This is quite probably the No.1 dark-tourism attraction in Vilnius
. Until April 2018 it was named "Museum of Genocide Victims
", which was criticised as a grossly misleading name, since this museum is NOT about the genocide
that was the Holocaust
, which is barely mentioned in the exhibition. Instead it's about the repression of Lithuanians under the rule of the Soviet Union
including the deportations to Siberian gulags
The museum is housed in what used to be the Lithuanian headquarters of the KGB
and is hence also known locally as the “KGB Museum
”. The cells in the basement and the subterranean execution room under the wing next door are surely the grimmest elements of this extremely dark site.
More background info:
Don't get me wrong, the oppression of Lithuania
under Soviet rule was a very bad thing, no doubt about it. Some 75,000 Lithuanians are said to have disappeared, have been deported to gulags
, put in prison or executed (including at this very site). BUT: calling this “genocide” is misleading, to say the least. UPDATE April 2018: probably as a reaction to this critcism, the museum changed its name, dropping the word 'genocide'.
The Soviets never aimed at wiping the entire people of Lithuania out altogether (and such an intent is part of the definition of the term genocide
), whereas the actual genocide against the Jews of Europe, the Holocaust
, in which many ethnic Lithuanians eagerly participated, was indeed aimed at wiping out all Jewry (in Europe at least) – hence the sinister Nazi
term “final solution
”. That was a genocide. The repression of Lithuanians under the Soviets was not.
Whatever hard feelings Lithuanians may still harbour against the former Soviet regime, and today's Russia
(!!), it still does not justify such terminological misuse – especially when at the same time the real genocide that was the Holocaust is largely swept under the carpet, as is so often the case in modern Lithuania
Admittedly, a side room has been added recently with a small separate exhibition about the Holocaust
(especially about the massacres at Ponary
– see below), but this only partly alleviates the grossness of the misnomer that the chosen name of this museum contains.
At the same time the museum's creators were quite involved in the media outcry about the establishment of Grutas Park
in the south of Lithuania. This was decried as a most unwelcome celebration of the Soviet days. But what was ignored in this acrimonious criticism was a) that Grutas Park does have its own historical exhibitions, which balance out any impression of potential glamorization, and b) that the “Genocide Victims' Museum” is hardly a model for a fully balanced presentation of history either.
But all this present-day controversy aside, the “Genocide Victims' Museum”, now "Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights", informally "KGB Museum" is without doubt a prime dark-tourism destination and an absolute must-see when in Vilnius
It combines an elaborate in-depth exhibition about the history of Soviet
repression, and the many forms of resistance on the part of Lithuanians, with the authenticity of a very dark location indeed:
The grand palatial building that the museum is housed in was once the HQ of the KGB
(and its predecessor, the NKVD, until 1946) in Lithuania and doubled up as its own prison centre. Political prisoners were interrogated and tortured in the basement cells – and underneath a side building in the back yard, they even had their own execution chamber, in which up to 1000 victims were killed.
Some cells and other rooms have been partly preserved as they were when the Soviets and the KGB left in 1991, but most have been commodified for the museum in a mix of original authenticity and dramatization through added design and interpretative means. The museum was started in 1992, very shortly after the departure of the Soviets, but has since been remodelled and expanded further.
What the museum still largely fails to point out, though, is that between 1941 and 1944 the building was used by the Gestapo
, who played a key role in the Holocaust
as well as in the persecution of its own political enemies, until the Soviets reconquered Lithuania at the end of WWII
Still, as far as the dark sides of Lithuania
's history under Soviet
rule go, there is no better place to learn about it through a museum exhibition than at this Vilnius
institution. As such it is unmissable.
What there is to see: The building that the museum is housed in looks quite imposing from the outside, but not really in a threatening way – it's just a huge classicist-style palace.
Step up closer, however, and you see names together with years of birth and death carved into the pink-and-grey-ish stones that make up the bottom walls of the building at pavement level. These are of course the names of victims – many of the death years are 1945-49, i.e. they fall within the Stalin
era of the USSR
A large plaque in three languages (Lithuanian, English, Russian) points out that both the Gestapo
and the KGB
operated from this building and that the “genocide of the people was planned here” and that “citizens of Lithuania were imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and killed”.
Well ... partly true. Except that the Nazis
' and the Gestapo's genocide was planned elsewhere (cf. Wannsee Conference
) and was not directed against just any “citizens” but against Jews specifically ... and the KGB's repression of Lithuanians after WWII
didn't quite constitute 'genocide' (see background
Around the corner stands a memorial monument made from stones in the shape of a steep pyramid and crowned with a steel cross. This is dedicated to all victims of the Soviet regime and appears well tended, with fresh flowers and wreaths laid at its foot when I was there.
