KGB building and cells
More background info:
in general see under KGB
and cf. KGB Museum in Vilnius
, the KGB Cells in Tallinn
and the KGB Museum in Tartu
. Of all these, I think the Riga KGB building retains the most original feel and place authenticity, as there is very little interference in the form of commodification, not even much in terms of interpretative panels. Instead the bulk of background information is provided by live guides. The exhibition part that is accessible without a guide, on the other hand, is smaller in scope than the bigger Occupation Museums in the three Baltic capitals.
But let’s start at the beginning. The building as such was designed in 1910 and construction was completed in 1912. Architecturally it blends in with Riga’s famous Art Nouveau style while also featuring some classicist elements. It was originally meant to be a residential apartment building with shops, a library and a pharmacy on the ground floor, and a music society also occupied part of it. But all this was short-lived. During the Latvian War of Independence a war committee used the building and from 1920, following Latvia
’s gaining independence that year, various government ministries and departments moved in.
After the USSR
occupied Latvia in 1940/41, the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB
, took over the building and adapted it to its new purposes: the political repression of opponents of the communist regime, their interrogation and incarceration. Thousands accused of political crimes became victims of this reign of terror. During this period executions also took place here.
When the Soviets had fled in the summer of 1941 and the Nazi German
occupation of Latvia began, some government agencies of the Nazi
-appointed puppet regime of Latvia used the building as well as a student organization calling itself “National Watch”. They collected documentary evidence of what happened here during the months the Soviets used it and in May 1944 they even briefly opened an exhibition of their findings.
But then the Soviets came back in 1944, the Red Army took over and after WWII
the building again became the seat of the NKVD, later KGB
, right up until 1991. Some cells were refitted and the execution chamber removed and repurposed. In this period executions took place elsewhere (in the central prison or in Moscow).
All but one entrance to the building were only usable by KGB members, just the entrance on the corner of Brīvības iela and Stabu iela could be used by ordinary members of the public (who needed a permit to enter). That’s why the building became known under the epithet the Corner House. There was also a mailbox where people could leave enquiries about arrested relatives – or denunciations, which the communist regime strongly encouraged.
All through the Soviet
era the Corner House remained a feared edifice. Inside some 200 prisoners could be held in the cells, though at times they were overcrowded beyond capacity. Interrogations were carried out on the first floor or on upper floors connected by a special lift (see below
) and stairs that were secured by wire mesh to prevent suicide attempts.
After the end of the Soviet era when Latvia
became an independent state again, the former KGB building was taken over by the State Police who occupied it until 2007. After that the Corner House stood abandoned for years.
The monument “Black threshold” that commemorates the victims of the KGB
and that you can see to the side of the building on Stabu iela was unveiled in 2003.
was European Capital of Culture in 2014, the former KGB building was partially opened to the public for the first time and various exhibitions were held inside. When I first visited Riga in the spring of 2014 my timing was rather unlucky: I missed the initial opening of the building by just a couple of days. I walked past it and had a look at the memorial to the side, but the building's doors were all still firmly locked.
(Somewhat disturbingly there was a drone hovering over the building, probably doing some present-day surveillance – but when I aimed by own zoom lens at it, it suddenly disappeared out of view. Spooky!)
In 2015, the KGB building was put under the auspices of the Latvian Occupation Museum
. A permanent exhibition was set up and on its website you could go on an excellent English-language virtual tour
(external link – opens in a new window).
Also in 2015, the building’s façade was given a facelift and was repainted in the colours it originally had – see the difference in the photo gallery
While the ground floor and the basement remain in the hands of the Museum of Occupation
, the rest of the building was put up for auction in 2020, probably to return it to its original use for residential apartments. But apparently it wasn’t easy to find a buyer. When I was there on my second trip to Riga
in the summer of 2021, there was still no indication of any of the five floors above the KGB museum being in any way occupied. All windows looked blank and the rooms behind them empty. What will become of those floors remains to be seen.
But the ground-floor exhibition and guided tours of the cell tracts, including the basement, have become a top dark attraction in this city that is already so rich in dark-tourism appeal.
What there is to see:
From the outside, the KGB
building in Riga
looks quite inconspicuous, very much like the many other large tenement buildings of the district, except that the fact that all windows at street level are barred and you can’t look in could be seen as an indication that there might be something sinister lurking inside.
When you come to the corner at Stabu iela, where the entrance is, a simple sign in Latvian and English states “Exhibition – History of KGB Operations in Latvia” … the Latvian equivalent, I noticed, used the term “Cheka” instead of “KGB” – that was the original informal name of the first incarnation of Soviet secret police organizations, founded in 1917 under the leadership of Felix Dzerzhinsky (cf. Museum of the History of the Political Police
in St Petersburg
I went to see this site in late July 2021 and had booked a place on one of the guided tours of the cell tracts, but I arrived with plenty of time to spare so I went through the freely accessible exhibition first. At the reception window I was instructed to go to the end of the exhibition where the guide would collect the participants for the tour. In the anteroom behind the entrance there was a special exhibition about letters confiscated by the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB
) during the first Soviet
occupation of Latvia
in 1940/41. This was mostly a virtual exhibition accessible via a couple of interactive screens.
