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Latvia's ex-KGB headquarters gives up dark secrets

RIGA -- The “House on the Corner” was one of the most feared places in Latvia during Soviet times, but now people are flocking to the former KGB headquarters in the capital Riga, keen to uncover its dark secrets.

As Russia flexes its muscles in its Soviet-era backyard, there is a concerted drive here and in other Baltic states once under Soviet control to counter any attempts by Moscow to whitewash the totalitarian past by exposing its horrors.

Built in 1912, the vast property still retains traces of its original Art Nouveau elegance, but a grimy, weathered exterior lends it an eerie air.

Following the 1940 Soviet takeover, the KGB secret police, or Cheka, set up its headquarters in the building on what is now Freedom Street, but was then called Lenin Street. It was then that locals starting referring to the building using the euphemism “the House on the Corner.”

Shuttered up as the KGB was disbanded after Latvia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, it finally reopened its doors to the public this summer with a temporary exhibition as part of Riga's year as a European Capital of Culture.

In a dark hallway, visitors to the house are greeted by a wooden box where paper requests for information about prisoners and denunciations of neighbors and work colleagues were once deposited.

A ground floor exhibition details KGB crimes, while in the basement, cells that once held prisoners have after many years finally been opened to the public.

“The main reaction we get is shock,” Aija Abens, one of the guides, told AFP.

“Some people come, then decide not to set foot inside. Some people break down in tears. That's when we realize that they or their relatives must have been held here.”

Thousands of Latvians were interrogated and tortured in the building, some of them put to death behind its walls, and Abens is visibly moved as she describes the former execution chamber.

“It's right by the door to the yard. A truck would be parked outside with the motor running to mask the noise. Then the body would be put in the back and driven away,” she says.

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Cell doors are seen behind a lattice door in the basement of the “Stura maja” or “Corner house,” the former headquarters of the Soviet KGB in Riga, Latvia on July 9. (AFP)

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