While the infamous Corner House (on the corner of Brivibas iela and Stabu iela – Lenin and Friedrich Engels Streets in Soviet times) ceased to be a place of terror and repression when Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 it was with some trepidation that I entered through the door on the corner of the building and picked up my ‘access pass’ from a counter just inside the entry.
Many people did exactly this between 1940 and 1991. Some of those who came here ‘by invitation’ or ‘under order’ left in coffins (on-site executions only occurred between 1940-41), some were taken for execution elsewhere and many left in trucks bound for prison/forced labour camps in Siberia and elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Few of those ‘invited’ to come in for interview left again via the corner door.
Apart from those working here and those ‘invited in’ for interrogation, the only other people who came here were those seeking information on relatives or friends who had disappeared or those wishing to dob someone in to the Cheka (later the KGB). A mailbox with the sign “For Complaints and Petitions”, placed in the reception area, was intended for both formal requests for information on those missing (these were rarely responded to) and anonymous denunciation of neighbours or work colleagues (more likely to be acted on). As no-one knew who was detained here no-one visited detainees, as they might in an regular prison.
Dear Reader, lest I have got you worried about visiting, all those who have visited and toured the Corner House since it opened to visitors in 2014 have, to the best of my knowledge, come out alive – albeit perhaps somewhat shaken and almost certainly shocked that such a place could have existed.
In 1940, shortly after the Soviet Union occupied Latvia, the USSR State Security People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), or the Cheka, selected this building, a rather attractive Art Nouveau building designed by Aleksandrs Vanags and, at the time, the offices of the Latvian Ministry of the Interior, as its headquarters. Rather ironically, Vanags had been accused of counter-revolutionary activity and executed during earlier Communist rule in 1919.
The building was quickly converted for Cheka purposes with private quarters created for officials, holding cells constructed in the basement and on the first floor, an execution chamber added, the courtyard gate replaced by solid iron doors with a corridor widened to allow for the entry of trucks, bars fitted on the upper floor windows to prevent those being interrogated committing suicide and a generator added such that the building would not be without power.
As quick as the building was converted, the Cheka set about identifying and punishing anyone and everyone who offered any form for resistance to the Soviet occupation. The Cheka was extremely accomplished in its ability to gather information, purge adversaries, and evoke silent fear through its elaborate network of officers and collaborators.
In late June 1941, as German forces approached, the Chekists fled taking prisoners (around 3,600 from all of Latvia, less than 1% of whom returned) and records with them. Prisoners who could not be taken out in time where killed and left behind. The arrival of the Nazis brought to an end what is now referred to as the Year of Terror.
During Nazi Germany’s occupation of Latvia (1941-44) much work was done to find evidence and expose what had happened here in 1940-41. Off course, in so doing the Nazi regime was also stoking the fires of revenge and inspiring allegiance to itself. In reality, Nazi terror replaced Soviet terror.
After WWII the Cheka returned to the Corner House and, while the execution chamber was not used again, repression of anti-Soviet sentiment, religious views, artists, writers, etc and persecution of anyone considered an enemy of the state or an otherwise undesirable element was reinstated as before the War.
Immediately after WWII there was a very active resistance movement in Latvia – partisans could not accept that the Western allies would abandon the Baltic States to the Soviet Union. The Cheka directed its efforts to brutally eradicating all resistance and partisan activity and, while they never succeeded in this endeavour, thousands of Latvians were killed, imprisoned, deported or otherwise persecuted in decades of state sponsored terror.
According to KGB records, between 1944 and 1956, 2407 partisans were killed or committed suicide, 5489 were arrested of whom 498 were executed and 4241 partisans were legalised (i.e. voluntarily laid down their arms) of whom most were deported in 1949 (notwithstanding Soviet promises of amnesty).
The intensity of repression eased (physical torture was essentially abandoned) post Stalin’s death and in the 1960s when post WWII armed resistance to Soviet occupation abated, to be replaced with non-violent resistance until 1991 when Latvian independence was finally secured.
One of the last people incarcerated in the Corner House, Leo Hirssons, was liberated on 16 May 1990 and the building came under the control of the Latvian State Police on 4 June 1991. Until vacated in 2007, the Latvian Police used the building as a more regular police establishment. Between 2007 and 2014, when the former Cheka/KGB building was opened to visitors, the building lay empty.
Today you can visit, for free, a small museum on the ground floor and join a tour which takes you though parts of the building which have not been altered since used by the Cheka/KGB. Self-guided tours are not permitted.
The museum comprises a serious of information boards and pictures detailing the history of the building and its brutal past (as I have done in this review, though in much more detail) and relaying the stories of many of those who were interrogated, tortured, imprisoned or indeed executed in the Corner House.
It addition to its concentration on the victims, the museum unapologetically details and exposes Cheka and KGB officers responsible for what went on here. Known details of Latvian collaborators have not been made public. In a small, unmarked room, to your right as you enter the main museum display area, there is a banner depicting Lenin and an old Russian army uniform.
Our guided tour through the basement cells (a total of 175 prisoners could be held in 44 cells), the exercise yard, interrogation rooms, the courtyard and the execution area was lead by a very knowledgeable lady, who had lost a number of relatives to Soviet repression. Given our guides personal experiences and memories some may imagine that we received a very biased version of what happened here in 1940-41 and again between 1944 and 1991. This was not the case and while western political correctness might have called for a different choice of words at times, the message relayed by our guide was in accordance with the generally accepted history of the period.
In 2003, a memorial plaque ‘The Black Threshold’ was affixed to the Stabu Street side of the building, dedicated to the victims of the Communist regime. As the exterior of the building was being refurbished when I visited the plaque was boarded over and could not been seen. This refurbishment also explains the use of a museum photograph of the building’s exterior as my main photo.
When visiting, do go on the tour – it brings the museum content to life – but allow yourself at least half an hour, before or after your tour to look through the small museum which is still well worth a visit even if you cannot make a tour.
Opening Hours – Ground floor museum (entry free)
Monday, Thursday and Friday: 10:00 – 17:30
Wednesday: 12:00 – 19:00
Saturday – Sunday: 10:00 – 16:00
Guided tours of the building, in English and costing EUR5 in 2015, are offered at various times throughout the day. German and Russian language tours are also available by request. See website below for details of tour times, etc.
Address: Corner of Brivibas iela and Stabu iela