Europe

Riga, Latvia – Godzilla, the KGB, and Peter Gabriel

It was a hodge-podge of a day…it felt a bit like a weekend in Nashville, except for the KGB bit. We started off by skipping breakfast and headed straight to the movies to see Godzilla. A couple of things about movie watching in Europe. 1) They have reserved seats…which I like. As an ex-box office nut, I hate leaving single seats open and the reserved seat system stops that. Everyone gets all cozy and parties get to stay together: +1 for efficiency. 2) They are proper theaters, with balconies and everything: +1 for style. 3) The 3D googles are amazing: +1 for bad-assery. 4) The have locked down the exiting, so you can’t movie hop. There’s one exit out of the theater that winds you back through the stairwells and, if you are lucky, out into the lobby in front of the ticket takers. We’ve also been booted out into the parking deck before: -1 for stinginess.

20140518-131024.jpgGodzilla was great, by the way. Good fire-breathing monster action.

That hankering for McDonalds hit again…so we ‘treated’ ourselves to some comfort food. 40 euro-cents if you want extra ketchup.

20140518-131330.jpgSomewhere along the way, John had picked up a postcard advertising a tour of the KGB Headquarters, which has been sitting empty for year and years. They’ve recently installed some exhibitions about it’s history. We had decided to skip the Occupation Museum this time round (all of the Baltic countries have one) but the KGB HQ, or The House on the Corner, was too intriguing to pass up. It was a sobering visit. The building has remained empty since several years after WW II; in 2008, the State Police handed over the building to the government’s property agency…no one really knew what to do with it. Unlike the KGB HQ in Tallinn, no one wants to build apartments in it. It’s currently empty, except for a couple of installations the Occupation Museum has installed and, although it is in a state of decay, the past seems very close.

20140518-131743.jpg The “apartment building with shops” was built in 1912, however the Central State Historical Archives, which holds all the Rigan building blueprints, has no documentation of it’s construction. Since 1940, skipping a couple of years during WWII, this building was home to one of the most secretive organizations in the world. In 1940, Internal Investigation prison No 1 was constructed inside the building on the corner. Cells and shooting range down below and interrogation rooms, while located more or less all over the building, were mainly kept to the upper floors.

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An excerpt from the tour’s leaflet

Those arrested were delivered to the cheka (guards) as inconspicuously as possible, often hidden from view in cars with covered windows. Arrests at work were sudden, more frequently they were effected on the street. Relatives were not told about the fate of the missing, The car with the detainee arrived at the KGB building in the courtyard, close to the guardroom door, so it would be impossible to see anything of the yard’s layout. Personal data forms were completed in the guardroom, followed by the detainee being stripped and all their clothing searched; buttons, hooks, zippers cut off, seams ripped open and pockets cut out. Then the detainee was taken through a narrow passage to an almost meter-square, lockable waiting space known as the ‘sobacnik’ – which roughly translates as ‘dog kennel’. After several hours of waiting in brightly lit, hot conditions, detainees were transferred to their prison cell.

20140518-133900.jpgThe large inner courtyard still has the iron gates that guarded against possible intrusion. It was here that prisoners were brought out for walks every ten days for 10-15 minutes. Only one cell at a time was allowed to walk in the 30-step circle, single file, head bowed and arms crossed behind the back, to prevent messages from being passed from cell to cell. The yard was also always kept clear of snow, so that notes could not be hidden.

The stairway without an elevator, closest to the prison cells, had a wire fence stretching from the ground to the 5th floor to prevent suicide leaps. Movement up and down the stairs was controlled carefully; if two prisoners happened to meet, one of them was made to face the wall while the other was led past.

20140518-134453.jpgThe upper-floor front windows of the interrogators’ rooms had narrow nickel gratings to prevent the interrogated from jumping out the window. They had inside curtains, so they were not seen to be barred from the street.

20140518-134810.jpgThe prison had a special boiler built which was operational even during the summer so that detainees lived in their underwear. Cells’ lamps were on day and night…this perpetual heat and light could make people loose their minds.

20140518-135701.jpgThe corridors in the hallways had thick red carpets so that guards’ steps could not be heard and blood traces not seen.

20140518-135830.jpgInterrogations took place during two sessions; from 10am-5pm and 10pm-6am the next morning. Sometimes interrogators provoked suicide attempts, such as jumping out the window, which subsequently served as proof of guilt.

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There were a couple of installations in the building, but the one that stood out to me was A Latvian’s Suitcase. It’s pronounced effect on me probably had something to do with the fact that John and I have been living out of our backpacks for the last 7 weeks, the contents of which came under heavy scrutiny as we were making our packing lists. I can’t tell you how many checklists I researched, articles that I read in preparation for packing these bags. I laid out clothes, matched outfits, packed and repacked…it was quite a deliberate effort. A Latvian’s Suitcase was an exhibit that reveals the items that were important enough to be taken along when refugees left Latvia over the years. Consider this: you have to set off for an unknown land tomorrow. What will you pack in your suitcase? Perhaps you will be back in a few years or in a few decades. What is the most important thing that will help you get by? Over the last 200 years, hundreds of thousands of Latvians have had to answer this question. The items on display ranged from practical to emotional; tools of the trade, cooking implements, silver spoons to trade and then there was the crystal fluted glasses that were a wedding present, photographs and an ear of wheat from a farmer’s field.

There were two items on display that really got to me. The first was confusing at first, it was housed in it’s own special refrigerator and appeared to be a jar of grey gloop. It was a rye bread starter, originally prepared from the crusts of rye bread which was taken along by refugees fleeing Latvia in 1944. Maija Irbens Gilbet left her home in Latvia to avoid the front line. Maija’s family were placed in a transit camp, where her mother saved the crusts of rye bread in a bag all through the years at the camp. In 1950, they arrived in Pennsylvania, where they worked for local farmers. Unhappy with white bread being the only option, Maija’s mother soaked the crusts and made the starter. To this day, Maija keeps the starter in the refrigerator and uses it to bake bread for her family and other Latvians. After she is finished kneading the dough, she scrapes the remains from the bowl and keeps them in a small container in the fridge until the next bread is baked.

The second item is much more emotional than practical. It is a small envelope filled with sand and pine needles. The story is that Elza and Peteris Vilips were married for 4 happy years. However, Elza died unexpectedly after childbirth in 1931. At the end of WW II, Peteris fled as refugees with his second wife and sons. Before leaving Latvia, he took a handful of sand from Elza’s gravesite as a memento of his first wife and his homeland.

I think our most prized possession on this trip, after our passports (practical) and each other (duh) is our statue of Lincoln and Penny. A little piece of home with us.

What would you take?

There was a lot more eerie KGB HQ to go. What made the visit so surreal was that they haven’t done anything with the interior…it’s as it was 50 odd years ago, with the obvious decay. The wallpapers and flooring in the interrogation rooms was lavish and decorative. The KGB had every opportunity to change the interior and the facade of the building when they took it over but the sunny facade on the outside, hiding the horrors inside, seemed to be more their bag. The creepy factor is the ‘slippage’ that has occurred in this building, letting some of the horror peek through.

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After a trip like that…one needs a hotdog and a Peter Gabriel concert. Luckily for us, Riga offered us both. John definitely has some more intelligent things to say about the concert than I do, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself, even though I am not as familiar with Peter Gabriel as John is. Here are some pictures. Also, John would be unhappy if I did not share this fact: No one stands up at rock shows in Latvia. No one. Except for the American in the Wings shirt, who has to be handled by the usher and who pleasantly, patiently and in great detail, explains to said usher where exactly he can place his opinion. A good time was had by all!

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