In the main exhibition hall a series of large photo-and-text panels are suspended from the ceiling and affixed to the walls. These cover the history of the building, the structure of the “Cheka” (NKVD/KGB), political persecution, resistance (esp. by the so-called “Forest Brothers”), surveillance, the Iron Curtain
and they also point out other related memorials and museums (e.g. the KGB Museum
, the Terror House
or the Stasi Museum
). All texts are trilingual, in Latvian, English and Russian. The English translations are not perfect but sufficient to get the information across.
In addition there is a screen on which a number of eyewitness testimonies are played (subtitled in English). Moreover a model of the Riga Central Prison is on display together with photos from there, including of the exhumation of executed prisoners in July 1941.
The guide turned up more or less on time and checked the bookings and Covid passes/certificates before the tour started. There were only four visitors plus the guide, who spoke good English and was competent, approachable and informative. Since we were such a small group, keeping one’s distance was no problem. And everybody wore face masks.
Just inside the ground-floor cell tract a special elevator was pointed out to us, in particular the fact that the wood-panelled interior had an extra lockable compartment. It was in this lift that suspects/prisoners were transported from here to interrogation rooms on the upper floors.
The first room we were led into was an administration office with some office furniture including a large filing cabinet. The drawers were partly open and you could see victims’ confiscated personal effects inside. The desk had some communication gear, in particular an old telephone without a dial, just a single button, presumably the direct line to the top (or Moscow
even). Also on display were a couple of old monitors and some fingerprint sheets. On the wall hang several blow-ups of prisoner mugshots.
Then we carried on into the cell tract, and were shown several cells of different sizes, some larger ones for multiple inmates as well as single cells plus some windowless, dark isolation cells.
Also windowless is the interrogation room we were led to on the ground floor. This had rather incongruous silver-patterned wallpaper and a single desk in the middle with a truncheon on it. Behind the desk was a large mirror on one wall concealing an observation chamber behind it.
All the corridors and cells have been left in their original state, so there’s plenty of peeling paint and rust, and very little “interference”. Interpretation is largely left to the guide’s narration. Only here and there have additional photos and plaques been added, e.g. a grim one of multiple execution by hanging posted on a wall near the isolation cells. One of the larger cells also has a photo of what this used to look like at the time it was in use in 1941.
But back to the tour. This continued to a door behind which are stairs down into an open-air “tiger cage” exercise yard in the smaller of the two courtyards of the building, this being located adjacent to the neighbouring building. Hence it was made sure that nobody from that neighbouring house could get a look into this courtyard. A large wooden barrier on the wall above the courtyard blocks the view. Metal stairs lead up to the guard positions atop the tiger cages, which gives the whole set-up an even grimmer atmosphere.
On the walls out here is a supplementary exhibition about Writings on Cell Walls, as recorded by the “National Guard” (probably the same as the “National Watch” mentioned above
). Twelve individual cases of inmates who left such scratchings on the wall are pointed out. These were discovered in 1941/42 after the Soviets temporarily left, together with the remaining prisoners. The mugshots of these individuals also on display here were, however, taken later in other prisons in the USSR
Back inside the Corner House the tour continued on the ground floor with yet more cells, before going down a staircase into the basement. The cellar cells are every bit as grim, at least.
Also in the basement is a kitchen with a big tiled stove and a collection of kitchen utensils from the time of the prison. Some photos on the wall illustrate what the kitchen looked like when it was in use.
Back on the ground floor follow yet more cells. And at one point you get a view of the larger inner courtyard with the gate through which vans would have taken prisoners here. In one room is a large filing cabinet or safe.
And then comes the very darkest bit of the whole complex: the execution room in which many prisoners were shot during the first Soviet occupation. During the second occupation executions were not carried out here but in the Riga Central Prison (see above) and later in Moscow
. On one wall are more mugshots and a list of 30 victims who were executed here between January and June 1941.
A reconstructed door to the ex-execution chamber stands unconnected to any walls in the middle of the room. This part of the KGB building was much altered from 1944, that’s why. Also the walls were covered to hide any bullet hole traces. But on the far wall some of these coverings have been peeled back to reveal meticulously marked bullet holes in the wood panelling. A photo from 1941 shows what the chamber looked like in 1941, complete with the very door and floor tiles you can still see today, as well as a “blood drain” in a corner.
Finally, you can step into the driveway behind the outer gate through which vans would have brought in victims. Then we were let out through a different door leading to an exit further down from the Stabu iela corner. So if you haven’t yet seen the exhibition, you’ll have to walk back to that corner with the main entrance and re-enter there.
