Some women dream of vacations filled with romantic walks, glowing sunsets and sandy beaches. For me, the idea of a Soviet prison and gas masks seemed more intriguing. With this in mind, I made a stop at Karosta Prison in Liepaja, Latvia during the autumn Eastern European journey. It's difficult to determine the greatest threat in the modern world, but at one point it was nuclear annihilation, with the Soviet Union and America being the culprits of tension. I grew up at the end of the Cold War and never really experienced the neurosis associated with the threat of a nuclear attack, but my parents who were young children at the height of the Cuban missile crisis recall "duck and cover" drills at school. Alarms sounded and school children were trained to take cover under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack. It looked something like the photo below, and Americans also were indoctrinated with films, posters and cartoons explaining safety procedures during an atomic blast.
It seems unthinkable that hiding under a desk could prevent the drastic consequences of a nuclear blast, but one Hiroshima official claims he trained local policemen to duck for cover after an atomic flash, and as a result not a single Nagaskai policeman died in the initial blast. Perhaps this is an urban legend, but in any event for me there's great curiosity about this period of history. I'm certain Soviet children were also trained about nuclear attacks, but I don't know the specific procedures. Perhaps some of you went through the drills?
1. When I first learned there was a prison on our Eastern European travel route, I became ecstatic. I've always been intrigued by serial killers and criminal psychology, but Karosta is a different type of prison. For most of the 20th century, it served as a Soviet and Nazi military prison in which hundreds of prisoners were housed. No civilians served time at Karosta, and the military theme is immediately noticeable when you enter the gates.
2. Outside area enclosed by barbed wire. What does the sign say?
3. This cute trash can seems out of place at such a dismal place. If I recall correctly, my travel companion informed me these penguin trash bins were common during Soviet times. I think modern day Russia should bring them back, as I remember the lack of places to discard trash during my visits.
4. Grandpa Lenin greets you at the check-in desk.
5. Today the prison is an interactive museum, drawing tourists from all over the world. Visitors can sign up to receive the full prisoner experience, including being abused by guards, sleeping in a jail cell overnight under the watchful eye of a prison keeper, and even being captured at the nearby fortress and escorted to the prison by guards. You can watch videos of the mock treatment on YouTube. It's hardcore and not for the faint of heart!
6. Unfortunately, the interactive experience wasn't available in late autumn when we visited. Our tour guide, pictured above, barked commands to me in Russian and English, probably some special pleasure in torturing an American visitor. He played the role convincingly, and at times I was completely uncomfortable. I was forced to lie down on this hard slab, which served as a bed for prisoners. For only $16 USD, you can sleep overnight in one of the cells during summer season. Pity we couldn't stay here overnight, as it would have brought me great pleasure to make my travel companion a prison bitch for the night. :)) Night guests are fed through the iron bars and eat the meal that real prisoners once ate.
7. The whole scene here is dreary and creepy. Dark hallways, dark cells, mean guards...The structure was built in the early 1900's and was used as an infirmary for a short period before it was converted into a prison. During World War II, the Nazis sentenced Latvian deserters to death here. Hundreds of prisoners were shot in the head, and many believe the tortured spirits still roam the prison hallways. Karosta is considered one of the most haunted places in the world, and ghost hunters from all over the world have visited the location to measure paranormal activity.
8. Prisoners were sentenced to hard labor and chores throughout the day, given strict wake-up and bedtime calls, and were allowed to speak and use the restroom only upon command from prison guards. During the tour, our guide escorted us to the "honeymoon suite", also known as the toilet.
9. What happened if you pissed or shit without the command of a guard? You were punished, made to wear gas masks and engage in strenuous exercise, sometimes outside in sweltering summer heat. Alternatively, you were forced to clean up the excrement of fellow prisoners, and other gruesome tasks. Tourists who wish to engage in the "prison experience" are required to sign a contract stating that they agree to be ordered around by the guards, insulted, subjected to physical labor and exercise, etc. When I laughed inappropriately at one of the guards commands, he demanded Sasha and I put on these gas masks. I've never worn one in my life, or attempted to place the mask over my head. No easy task, and the feeling of suffocation and claustrophobia indescribable. I can't imagine running around in hot temperatures with this mask on, doing exercises in the blazing sun. Have you worn one?
10. Tourist being punished for disobeying.
11. Inscriptions and drawings cover the prison walls. I know my dirty Russian words, so recognize the world "bitch" here, but nothing else.
12. Those who require personal attention or scolding are sent to the warden's office. Again, Lenin heads everywhere and portraits of all Soviet leaders hang on the walls. During peak tourist season, guards occupy the office. You can see images online.
13. At the end of the tour, you can pick a uniform and get photographed, with an intake card stating your offense and other personal details.
14. Me - guilty of treason!
I can't say this place is for everyone, but for my masochistic readers I highly recommend it! If I ever return to Latvia, I'll be sure to engage in the full Karosta experience, starting with capture at the nearby fortress, transition to the prison, and an overnight stay filled with abuse. What do you think? Unique and extreme adventure!