The entrance to the museum is further down the side street behind this memorial. Through the main door, stairs lead up to the first floor where you'll find the ticket office.
At the time of my visit (April 2014) they had a flag of Ukraine
on the desk – obviously as a symbol of solidarity. The events unfolding in the east of that country and the annexation of Crimea by Russia
just the month before had stirred up deep-seated fears in the Baltics of the big old power to their east and it was clear which side the people here were on.
Inside the museum you have two options: first go and see the main exhibition about the Soviet times and Lithuanian resistance on the first and second floors or head straight down to the basement with the prison cells. Intrigued by what I had heard about this place I couldn't resist opting for the latter.
At the bottom of the stairs you are immediately engulfed by an intensely, oppressively grim atmosphere. You step through a barred gate and into a corridor with cell doors on either side. First off to the right is a guards' room, with some old uniforms hanging from pegs.
Next door some old communications and surveillance gear has been preserved. Vintage electronics. Also preserved are two of the “boksai” ('boxes'), mini cells for newly arriving prisoners, so small that they could not stand upright. These were, however, later versions from the 1960s in which the prisoners could at least sit down on a little ledge instead of having to stand in a bent position for hours on end.
Further down the cell tract you can see the photography room, in which mugshots of the prisoners would have been taken, as well as several actual prison cells.
One such cell is a reconstruction in the bare and rough style of the early Stalinist
years. Other cells may be original, with some basic furniture. One cell represented the final period of the 1980s and even had some crude bedding.
All walls in the cells are painted up to half their height in that typical pale green that for some reason is an element shared by both prisons and hospitals. The colour of sick, basically.
And it gets much grimmer than this. One cell is an interrogation chamber, with padded walls so that the screams of the tortured victims could not be heard outside. From a coat stand in the centre hangs a black straightjacket with its arms spread out to the sides, vaguely reminiscent of that infamous iconic photo from Abu Ghraib prison (of humiliating abuse of Iraqi
prisoners by US
Another especially sinister cell is an isolation cell whose floor would have been covered ankle-deep in icy water. There was just a tiny little platform in the centre that the prisoner could balance on to avoid standing in this water. Sleeping in such a cell was obviously a compete impossibility. Simple, but repugnantly ingenious.
Less sinister but still extremely grim in atmosphere is the inside of the guard post No. 3 – basically an extension of the basement into the outside lawn with grilled windows through which the guards could observe what was going on outside. From the outside these would have looked inconspicuously like mere air vents.
Also down in the basement are toilet and shower rooms and – to my surprise – a library with two fully stacked bookshelves to the ceiling.
As if to counterpoint this, one cell contains several sacks of shredded papers – documents destroyed by the KGB
to cover up their tracks as they left Lithuania in 1991 …
Finally, the basement is also the location of the single room that acknowledges the Nazi
period and the Holocaust
At the far end a large Star of David with coloured stained-glass segments forms the centrepiece, while the two walls to the side are filled with small back-lit text-and-photo panels.
At the bottom are small glass cabinets with artefacts such as spent bullet casings as well as keys, combs and other such everyday items which apparently were found at massacre sites such as Ponary
The text panels give a brief account of the period of Nazi Germany
's occupation of the Baltics in WWII
, persecution of anti-Nazi resistance fighters, the Jewish ghettos and the massacres perpetrated as part of the Holocaust
One section points out that there were also Lithuanians who helped Jews and were subsequently honoured with the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem
What is less emphasized is the eager participation of many ordinary Lithuanians in the murderous crimes against the Jews. However the Lithuanian “Special Squad” that not only guarded the Gestapo building but also collaborated systematically as part of the Einsatzgruppen, e.g. in the mass executions at Ponary, does get due mention here.
Some of the photos used for illustration are not from Lithuania, though, but include well-known images of the Skede
massacres near Liepaja
There are a couple of small video screens here too, showing film footage, e.g. of archaeologists investigating the mass burial sites as well as the personal recollection of an eyewitness at Ponary
(who I think I recognized as the museum warden still at the site today ... if that is possible).
After leaving the basement section you can step outside into the courtyard where a few exercise yard cells have been preserved. They are tiny. Hardly any space to walk around or do any meaningful exercise. The small enclosures are surrounded by walls almost ten feet (3m) high and topped with barbed wire. They are open to the sky and air but covered with wire mesh.
