History’s lessons spill from basement walls in Latvia – Feature

31 Jan 2008
Riga – Russian-language signs adorn the walls of the narrow hallways that zigzag through a dirty, dusty basement under dim lights between tight cells in the most notorious building in the Latvian capital, Riga. Under Soviet occupation, the five-storey building housed the regional KGB offices, instilling so much fear in Latvian residents that no one dared utter its real name.

Instead, everyone, including Anita Liepa, called it “the corner house.”

Liepa spent some time in the basement in 1958, being interrogated for so-called “anti-Soviet activities” after the Soviet authorities arrested her for searching for missing relatives in Siberia.

Following Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the state police moved into the building – originally built at the dawn of the last century as a hotel of questionable repute, state police employee Henrijs Rabkins told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Now that the state police is preparing to pack up and move into a modern facility, local media have launched a debate into what should happen with the building where many Latvians were tortured, killed and intimidated.

Part of the split-level basement still serves as remand cells for those who are awaiting a court hearing.

Russian-language signs still hang on walls that experienced the horrors, but which now remain silent.

Only former political prisoners tell the tales of what it was like to be imprisoned in the infamous “corner house.”

Anita Liepa spent a total of seven months in the basement in 1958. She thinks it should be converted into a museum dedicated to political prisoners.

Soviet troops swept into the Baltics in 1940, and Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of people to die in Siberian gulags.

Although precise information is not available, historians suggest at least 300 Latvians were processed at the corner house in the first year of the Soviet occupation.

Latvia’s neighbours – Estonia and Lithuania – created museums in places where Estonians and Lithuanians were tortured.

In the Estonian town of Tartu, the former KGB prison has been turned into a museum. The building housed the southern Estonia KGB headquarters in the 1940s and 1950s.

In the Lithuanian capital, the old KGB prison has been turned into a museum devoted to victims of genocide.

The old tsarist Russian court building in the centre of Vilnius housed both KGB and Gestapo interrogation rooms.

All three Baltic states, who joined the European Union in 2004, are now seeking the EU’s recognition of the totalitarian crimes committed in their territory.

Lithuania and Latvia have formed commissions in an effort to calculate the cost of their occupation by the Soviet Union and to seek reparation from Russia, as the successor state, for damages caused during the 50-year Soviet occupation.

“I think we should continue to wait for an apology,” Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said recently.

“An apology that comes from the heart. The best compensation for Estonia would be when Russia becomes a democratic state where European values are honoured.”

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