the House on the Corner: Riga’s KGB Past

  • 2015-05-31

The Corner House on Stabu iela in Riga has long since stood as a haunting and sinister reminder of the terrible things committed during the Soviet Union. The building was the former headquarters for the Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union (KGB).

What has largely made the building even more infamous is that it has stood sealed, ominous, and empty since the KGB left it. A looming monolith at Brivibas iela 69, this building and its small memorial plaque had been a yellow painted mysterious testament to unspeakable horrors.
It’s not a museum. It’s a deep experience of uncovering a place that’s been sealed for 25 years, and untouched since the horrors within it took place.

Inhumanity and cruelty are no strangers to this corner. Stabu iela (the current name of the street), refers to the medieval pillory where prisoners were burned alive in the 1800s to deter others from a life of crime.
The very architect of the building, Aleksandrs Vanags, after being accused of counter-revolutionary work, was shot in 1919 at Riga Central Prison.

When Russian forces invaded in 1940, the building was used by the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB). On June 14, 1941, 15,000 of Latvia’s elite disappeared in a combination of deportations and massacres. A month later, Nazi forces came in to ‘liberate’ the country from the Russians. In order to show the population the horrors of Russian actions, they opened the doors of The Corner House to the public.

The maze of basement cells (some of which held almost 30 prisoners in one room), intense heat, and constant light, was just the beginning of what was found in the bowels of the building.
However, the house once again came under Russian possession after 1944, and work continued. The house was no longer a mystery; now everyone knew what went on behind the yellow façade of Art Nouveau.

In the five decades that followed, citizens were summoned to the building, and many awaited a terrible fate. After 1991, the KGB left in a hurry, leaving much behind, and many sections of the building were sealed.
For a time after 1991, the Latvian Police had offices in one small part of it, but the basement had been sealed since the KGB left.

The floors are red to hide the blood, and coated to muffle the sounds. Bullets that were found are on display in the room lined with rubber to mask the sounds of daily executions. Engines were run in the mornings at street level, to further eliminate any sounds of gunshots, and to be able to quickly transport the newly killed away from the building.
Perhaps one of the most impactful rooms in the house highlights the suicide note on display, written by General Ludvigs Bolsteins, after Latvia was occupied by the USSR in 1940. He writes, simply:

To my superiors.
We, the Latvians, built ourselves a brand new house — our country.
Now, an alien power wants to force us to tear it down ourselves.
In this I cannot take part.

General Bolsteins then shot himself at his desk on the fifth floor of the building. His desk and office are featured in the tour, storing a dark chapter in Latvian history that cannot afford to be forgotten.

There is nothing kitschy here. All people in Latvia had been affected in some way by the actions occurring in this house, either to themselves, or to a loved one or friend. Much of the details of what went on, meticulously recording during Soviet times, have been made off-limits. The names of those who worked in the building, double agents, interrogators, and collaborators, have been stored in a secure location, as many of the people are still alive.

It is rare that one is able to visit such a well-preserved building of such historic and emotional significance. It doesn’t matter if one knows the history or has roots here, it is impossible to leave The Corner House unaffected. Even using the restroom was a moderately unsettling experience when you wonder who has used it in years past. If there are any haunted buildings in Latvia, this one would top the list.

Originally only opened for a short period of time, The Corner House is now open 10:00-5:30 pm on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, Wednesdays from 12:00-7:00 pm, and Saturday/Sunday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. The building is closed on Tuesdays. Tickets can be purchased onsite or in advance for the guided tour for EUR 5.
The small exhibit on the corner of the house is free of charge.

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