold 175 prisoners but survivor testimonies tell of a much higher occupancy. Cell number 4 had 9 beds but had been known to hold more than 20 prisoners and an experiment carried out by the museum staff showed that it could hold more than 35.
Cells were heated by huge furnaces in the basement and reached temperatures of 45-50°C. They were illuminated by bright lights, day and night and it was forbidden for prisoners to cover their eyes or open the small windows. There was one bucket for excrement, which the prisoners were allowed to empty daily. Most prisoners slept on the hard cement floors, without pillows or blankets and those who found themselves in the damp and mouldy basement cells often had to sleep in pools of water. They would be fed on water and a small piece of bread and it was commonplace for guards to open the cells at night and intimidate and wake the detainees. They would be kept in these conditions for 10 days before being called for interrogation. The heat, sleep deprivation and starvation were all designed to help break the prisoners before interrogations even began.
The interrogating officers were in no doubt at all that the prisoner in front of them was guilty and an enemy of the state. Their job was to get a confession, whatever the cost. Interrogations would begin gently and prisoners would be asked to identify themselves and answer questions about themselves and their families. They would also be offered the chance to willingly sign a confession; sometimes being told that if they sign, then they would get a lighter sentence – perhaps a few years in Siberia and then they would be free. The reality however was very different. Those who chose to sign the confession would either get the maximum sentence (in prison or a labour camp), or be executed.
Those who refused to confess would then be subjected to a series of harsher interrogation methods. Often, they would take place at night and last until morning. The prisoner would then be denied sleep during the day and interrogations would resume the next evening. If sleep deprivation didn’t lead to a confession, agents would resort to physical violence. Prisoners would be punched, kicked, beaten with sticks or chairs and burned with cigarettes. Survivors recount stories of hands being slammed in drawers, needles being forced under the nails, nail pulling and hitting the soles of the feet with truncheons. One account tells of a pregnant woman who was beaten so badly she went into premature labour. The tiny new born baby was covered in bruises from the beatings that its mother had received.
Eventually, many prisoners would be executed in a small room inside a larger garage off the courtyard. The small room was clad with timber and padding to muffle the sounds and there was a drainage hole in the floor for blood. A small calibre pistol was used to reduce blood and brain splatter. Because of this, it is thought that more than one shot was needed to kill many of the prisoners. After execution, the bodies would be wrapped in cloth, loaded into a truck and driven to the forests that surround Riga. There, they would be buried in unmarked graves.
This practice continued in the corner house until 1941, when the Nazis occupied Latvia. They found evidence of at least 94 gun shots and 240 spent cartridges. The Latvian Museum of Occupation knows of at least 186 victims and it is thought that many more have not been found.
When the Soviets returned to Latvia after the end of the Second World War, executions were carried out in Riga Central Prison. Conditions remained much the same until Stalin’s death in 1953, when over a period of years, the physical torture of inmates began to decline – although it was never completely abandoned as an interrogation method.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the KGB left the corner house and it was taken over by the state police until 2008. It then remained empty for 6 years, until it was finally (partly) reopened as a museum.
If you are visiting Riga, this building should be at the top of your to do list.
It can be found at: Brīvības iela 61 (The corner of Brivibas and Stabu Streets, around 1 kilometre east of the Old Town).
There is a free exhibition but to really appreciate what happened in this building you need to take the guided tour (€5). You will also receive a replica security pass, which was issued in 1940-1941.
The English language tour is very popular, so I would advise you to arrive at least 20 minutes before the tour starts to ensure that you get a place. It will also give you time to read the information in the free part of the exhibition.
Monday, Tuesday: 10:00–17:30
Monday: 10:30 (ENG), 12:00 (LAT), 13:30 (ENG), 15:00 (LAT), 16:30 (ENG)
Tuesday: 10:30 (ENG), 12:00 (LAT), 13:30 (ENG), 15:00 (LAT), 16:30 (ENG)
Wednesday: 12:00 (ENG), 13:30 (LAT), 15:00 (ENG), 16:30 (ENG), 18:00 (LAT)
Thursday: 10:30 (ENG), 12:00 (LAT), 13:30 (ENG), 15:00 (LAT), 16:30 (ENG)
Friday: 10:30 (ENG), 12:00 (LAT), 13:30 (ENG), 15:00 (LAT), 16:30 (ENG)
Saturday: 10:30 (ENG), 12:00 (ENG), 13:30 (ENG), 15:00 (LAT)
Sunday: 10:30 (ENG), 12:00 (ENG), 13:30 (ENG), 15:00 (LAT)
More information about the exhibit can be found on their website, here