Dark Secrets of the Corner House – the Headquarters of the KGB in Riga

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. A paraphrase of George Santayana’s quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

Some wounds should probably remain open forever so that people can never forget. This was my first thought as I opened the small wooden door of the Corner House – the headquarters of the KGB secret police in Riga, also known as Cheka. The imposing structure on the corner of Brivibas and Stabu streets seems just like any other art nouveau building in the neighborhood. It could be an apartment house, or an office building, or anything else.

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Waiting room/entrance of the Corner House, the KGB headquarters in Riga

The small waiting room with a single row of empty chairs on the right has an allure of abandonment. “Can I help you?” asks a faint voice that seems to come from nowhere. As I look around I notice a middle age woman behind a window in the left corner of the room. “I’m a travel journalist,” I repliy pulling out my press card. “I’m here to visit the KGB Museum. Is this the one?” I ask, not sure I am in the right place. “Yes, the guided tour starts at 10:30, but you can visit the display boards in the entrance area until then. That exhibit is free” the woman replies and closes the window abruptly, as if she has nothing else to say. So I continue through a small corridor towards the display boards.

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Display boards in the entrance area of the Corner House

The exhibits in this section are meant to help you make sense of what you are about to see in the Corner House. There are several panels with stories and photographs about the Soviet occupation in Latvia and about what happened in this building during those years. Reading these stories makes this grim place so much more real. I look at the faces of those who found their demise within the walls of the Corner House. They seem just ordinary people, like any of us. I imagine them doing their daily chores, minding their own business when they found themselves arrested or summoned here. It must have been horrific! Whoever was not considered loyal to the occupiers was arrested, killed or deported to Siberia. The “undesirable elements” could be picked up for crimes as small as having “anti-Soviet conversations” or “instigating panic.”

The Corner House was originally built in 1912 as an apartment building. Before World War II, the building was taken over by the Latvian government and used by a variety of agencies, including the Border Guards. The secret Soviet state police, the KGB, fist moved into the house in 1940 when the Soviet Union occupied Latvia for the first time. Between the two Soviet occupations in 1941 and 1944, the Corner House was used by a number of youth organisations.

After the War however, the KGB chose the Corner House for its headquarters and used it as a prison for those who were considered to be opponents of the occupation regime. The building’s many hallways and stairwells made it convenient for secretly transporting individual prisoners. Also, the cavernous basement was ideal for building prison cells. Indeed, thousands of Latvians have been imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, morally humiliated and executed within the depths of this building until 1991, right in the middle of Riga. It’s astonishing to realize that all these things were happening while we were leading our safe life in the U.S. or other free countries of the world.


Administrative office at the Corner House in Riga

As our tour begins, we move into the the upper part of the building. A couple of floors above, the atmosphere is very different. We pass by the administrative office where the prisoners were photographed and fingerprinted, the room for the duty officer who registered the detainees,  and the interrogation rooms.

interogation rm

Interrogation room at the KGB headquarters in Riga

Then things begin to get worse. Narrow, dark corridors. Musty smelling rooms. Heavy metal doors. Some detainee cells (called boxes) measure about 1.6 square meters. Hard wooden boards for a beds and a filthy bucket in the corner for defecating are the only furnishings in the cells, that were kept at 85ºF year round.


Corridor leading to the detainee cells

“There were multiple types of torture,” the guide explains. From beating of the whole body,  beating of particularly sensitive areas of the body, burning, hair pulling, to sleep deprivation and continuous interrogation for 8-9 days in a row. “It’s effectiveness in terror is mix,” she says. “It creates fear.”


Prison cell at the Corner House in Riga

The detainees were tortured and deprived of medical help. They were allowed outside of their cells only once a week into a small interior courtyard where they were asked to walk in a circle with their heads down. They were devoid of all contact with the outside world (family letters, books and newspapers), forbidden to have showers.


Prisoners’ courtyard

And then we move to the inner courtyard of the building. “Is this where the prisoners were executed?” asks one man in the group. “No, it’s right by the door to the yard. A truck would be parked outside with the motor running to mask the noise. Then the body would be put in the back and driven away,” she says .We are all visibly moved as she opens to door to the former execution chamber. For years and years, this was the reality of life for those living in the countries occupied by the Soviet Union.


Prison kitchen

For many years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the departure of the KGB from Riga, the notorious Corner House had just been left lying abandoned and empty. Finally, in May 2014 it the building finally re-opened its doors to the public as part of the Museum of Occupation of Latvia.

execution rom.