You may also want to walk round the corner into Stabu iela to visit the 2003 memorial monument to the victims of the Latvian KGB.
All in all, the tour of the Riga KGB building stands as probably the darkest experience that is to be had in this city that already has so many other dark sites. Highly recommended!
And how does it compare to its equivalents in the other Baltic countries? Well, it quite easily beats the much, much smaller KGB Cells exhibition
, although the KGB Cells in Tartu
are a bit closer, though also nowhere near as authentic and grim in their atmosphere. The cell tract and execution chamber parts of the KGB Museum
, are almost on a par with their Riga equivalent, perhaps. But on balance I would say that the Riga KGB cells tour offers the higher degree of unadulterated place authenticity, while the Vilnius museum offers a lot more in terms of commodification that doesn’t require a guide but offers more conventional textual information. Personally, though, I preferred the approach chosen in Riga.
virtually bang in the city centre on the corner of Stabu and Brīvības iela, just a couple of blocks north of Riga
's Old Town.
Access and costs: the cell tracts are accessible by guided tour only and these are reasonably priced.
Details: to get to the KGB building from the Old Town and city centre it’s easiest to walk it. Brīvības iela is the main thoroughfare leading from the edge of the Old Town and the Freedom Monument through the city in a north-easterly direction. From the monument it’s 1 km (0.6 miles). The nearest bus stops are on Stabu iela (lines 50, 20).
Note that the guided tours are not suitable for visitors with mobility issues as they involve navigating various stairs.
Guided tours in English take place four times daily at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.; these start at the end of the exhibition, not in the reception area! Tickets currently have to be pre-purchased online for specific time slots.
You have to be there 10 minutes before the start of the tour. At the time of writing strict Covid-19 restriction are in place: only people in possession of a valid digital Latvian Covid certificate are allowed on the tour (obtainable online), and you have to show ID before being admitted on the tour. Face masks are mandatory too.
The fee for the guided tour is 10 EUR (students 4 EUR).
Not recommended for children under the age of 12.
The historical exhibition in the rooms outside the cell tracts is nominally freely accessible, but a “voluntary donation” is asked for.
Opening times: from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; closed 18 November, over the entire Christmas period as well as on New Year’s Eve/Day.
Time required: the guided tours of the Corner House last about one hour; going through the exhibition in the anterooms takes about another half an hour or so, perhaps a bit longer if you want to read/watch everything in full detail.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Riga
Combinations with non-dark destinations: there is some grand architecture to be seen in this district including some marvellous examples of Latvian Art Nouveau, especially to the south-west on and around Ģertrūdes iela.
It’s also a fairly easy walk to Riga’s principal mainstream tourist area, the fabled Old Town.
See under Riga
- Riga KGB building 01 - back in 2014
- Riga KGB building 02 - refurbished in 2021
- Riga KGB building 03 - inside
- Riga KGB building 04 - exhibition
- Riga KGB building 05 - symbol
- Riga KGB building 06 - old wood-panelling
- Riga KGB building 07 - film and exhibits
- Riga KGB building 08 - guided tour commences
- Riga KGB building 09 - lift
- Riga KGB building 10 - office
- Riga KGB building 11 - direct line
- Riga KGB building 12 - old monitors
- Riga KGB building 13 - cabinet
- Riga KGB building 14 - confiscated personal belongings
- Riga KGB building 15 - fingerprints
- Riga KGB building 16 - cell tract on the ground floor
- Riga KGB building 17 - inside of a cell
- Riga KGB building 18 - larger cell with peephole in the thick wall
- Riga KGB building 19 - interrogation room
- Riga KGB building 20 - grim
- Riga KGB building 21 - spartan isolation cell
- Riga KGB building 22 - even grimmer
- Riga KGB building 23 - into the tiger cage courtyard
- Riga KGB building 24 - fresher air but not much more fun
- Riga KGB building 25 - looking up
- Riga KGB building 26 - guard access
- Riga KGB building 27 - closed courtyard door
- Riga KGB building 28 - peeping through
- Riga KGB building 29 - padded door
- Riga KGB building 30 - down to the basement
- Riga KGB building 31 - more cells in the basement
- Riga KGB building 32 - kitchen
- Riga KGB building 33 - kitchen utensils
- Riga KGB building 34 - stairs
- Riga KGB building 35 - the grimness continues
- Riga KGB building 36 - dark cell
- Riga KGB building 37 - controls
- Riga KGB building 38 - view of the other courtyard
- Riga KGB building 39 - barred cell windows
- Riga KGB building 40 - card file safe
- Riga KGB building 41 - final door
- Riga KGB building 42 - execution chamber
- Riga KGB building 43 - behind the garage door
- Riga KGB building 44 - memorial monument outside