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…