Execution room at the Corner House

Although the Corner House looks now the same as it did in August 1991, when the KGB vacated it, its present appearance hardly resembles the prison in which in the members of the anti-Soviet resistance were tortured in the years post World War II. Over the years, the building was repainted many times and the number of cells was decreased from the original 50 cells to only 19.

The KGB building  (or the Corner House) became the most vivid symbol of the totalitarian regime during the five decades of Latvian occupation. This place documents in great detail the atrocities of the Cheka in Latvia and it’s at the same time a powerful reminder of the mass repression and genocide occurred under some Communist regimes during the twentieth century.

Courtois claims that Communist regimes have killed “approximately 100 million people in contrast to the approximately 25 million victims of the Nazis”.

Not something we must ever forget – a piece of history that should never be repeated.


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41 Comments on “Dark Secrets of the Corner House – the Headquarters of the KGB in Riga

  1. This was the most impressive place I have visited in Riga. I was stunned to find out that no one was ever indicted or prosecuted for the crimes committed. This is a great, eye opening place for those that are trying to keep a monopoly on having been victims of the holocaust or slavery!

  2. Wow! I found this to be an incredibly interesting read! I find Russian history so interesting and have started to learn more as I hope to visit Russia one day! So interesting to see how Latvia is connected with Riga in such a dark history. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    btw – what happened to Eff It I’m On Holiday and As We Saw It? Are they no longer part of the link up?
    Lolo recently posted…Your Essential Guide to EuropeMy Profile

    • You might not hear many of these stories in Russia, Lolo. They still live under a totalitarian regime there. As for the changes in our group, yes you are right. Three of our co-hosts decided they can’t participate in the link-up any longer, so they have been replaced.

  3. The corollary to “Those who fail to learn from history…” is “And those who do are doomed to watch others repeat it.” People have such short memories (and the world’s collective attention span is undoubtedly getting shorter) – it’s so important to preserve grim reminders of history like this. It sounds like the museum is doing a great job of preserving and educating people. I didn’t know that Communist regimes had killed four times as many people as the Nazis. That’s unbelievable! Thanks for writing about this, Anda! Your posts are always very informative and interesting but it’s not often that travel bloggers go into heavy-hitting stuff like this.
    Michelle | michwanderlust recently posted…Fiji: Diving with SharksMy Profile

    • I spend 30 years of my life in a Communist country, Maria, so for me it was even more depressing. The things that happened in the Corner House were happening in Romania as well in different prisons.

    • I have no doubt that there is more to it than we will ever know. Even that the Soviets moved out of Latvia, I’m sure they are still feared and many things about what they did there will never be disclosed.

  4. Both a fascinating and troubling museum. I continue to be amazed at how cruel humans can be to one another. I would find it difficult to go through this museum, but I do think it is important we are made aware of and remember these atrocities. Hopefully we make steps to stop repeating history.
    Donna Janke recently posted…German Craft Beer in MinnesotaMy Profile

  5. Interesting post that opens your eyes behind this kind of treatment and interrogation. I admire your post at the beginning for stating that we should learn from history and our mistakes. This visit exemplifies your quote and is a great reminder that we should learn from our past and be aware of it, otherwise we’ll repeat ourselves.
    Brooke of Passport Couture recently posted…The Story of My Organic Cotton ToteMy Profile

    • What’s really strange is in 25 years since the Soviets left Latvia, nobody was held responsible or prosecuted for those atrocities.

  6. These kinds of places represent a part of history that definitely should not be forgotten. We all should feel so horrified that things like these have happened in the past so that we can stop it from happening again.
    Liz recently posted…Snapshots: Hallstatt, AustriaMy Profile

    • I’m glad the Latvian government decided to open this ‘horror house’ for visitors. It’s a lesson that everybody should learn and there is no other way of learning it but seeing with your own eyes what happened.

  7. It’s important to visit places like this to have a clear-eyed view of history. but i never sleep well after I do.

  8. I appreciate that you visited this place and shared your experience with us. It’s very sobering, especially that the horror continued until 1991. To me, there’s such a dichotomy in the appearance of the architecturally interesting exterior and the interrogation room with its wallpaper and the patterned floor versus all the terrible deeds that went on inside.
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} recently posted…At the End of the Universe at the Museum of Fine Arts HoustonMy Profile

  9. Wow – what a place, not for the feint hearted! And you’re right – it must never be forgotten!

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