Saturday, 2 May 2015

KGB Corner house in Riga - sinister stories from occupied Latvia

Food is very much in the centre of my travels.  Already because, well, one has to eat (and that's something I love!), but also because it is culture.

What and how people eat tells so  much of any country's and nation's history. In Japan, for instance, meat was traditionally reserved for the upper classes and still today, it's not widely consumed. In Israel the popularity pickled fish enjoys is the result of the Ashkenazi background of its founding fathers - in Northern and Eastern Europe that was an essential way of preserving fish in harsh climates.

Spices used in different countries' cuisines tell of ancient trading routes, the preparation methods of local climate. Adoption of certain dishes and influences tell of contacts with other cultures. In many cases, for instance in the case of my beloved Andalusia, local culinary legacy catalogues centuries old traditions and impact left behind of the foreign conquerors.

Food is love and sharing that love. Food is also something that we all have in common. So, it organically creates a safe environment to get to know new people and cultures. 

But I do make an effort to squeeze in some "proper" culture and local history, too. In Latvia's case it is impossible to disregard the Soviet occupation and the way the atrocities committed during that era have shaped the country today.

A place worth visiting in Riga is old KGB headquarters located at the corner of Brīvības iela- and Stabu iela streets, known to locals as the Corner House. Today the building functions as a museum recounting the reality under the rule of a paranoid tyrant: one where human life is cheap, only one, violently imposed truth exists and freedom means succumbing to brutal brain-washing.

In a bitter twist the famous Latvian architect Aleksandrs Vanags who designed the building was himself executed by Soviet-backed troops in 1919, the year following Latvia's Declaration of Independence, deemed "too pro-West".

The basement of the building was the scene of torture and killings. The exact number of the dead is impossible to give, but nearly 100 000 Latvians lost their lives during the decades of Soviet Union's pedagogic pursuits.

Still today the atmosphere in the corridors and cells makes one's skin crawl.

Just imagine being walked down these steps... be greeted by this view? I got separated from the rest of the group for a moment and I can tell you raced back those stairs as hard as I could.

The museum is privately funded with donations, which guarantees its political independence.

Visits here are part of school's curriculum. Knowing the past is key to understanding presence and anticipating the future.

And the tragic stories of the campaign of terror are something that should never be forgotten. Especially now, in the light of recent events in the region. 

Soviet era, sowing seeds of suspicion and fear harnessed people to serve its awful agenda. Neighbours and family members were encouraged to turn against each other and turn in anyone suspected of anti-regime activities. Such as listening to wrong kind of radio channel. 

The suspects would then be invited here for a friendly chat to remind them of the only correct and right way of thinking.

Most of whom were never to be seen again. 

For some reason KGB left all their archives behind. In Latvia they will be made open to public after the research concludes in 2018 and people will finally have the chance to know what happened to their loved ones. 

As Latvia regained their independence in 1991, the country had a clear plan for their future. Too many times they'd bitterly learnt that peace treaties with Soviet were not worth the paper they were signed on. They no longer had the luxury of believing the illusions about our neighbour next door and its true goals. Instead they made a clean break and chose West: Nato and EU. This is something they're not afraid to say out loud, either: "proud to be European" is a slogan you, too, will probably encounter on your visit.

As The Boy Next Door so eloquently put it: today Latvia is in good hands; Latvian hands.

My, my. What an experience. How did it leave you guys feeling?

Let's take a little break from touring for a moment and give you guys a breather, shall we? Let's meet back here for more scenes of Latvia on Monday, ok? 





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