THE CORNER HOUSE / Riga, Latvia
A former Latvian headquarters of the brutal KGB secret police is now open as a grim reminder of their atrocities.
THE LOVELY ART NOUVEAU BUILDING in center of the Latvian capital of Riga is actually a former KGB headquarters known as The Corner House, where political prisoners would be taken and subject to torture and worse.
The city of Riga came under Soviet control in 1940, and the brutal new leaders brought with them the dreaded KGB secret police. Setting up shop in the Corner House, a secretive headquarters in the middle of the city, the KGB began summoning people to uncertain fates within the depths of the building. “Undesirable Elements” could be picked up for crimes as small as having “anti-Soviet conversations” or “instigating panic.” Many of the people captured by the KGB were executed in a killing area in the basement of the Corner House. Still others were crammed into cells with dozens of other prisoners, and made to sweat and go mad with thirst as the basement was kept at around 85 degrees.
When the Nazis drove the Soviets out of Riga during World War II, they opened the doors of the secretive house to garner trust from the population by showing them the horrors the Soviets had created. After the war, the Germans left the country and the Soviets came right back, continuing the secret police practices as they had before.
Latvia finally regained its independence in 1991, and the Corner House was simply closed off so that the country could move on. In 2012 some of the space was reopened as a museum and visitors can now see first hand, the secretive headquarters of the brutal KGB. Most of the official documents are still kept hidden away, but just being able to see the location itself is a haunting reminder of a dark period in the city’s history.
P. Stradins Museum for History of Medicine / Riga, Latvia
Medical museum that houses most notably the taxidermied remains of Vladimir Demikhov’s famous two-headed dog experiment.
SOVIET SCIENTIST VLADIMIR DEMIKHOV SURGICALLY ATTACHED the front half of one dog onto the neck of another dog by combining their two circulatory systems. Yes, this happened.
Though Demikhov’s experiments may seem a little freakish, he was a pioneer in organ transplant surgery. He died in obscurity but his work inspired what is now a modern medical procedure – the transplanting of vital organs. The museum also contains several space-exploration-related medicine exhibits with taxidermied dogs and a monkey that were early Cosmonauts in the Soviet space program (not Laika, but some of her canine “colleagues”).
There is an affiliated pharmacy museum and a small anatomy museum. The Anatomy Museum houses a collection of abnormal anatomy specimens, particularly specializing in anomalies in infants and embryo development.
First-Ever Public Christmas Tree Marker / Riga, Latvia
A stone marker and sculpture in the city of Riga stake a claim for the very first community Christmas tree.
WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENED OVER 500 years ago, it can be tricky to parse out fact from legend. Take the first ever Christmas tree. The custom of a decorated tree at Yuletide dates back centuries, to at least the 15th or 16th century. That much is fact, the very first one? The Christmas tree that started it all? That might be more a matter of legend.
A likely candidate was in the medieval city of Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga’s City Center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including the Town Hall Square. Flanking the south side of the Square is the House of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, and it’s here where the Christmas tree story takes shape.
Near the northwest corner of the ornate building is a slightly domed stone marker embedded in the cobblestones, staking its claim—in eight languages—as the spot of the first public Christmas tree.
The Brotherhood of the Blackheads was a guild of professional merchants and traders that banded together in the 14th century, and remained active in Latvia and Estonia right up through the middle of the 20th century. They were known for their twice-yearly holiday celebrations, including the Christmas to New Years season. It’s said that the Brotherhood put a fir tree in the square, festooned it with paper flowers, sang and danced and cheered the season, then lit the whole thing on fire. (Needless to say, it is also said that more than a few glasses were raised by the Brothers during the celebration.).
The Brotherhood has documentation showing that this all happened for the first time in 1510, and it just might be the very first documented Christmas tree. The chapter in Tallin, 175 miles to the north in Estonia, makes the same claim for the same Christmas. Given the chummy relationship between the two chapters, it’s not inconceivable that they lit up their trees simultaneously. A Christmas tree still goes up in Riga’s Town Hall Square, in the same spot, in front of the same Brotherhood, but with a whole lot more lights and decorations. And that much is fact.
Riga Aviation Museum / Riga, Latvia
A vast and unlikely aviation museum kept alive for over 50 years due to one man’s tenacity.
Thanks to Victor Talpa, Interested parties from all over the world are free to wander amidst the ghosts of aviation’s past while being buzzed by shiny, lumbering jets cruising into Riga International airport.
Young aviation engineer Victor Talpa established the Riga Aviation Museum in 1956. In its early days, Talpa’s employment and subsequent partnership with the Latvian Civil Aviation Administration aided the development of resources and programming culminating in one of the most unique aircraft collections in Europe.
On the grounds of the fledgling museum, Talpa established the Young Pilots’ Club where teen boys interested in aviation theory and mechanics could take lessons and complete basic physical training in preparation for being able to operate the aircraft of their dreams.
Eventually Talpa pled his case that the Young Pilots should have their own plane, rather than a loaner aircraft supplied by the Latvian government. This first airplane–a Mig-21US–became the founding piece of the museum’s collection, with over forty military helicopters and planes of all stripes accumulating over the years.
After the dissolution of the USSR, the museum was taken over by the Riga Airport Administration, which continued to provide the museum with the physical space necessary to all those classic planes and helicopters.
By 1997 the Riga Aviation Museum had been fully privatized, its grounds opened up to the general public. Everything is stored outdoors and may not be in tip-top condition, but most impressive is that Victor Talpa has managed to preserve one of the most treasured collections of its kind for more than half a century despite all odds.
Great Kristaps /Riga, Latvia
The statue of a legendary giant who carried Christ and shouldered the world’s sins.
According to legend, once upon a time a very strong man lived on the Daugava riverside and he earned his living by carrying people across the river on his back. One night he was approached by a little boy who asked to carry him over the river. Although the weather was stormy, the man picked up the child and began carrying him across the river. With each step, the man found that the child was becaming heavier until by midstream only with the greatest of effort could he made it to shore. The boy turned out to be Christ’s son so the man was named Kristaps (Latvian form of Christopher). Now you will find his statue on the right bank of the Daugava.
The story about Great Kristaps was passed on from one generation to another; it saw many alterations and it has many variations. They say that Kristaps was awarded a heap of money and he used it to buy all of Riga. At that time, the town was so small, a wolf could easily run through it. But one fact is definite – around 1510 a wooden sculpture of Great Kristaps with a little boy on his shoulder and a lamp and a stick in his hands was placed by the river. The sculpture was cherished by the local people; they decorated it with ribbons and garlands of flowers, lit up candles and prayed for protection from evil.
Art Nouveau in Riga
Flamboyant architecture from the turn of 20th century.
ART NOUVEAU OR JUGENDSTIL (AS it was known in German influenced countries) was a style in decorative arts which marked the turn of 20th century. It originated in France but quickly spread throughout Europe often merging with local artistic tendencies. It left a trail of iconic examples of design, from Paris metro stations and works of Victor Horta in Brussels to Helsinki main railway station and secessionist buildings in Budapest.
Latvian capital boasts one the most extensive assortment of pure Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. There are over 800 Art Nouveau buildings scattered all over Riga’s historic center. The most striking examples can be found along Elizabetes Iela and Alberta. These include buildings by Mikhail Eisenstein the father of the famous director Sergei Eisenstein.