I was under the impression that the KGB had disbanded in 1991 – but apparently, it, or a version by the same name, is still alive and well in Belarus. Just last month, reports appeared about the Latvian Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB) being concerned about Belarus KGB agent activity in the country. Am I a victim of random Googling, or is there any truth to this, I wonder?
I’ve just been trolling the Net in an effort to discover more about the KGB monument in Riga. The guidebook said it was a memorial on the corner of Stabu and Brīvības. We got to the corner and didn’t see anything resembling a monument. We walked a little ways up Stabu and had passed the door before we realised what it was.
Backtracking, we read the inscription: During the Soviet occupation the state security agency /KGB/ imprisoned, tortured, killed and morally humiliated its victims in this building.
Known as the Stūra māja (the Corner House) the actual address of the former KGB headquarters is Brīvības iela 61. The building itself was apparently originally built as a hotel of ‘questionable repute’. Stabu iela also has an interesting history in that up until 1849, it was the site of a pillory – a wooden framework on a post, with holes for the head and hands, in which
offenders were formerly locked to be exposed to public scorn as punishment. Strange how some places seem to breathe malevolence.
The monument, installed on Stabu iela by the Museum of Occupation of Latvia to commemorate those who died there during Soviet occupation is known locally as the Melnais slieksnis (the black threshold, or the black door). It looks like a door half-open, a door no one in the their right mind would want to pass through. It is said that from the rooftop you can see Siberia – and many of those who did pass through its doors ended up there, never to return. In the first year of Soviet occupation, about 300 Latvians are said to have been held here.
Freelance journalist Aleks Tapinsh describes the building as such: The building is designed to trip your senses. The labyrinth-like layout of the basement makes you realize you wouldn’t know where to run if you decided to escape. The three elevators inside located in such a way that you may never seen another inmate, or you wouldn’t even know you are being taken into the dreaded basement. Undoubtedly, the Soviet secret police improved on the architecture and design to suit its own needs and established a process to control the population.
Back in 2012, The Guardian ran a piece on Latvian Boris Karpichkov, former KGB operative and double agent. It makes fascinating reading. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d worked out of this building and what he knew of what went on inside its walls.
Nearly 20 years ago, in 2004, the Latvian government decided to make public all KGB files. Prior to this, while each individual could see their own file, files were only made public if you were thinking of running for public office or joining some law enforcement agency. According to Latvian law, anyone with a KGB record could not stand for public office for 10 years. As the KGB was officially ‘retired’ in 1991, the statute of limitations has run out on this one. Twice, though, it cost people their parliamentary posts: two Social Democrat MPs, Juris Bojars and Janis Adamsons, in 1993 and 2000, respectively. Both had worked for the KGB. (I tell kids to watch what they post on Facebook and Twitter as an innocent comment now might ruin their chances of presidency in 30 years time. How far we’ve come!)
There was concern that releasing the files would open old wounds. At the time, Indulis Zalite, director of the Centre for the Documentation of the Consequences of Totalitarianism, pointed out in a BBC interview that the files were incomplete and didn’t contain information on those responsible for the atrocities of the 1940s and 1950s. He maintained that ‘Making this information public today is unfair to all those people who simply played by the government’s rules.’ A heady thought.
TheCeļotājs website quotes a few lines from the artist who designed it, Gļeb Pantelejev: With time all secrets become known. It is human nature to expose secrets, especially if the secret of much suffering. Behind the Chekha door we are confronted by a black wall – the monolith of inconceivable suffering – unknowable or understandable. For future generations it will not be the abode of the Chekha. It will be history. Our duty is to leave a message that is not self-serving, a missive that is an antidote against the recurrence of similar tragedy. Our successors must not only know but they must emphasize.
Must not only know, they must emphasize… I have to agree with that.