Ask Latvians about the Corner House and take time to listen

This museum  – the former KGB headquarters in Rīga – is not for the disinterested or the deeply traumatized by Latvia’s totalitarian past. In the first group, you quickly realize that this is a very somber space. Every room has soaked up fears, tears and witnessed intimidation, humiliation, broken lives and tortured consciences… For the second group, it is still too difficult and painful to be inside these walls.

The building is a nice example of Art Nouveau architecture, built in 1911 and has served many purposes, but for most of the people in Latvia, it is simply The Corner House. If there was any address that people feared being taken to during the Soviet regime, it was this street corner! The Corner!

Now the otherwise beautiful building has been repainted but the face-lift is on the outside. For many years it stood empty and ignored (and it is still an open question what to do with it). I first visited the Corner House and the KGB prison cells in 2014 when it opened its heavy and intimidating doors to the visitors – local and foreign. First I joined a tour guide speaking in English and got to hear the story as if I was an ‘outsider’. It is a very interesting and revealing experience to try to see your own story with ‘outsider’s’ eyes. At times I wanted to correct the guide if I felt she was not telling the story “correctly” but I resisted this temptation. There is no “correct” way of telling the story but it is important to get the facts as straight as possible and let the people draw conclusions by themselves.

Second time I went to the Corner House together with my grandmother. She was never arrested or imprisoned but she knew people who had been held and tortured by the KGB in these prison cells. This time it was a Latvian speaking group and completely different experience. I could see lots of emotions in my grandmother’s face and those from the older generations. They politely listened to the guide’s stories even though it was difficult to avoid some interruptions and comments. The older generation has lots and lots of stories for anyone who is willing to listen.

The younger visitors were at times visibly shocked. They walked through the cellar as this was a movie. When we went to the upper floors where the KGB operatives and interrogators had their nice and sunny offices, our attention was drawn to the window bars. Installed to make sure that nobody jumps out the window from the 4th or 5th floor! It speaks for itself what kind of place this was where people would try to jump and rather kill themselves.

The English and Latvian speaking tours were very different but both had to do with memories and remembering. How to remember rightly? What do we tell the foreigners and what do we want them to know and to reflect upon? What do we tell Latvians and how do we want to remember this period? How to address and heal the pain of those who suffered from the KGB? How to bring peace to those who ‘broke’ and became KGB informants?  What brings redemption to those who worked for the KGB?

The Corner House does not intimidate anymore but somehow it still casts a dark shadow. And it stands there as a big question mark, “what are we going to do with this KGB past?” My answer? It is more than time for Latvia to turn this particular corner!

The truth shall set us free and it will help us to heal. And I am happy that the process has begun…

Why the right to vote is my privilege

Election day in Latvia is coming to an end… the important part is behind us but the interesting part is still ahead. The polling booths have closed. Now all is left is to wait for the results.

I have bittersweet feelings. While voting today at the nearby polling station, I was thinking about my 95 year old grandmother who stayed at home and was not able to cast her vote. Not able because of the advanced dementia. I knew that I probably could find her passport, dress her, walk down the stairs, stand in line and help her to do the talking, registering and voting. Yet somehow it did not feel right (and probably not even legal) since the person is so confused that they cannot make their own decisions anymore. I did not want to “use” my grandmother to get her to vote for the party I chose to support.

So, I voted for both of us. I mean, I felt double responsibility. My grandmother has lived a long life and she has given a lot for me and others to have the best life we can. She has risked her life in the years when it was not allowed to have your own political views not matching the Communist party. She aided the Latvian underground resistance groups after WWII which meant to live in hiding for few years when she was found out. Later she became a devout Christian and joined a Baptist church at a time when religious people were persecuted. My grandmother was not perfect and we have disagreed on many issues but I  always knew that she is courageous and passionate. She was not one to just stand by.

And I don’t want to stand by either. Latvia is a free and democratic country with its own challenges and faults and there is plenty to improve. Nevertheless, the life here has never been so peaceful, stable and secure. And the right and the responsibility to vote and participate in the present and future of this nation is not something to take lightly. I know that it sounds very cliche but there are many countries around the world where ordinary citizens don’t get to decide. For them my life and freedom is a dream.

For many years I lived in Thailand where for the first time in my life I experienced a military coup in 2014. And the country still has not had free elections and there is no sign of a change. People with military background now have 143 seats of 250 member parliament in Thailand. So, it is very easy for me to compare and to know what kind of “democracy” I don’t want. It is “peace and order” by might.

Yes, we have the ugly side of our democracy and every election year highlights the usual problems – the examples of corruption, the lack of transparency, mutual respect, wise compromise, norms of civility, problems with lobbies and shady money, etc. And we get the expected response from voters  – from protest votes for populists to apathy and those who don’t even bother. But I believe that many of our negative responses and attitudes come from not counting our blessings.

Today I voted. My grandmother will be proud of me. Just as I am proud of her. The Latvia she dreamed off is mine to nurture, to protect and to cherish.