One of the buildings I was introduced to on arriving in Latvia was Stūra Māja, ‘the Corner House’. It was in late October when I first saw it on a dark evening at the end of a rather grey day. I was told it was the former KGB headquarters and no one wanted to rent it or use it because of its past associations. It is quite ironic that, for me at least, architecturally it is potentially one of the most beautiful buildings I have seen in Riga, but the beauty is marred by the fact that, especially at night, the light-less windows seem to my childish imagination to make the rounded turrets look like skulls with lifeless sockets where the eyes had been.
Earlier this year advertisements appeared saying that for some months up until the autumn of 2014 the Stūra Māja would be opened to the public. There would be guided tours of the cells, and exhibitions would be held on the upper floors. It would also be possible, so we were told, to enter through the door on the corner and receive the simple entry card that visitors to that building used to receive when it was operational, and see, amongst other things, the ‘suggestion’ box, where people could inform on others, their neighbours, friends or family.
In typical Latvian fashion, the exhibitions are unusual yet thought-provoking in their approach. The turbulent history of Latvia during the late 19th and 20th century is told through featuring 10 objects, including a cigarette case and a typewriter. Most moving for me, because of its very personal touch, is the exhibition called ‘The Latvian’s Suitcase’, which features some of the actual things that Latvians have packed when either being taken suddenly, or going into exile. During the visit you are encouraged to write your own list of things you might take with you on such a journey, and it is moving to read, in many different languages, the hurriedly scribbled packing lists which people have written, and the objects, sometimes more sentimental than practical, that people regard as their treasured possessions.
Our guide on the journey through the cells described in flawless English, and in an unnervingly matter of fact way the conditions of those who found themselves in the cells. For me, almost as interesting as what we saw, was watching this young Latvian woman. She was clearly an evangelist, she wanted the world to know what had happened in her country, she even encouraged people to take photographs. One could imagine that on another day, in another generation, she might have ended up in one of these cells herself. It seemed to me that we tourists who followed her, walked around quietly almost as if we were on holy ground, and as we climbed from the basement to the sixth floor and sat down for the first and only time on the tour, our guide turned on a small CD player and from it came the glorious sounds of an organ playing the cantata, written in 1944 by Latvians Lūcija Garūta and Andrejs Eglītis, called ‘Dievs, Tava zeme deg’ ‘O God, Your land is burning’. When it was first performed, it captured the imagination and mood of Latvians who made it their own deeply passionate prayer to God on behalf of their land and country.
As we concluded the tour, we ended on a ‘lighter’ note by the guide telling us a rather grim joke that was current during the time the building was in use. The questioner asks, ‘From where do you get the best view in Riga?’ and was answered with: ‘From the windows of the Stūra Māja, you can see Siberia from there.’
…and so the journey ended and I’m aware that in telling the story I have not done the whole experience justice. As I re-read this post, it is far too descriptive, and I doubt that I have communicated the emotions that were stirred – partly, possibly, because I have difficulty in naming them myself. However, I have included the photograph at the top of this piece, taken in one of the rooms of the Stūra Māja because, in a way I can’t describe, it goes some way to evoke the starkness and grimness of this quite remarkable experience.
( If you are in Riga and want to visit, you need to allow a lot of time to do the place justice. The exhibitions can take you three hours, if you want to savour them, and then, if I remember correctly, the guided tour takes at least an hour)