I spent more time than usual hanging out in Riga this summer. A couple of blocks from where I always stay is ‘Stūra māja’ (‘the corner house’), as the KGB building was colloquially known. This year it was opened up to the public for the first time since independence in 1991. On the corner of Stabu iela and Brīvības, it was built as a rather grand apartment building about a hundred years ago.
But from 1940-41, and again from 1944-1991,it was where the KGB “imprisoned, tortured, killed and morally humiliated its victims”, as the inscription on the austere bronze memorial outside reads. There are several fascinating temporary exhibitions in the building, the most important of which includes some grimly compelling filmed accounts of their treatment by some of Stūra māja’s survivors, including a group whose only ‘crime’ was to be interested in French culture.
The only way to see much of the building is on a guided tour. The constantly-lit, unsanitary cells, the area where people were shot (before the killing was outsourced to Moscow), the cramped exercise area with its wire-mesh covering, the interrogation rooms, all make for a truly grim via dolorosa. We all know what the KGB was like, what they did – or we think we do – but the incredible procedural and administrative detail our guide went into made it so much more vivid and gruesomely real. As Glebs Pantelejevs, designer of the memorial says: “Behind the Chekka door we are confronted by a black wall – the monolith of inconceivable suffering – unknowable or understandable.”