A Brief Visit to the KGB Museum in Riga – The Corner House

Lobby of the KGB Building

When visiting Riga, Latvia, it is hard not to see the influences left by the Soviet and Nazi occupations. The reminders are in the architecture of the buildings, the museums that are dedicated to that time frame, and the memorials at the concentration camp locations. I made a brief stop in one such museum, the KGB Museum in Riga. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is in a beautiful, unassuming Art Noveau building that you wouldn’t suspect the horrors that went on inside.

History of the Corner HouseThe Corner House - KGB Museum in Riga

The building on the corner of Brivibas and Stabu streets built-in 1912 was initially used for apartments. After  World War I ended and the German forces withdrew, revolutionary communist forces occupied Riga. ‘Red Terror’ was unleashed under these forces, and Aleksandrs Vanags was arrested, accused of counter-revolutionary activity, and executed without a court judgment on March 19, 1919. Aleksandrs is the talented architect of this beautiful building that was changed into a horrific symbol of the communist regime.

When the Soviet Union occupied Latvia on June 17, 1940, the Corner House became the Latvian headquarters for the KGB. This is where the Latvian citizens, who were considered enemies of the state, were interrogated and incarcerated. During the Soviet occupation, 48,000 criminal cases were opened under ‘anti-Soviet offenses.’

The arrests of Latvian citizens began in June of 1940. The Latvian state officials, police, and staff of the State Security Administration and members of the right-oriented national organizations were targeted first by the USSR State Security People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (a.k.a Checka). Cheka started constructing holding cells in the basement, widening doors to allow trucks to enter, and installing a separate electric generating system. Most of the windows were fitted with metal bars to prevent escape or suicide of the arrested. The Cheka internal prison officially opened on November 9, 1940.

Latvian Life During the OccupationKGB Museum showcasing the history of the Latvian Occupation

As you walk into the building, you walk through a wood-paneled hallway to a large exhibit room. This room has panels with stories and photos of what life was like for the Latvians during the 50 years of occupation. Access to the “Corner House’ required passes and were issued to people called in for questioning or Cheka informers. People could only leave a written request for information about arrested individuals in a mailbox at the entrance. The Soviets recruited Latvians to spy on their neighbors and family to eliminate any armed resistance. This led to a very mistrustful and fearful community where any little mistake could have earned you a spot at the Corner House.

When the Soviets fled from the Nazis, many documents were found of the inner workings of Cheka. These were later given to the museum, and many are shown in this room. The Soviets took back the corner House after World War II, and the KGB continued to use it for prisoners until Latvian’s gained independence in 1991. I wish we would have been able to go on the tour to see the cells in the basement. I’m sure it would have made a more significant impact on us even more than reading about their lives during this terrible time. Hallway in the KGB BuildingLetters, photos, and prison records

Letter and photos of Latvian citizensPhotos of arrested LatviansOld Photos of the Horrors of the Latvian OccupationOld cells from the occupation converted into the museum

Summary

I wasn’t able to go on the tour of the cell blocks (have to come back for that) as they were sold out for the day. Tour tickets should be purchased online for 10€ in advance as I found out they do sell out quickly. If you do happen to stop in, you can walk through the exhibition for free (10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) to see the history of what happened to the Latvians during their occupation and the reign of the KGB secret police. These museums stay open to remind us of how political prisoners were taken and tortured and executed for the slightest reasons. We can’t forget these horrible times that have happened, and maybe future generations can learn from museums like this to help make a better world going forward.

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Further Reading

If you are coming to Latvia for a visit, check out these posts for further travel inspiration:

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