The memory of Communism’s brutality is very real in Eastern Europe. There are many powerful memorials and museums to the horrors of Communism and one of the best is in Riga, the capital city of the small but beautiful nation of Latvia.
In Riga, the Museum of the Occupation has a very good main museum, which chronicles the occupation of Latvia from 1940-1941 by the Soviet Union, 1941-1944 by Nazi Germany and from 1944-1991 by the Soviet Union. Artifacts of these eras bring history alive in a very real way. Those who opposed Communism and love freedom, including Americans such as the great Lee Edwards, are given a place of honor on the VIP wall. However, there is an even more powerful part of the Museum of the Occupation; a part that is in danger today.
The best artifact of the Museum of the Occupation is actually not in the main museum building. The best artifact is a separate stand-alone building six blocks to the north. It is the former KGB headquarters building
The former KGB headquarters is almost inconspicuous, blending in with Riga’s other structures in a city that has the world’s largest collection of Art Nuevo buildings. Built in 1915, the KGB building served various purposes before being taken by the Soviet Union when they occupied the Baltic States in 1940 as a result of the 1939 alliance between Stalin and Hitler.
This when the building became a house of horrors and today the former KGB headquarters looks just was it was in what Latvians call “Soviet Times.” Even the entrance counter remains the same and tickets are printed as if they were a special Russian pass to the building. The exhibit is so powerful that I visited twice in two days.
In the KGB building there is no heat. Though our tour group had our coats on, we felt the chill of the winter air even inside. The prisoners from years before were, upon entering the building, forced to strip naked; men in front of women and vice versa, as well as children. Not only would they have felt much colder than my tour group, they also would have felt much less dignity.
After booking prisoners were then sent to the interrogation room where the goal was to get a confession of alleged subversive activities against the Soviet Union. A variety of methods would be used including a great deal of physical torture as well as threats against one’s family and other psychological torture. People confessed even when they had done nothing wrong. Sometimes the Soviets turned the Latvian prisoners into double agents against their own people.
After finishing the interrogation, the prisoners were crowded at least twenty into a cell that was designed to hold four. Prisoners could not sleep during the day or lay down and the food given was minimal. The people brought into cook literally did not know how to cook and experimented with whatever they had.
In the cells, there was no air conditioning in summer and no heat in winter. Going to the bathroom was done in one place in the corner of a cell. All prisoners in the cell used a single bucket in front of their fellow prisoners. Guards saw everything that went on in the cell including this. The bucket was cleaned out only once a day. In the basement of the KGB headquarters were the solitary confinement cells which were worse than the cells above, if that were possible.
I stood in a few of the solitary confinement cells. The hallway outside of the cells were lit and the cell door was not shut all the way. Despite this, I still could not see inside the cell. Holding up my hand in front of me was useless. It was even colder down in the basement than it was in the top cells. The prisoners under Communism had to endure the ordeal naked and with the cell doors completely shut, far worse than what anyone today can imagine.
Latvians had at least an idea of what happened in the building. It was no secret that this was the KGB headquarters. Adding additional pain to the memory of the building was that family members would often show up asking where their loved one was and being told there was no record of what happened while their family was being tortured mere yards away.
The prisoners would then be shot in the courtyard or committed suicide by jumping into the same courtyard during interrogation. The rest went to Siberia, most never heard from again. Family members would get no answers and leave the building saddened and hopeless, turning back and seeing huge draperies in Cyrillic Russian script, honoring Communism, hanging off the building, in effect trying to destroy the Latvian language, culture, and dignity.
Remember it for this is what the Soviet Union did.
The KGB headquarters is not a fun museum and exhibition to visit, it ranks in importance with Dachau and other monuments to the horrors created by man. It is right and necessary to keep this house of horrors a living memory for the next generation of freedom loving peoples.
Unfortunately, the KGB Museum is set to close on September 30 of this year. It is not known if the closing will be permanent and rumors abound of turning the building into offices or apartments, or a combination of such.
The trauma inflicted by Communism continues to be felt even a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many Latvians will not visit the Museum. It is simply too painful. To this day, the Latvian government keeps the list of Soviet era collaborators secret, ostensibly because the Latvian people would kill them or at least shun them (there is a large Russian population in Latvia, especially in Riga, and some Latvians collaborated with the Soviet Union either through choice or coercion).
Riga is a beautiful city and worth visiting. Many regard it as an undiscovered gem of Eastern Europe and I have heard it said more than once that Riga is nicer than Paris. There is much to see, do, and admire in Riga and in the surrounding beaches and countryside.
However, the KGB headquarters is a part of Latvian and Cold War history. It should not be closed no matter how painful it is. If anything the youth of Latvia and children from other nations would strongly benefit by experiencing this piece of history. History is painful and truth can be painful, but truth also liberates. Hopefully Latvia, knowing the dangers of a resurgent Russia on its border, will keep the KGB Museum and its painful memories open so that a new generation of Latvians will not experience such horrors.