The 'Corner House' reveals its secrets at last

Remembrance of the Communist occupation era in the former Soviet bloc tends to fall into one of two categories – either the worthy but grim exhibits of official museums or the airbrushed kitsch of the 'ostalgia' industry, where tourists find it fun to dress up as komissars and eat lunch beneath a statue of Lenin.

But in the centre of the Latvian capital, right on Brivibas iela (Freedom street) a different approach is being taken in a huge, hundred-year-old building that retains a trace of art nouveau elegance despite its grimy orange exterior.

It was considered one of the most desirable addresses in Riga when construction was started in 1910. Designed by Aleksandrs Vanags, one of the most talented of Latvia's remarkable crop of young architects in the early years of the twentieth century and located in the heart of the city, no expense was spared to fill almost a whole city block with elegant apartments, shops and the very latest infrastructure including electric lifts.

Yet within thirty years it had become the least desirable address in the whole of Latvia – a place so awful that people refused even to refer to it by name.

The official address is 61 Brivibas street, but for generations the house has been known by a different name: 'Stura maja' or the 'Corner house.'

The name is euphemistically banal because a visit to the Corner House was anything but. The headquarters of the Soviet KGB – universally referred to as the 'Cheka' – from 1940, the apartments and shops were converted into offices administering a vast bureaucracy of oppression and dozens of cells, some large, some no bigger than a wardrobe. The pleasant residence of well-to-do burghers was transformed into a vast labyrinth of terror through which thousands of Latvians passed over half a century and from which dozens only emerged dead.

Empty and almost ignored for more than a decade – a slab-faced memorial to victims is easy to walk past without even noticing – the Corner House has at last been opened as part of Riga's tenure as a European Capital of Culture in 2014.

In the first of many instances of grim irony the Corner House and its contents reveal to visitors, Vanags was himself executed by the Bolsheviks in 1919 aged just 46 for the catch-all crime of “counter-revolutionary activities.”

The first thing greeting visitors as they enter via a door right at the corner of the two huge intersecting facades (which originally gave rise to the nickname) is a wooden box. This is where pieces of paper serving two very different but interlinked purposes were deposited. One sort was a request for information about relatives believed to be held in the building. Through the same slot, denunciations of friends, neighbours and work colleagues were deposited.

The unassuming box is emblematic of the whole tale that unfolds on the ground floor through a series of information boards from which the faces of the Cheka's victims stare back from their interrogation photos, sometimes defiant, more often scared or exhausted. The overwhelming impression is that whatever else they were, the Cheka were appallingly effective in creating a society suffused with distrust and paranoia.

“The main reaction we get is shock,” says Aija Abens, a guide leading the way through the exhibition and down towards the untouched basement cells where people were kept locked up for days or weeks at a time in conditions little better than a medieval dungeon.

“Some people come then decide not to set foot inside. Some people break down in tears. That's when we realise that they or their relatives must have been held here. Visitors from places like East Germany understand all too well – they had the Stasi – but sometimes we get visitors from Russia who just don't believe any of it, who think it is all made up, though we also get Russian visitors who say it has really opened their eyes. We showed the former staff canteen on one tour and one of the visitors said: 'Yes, but the food was good.' We didn't say anything but how could you have known that unless you were one of the staff?”

Despite her familiarity with the scene, even Abens is visibly emotional at the scene of the former execution chamber, a small room with a high ceiling and no windows.

“The walls were thickly padded. It's located right by the door to the yard so a truck would be parked next to it with the motor running to help cover the noise of the bullets. Then the body would be put in the back of the truck and driven away immediately. There's a drain in the corner of the room so the blood could be cleaned up quickly, ready to use again,” she says.

Some visitors have left flowers at the door where they are already starting to wither.

Later, the Cheka killed their victims elsewhere. So they converted the former execution cell to serve as a shop where KGB men could buy their cigarettes.

 

Bright Future

But just a few floors above, on the sixth storey, the atmosphere is different. Freshly-painted corridors seem almost dazzlingly white after the dull browns, shadows and low-watt bulbs of the basement.

The contrast between the very real human tragedy of the lower levels and the rarefied, sometimes self-indulgent world of modern art on the upper levels could easily seem crass. Luckily, the curators have managed to avoid that by including not only sober meditations on state power and personal freedom but artworks by precisely the sort of people who passed through the corner house: deportees, forced exiles and prisoners. Some are even funny - witness the bawdy internment camp cartoons of Juris Barkans – while others such as the pencil sketches of Alfejs Bromults reveal a delicacy and sensitivity entirely at odds with their subject matter of life in the Siberian Gulag.

Studying one of the artworks is Melanie Carter, a visitor from Florida in the United States.

“Until I arrived in Latvia I knew very little about the history. I'm so impressed by the effort, imagination and creativity that has gone into this,” she says, “It's an extraordinary project given the building was used for such a horrifying purpose.”

The constant drone emitted by one installation perhaps explains why Juris has taken refuge at the extreme end of the corridor, in a room that still retains one of the original, glorious bay windows offering a panoramic view of the city. A pensioner whose natty yellow scarf identifies him as one of the Riga 2014 staff, Juris has a ready smile that is particularly refreshing after a visit to the lower levels.

Asked what people think when he tells them he is working at the Corner House, he chuckles:“Of course they say I must have become a Chekist.”

“But really you can't blame a building for its past, can you? Look at this room, it must have been a very nice place to sit at one time, and that's all I'm doing now. What happened in the past has happened, and what happens in the future remains to be seen,” he says.

He has a point. If there can be said to be a hero in the Corner House's story, it is perhaps the house itself. Passing through its corridors and down its stairwells, one occasionally catches glimpses of meticulous art nouveau tiling and elaborate plasterwork amongst the mass of thick paint, crude brickwork and warped laminate typical of Soviet-era 'improvements'.

The House on the Corner outlived its architect, then survived decades of use and abuse at the hands of those who killed its creator. Left abandoned for years, a perpetual headache for town planners, municipal authorities and central government, none of whom seem to know what to do with it, it is making the most of its year of openness.

Despite the success of the Riga 2014 project – tickets sold out during the first month the Corner house was open, its future remains as uncertain as ever. The building's history is enough to turn away even the most craven property developer and its sheer size would make any renovation a mammoth task – and that's before heating bills are even considered.

Knuts Skujenieks, a renowned Latvian writer and former political prisoner himself is among those who believe the Corner House should become a permanent museum.

“It is true that the building's aura isn't very good, but I believe the city needs this aura,” says Skujenieks, “You can't escape history. I can't remember where everything was but I want to see the cell where I was held the first time I was arrested.”

Like the country and the capital in which it stands, it has been through a lot and could easily have been destroyed, but with such powers of resilience and endurance you wouldn't bet against the Corner House still standing there in another hundred years' time.

(The Corner House is open until October 19. Full details of opening times and ticket prices are available at www.riga2014.org/kgb)

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