To the right of the courtyard a now open gate gives access to the very grimmest section of the whole site: the execution chamber. Stairs behind a steel door lead down to the underground level. The first thing you see is a large blown-up photo of a mass burial site, indeed the one at Tuskulenai (see under Vilnius
The original floors are protected by glass plates that you walk on. Underneath, various archaeological finds from the Tuskulenai site have been placed … spectacles, shoes etc. – this is all very reminiscent of typical concentration camp
In addition there is a scale model of these cellar rooms annotated to explain how these chambers fulfilled their role as an execution site. Yet more graphic details are provided by a flatscreen on the wall that even adds a horror soundscape to the whole thing. It can hardly get much darker in nature than this. Not for the faint-hearted!
In comparison, the upstairs main exhibition part is much less dark. But also much more filled with information. In fact it can be almost overwhelming how much detail this museum gives. All texts are in Lithuanian and English. The translations are sometimes a bit stilted but generally fine.
It starts with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
that divided up the lands between Nazi Germany
and the then territory of the USSR
as agreed by Stalin
. The subsequent oppression and Soviet reign of terror in Lithuania from 1940 to 1941 is spelled out it some detail.
Yet more detail is given to the resistance movements in Lithuania, in particular the so-called Forest Brothers, the partisans who fought against the Soviet re-occupation of Lithuania after WWII
up to the early to mid 1950s (by which time they were more or less defeated and wiped out).
Another section concentrates on the plight of those deported to prisons and gulags in eastern Russia
. This is illustrated with lots of photos and various artefacts on display, mostly personal belongings and clothes of gulag inmates. One subsection concentrates on the “little deportees”, i.e. children.
Eventually, the KGB
and its inner workings are picked up as a separate topic (thus partly justifying the museum's informal name “KGB Museum”). Surveillance techniques are explained. There are rooms full of spying implements, forgery equipment (such as fake stamps), old listening devices and other such vintage electronic gear.
Ironically, one room had several video screens on which live images from CCTV cameras around the museum could be seen. i.e. you could watch other visitors in certain exhibition rooms as they went around unaware of these cameras and the fact that they might be caught on film picking their noses or whatever. I found this installation a little cheeky. But of course it made a point.
Finally there is a section about the last days of the Soviet rule in the Baltics and the “singing revolution”. Amongst the items on display are placards carried by protesters during the rallies of 1989-1991 in Lithuania
's final struggle for independence from the USSR
The January events of 1991 are covered too, of course, including images of the military violence at the Vilnius TV Tower
in the early hours of 13 January which cost more than a dozen civilian lives. Photos of the Barricades
in the city centre complement this.
To dig even deeper into the wealth of information about all these topics there is an interactive computer screen on which visitors can punch up various multimedia files, including videos.
All in all, the sheer range of information about Lithuanian resistance is almost too much to take in. But if you go through it in a selective manner it's just about digestible. I personally found the sections on the KGB
and those prison cells in the basement the “highlights” of this museum.
The informational content lacks a bit in proper balance (too little about the Holocaust
and the Nazi
period, too much on heroism in the Lithuanian resistance), but overall the impression I got of this museum was quite good. Some bits are even outstanding, though so grim they won't be for everyone. But for proper dark tourists these are the key elements of this site.
It is certainly justified to say that this has to be regarded as the Number One dark-tourism attraction in Vilnius
. Absolutely not to be missed.
right on the main thoroughfare of central Vilnius
, Gedimino pr., opposite Lukiškių Square, a good half mile (900m) from the western edge of the Old Town.
Access and costs: quite easy to get to, inexpensive.
The former KGB building is hard to miss – it's a huge pale grey pile on the main street of the western half of central Vilnius
, Gedimino pr., and the various plaques on the wall are clear indicators of its former function. But the entrance to the museum itself is a little more hidden, round the corner on Aukų gatve 2.
Opening times: Wednesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays to 5 p.m. only, closed Mondays, Tuesdays as well as on various public holidays.
Admission: 4 EUR (some concessions apply).
An extra fee of 2 EUR for photography is now levied. Audio guide in English: 3 EUR. Tours with a live guide are also available in Lithuanian, English and Russian (these have to be be pre-arranged) and cost between 6 and 15 EUR. They're hardly necessary, though. The museum is quite self-explanatory.
Time required: between an hour (absolute minimum) and up to five hours or more if you really want to study everything in detail, read all the texts and view all the material available on multimedia devices.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Vilnius
The nearest other dark site related to the museum's main topic is the Barricades memorial
at the western end of Gedimino pr., just 900m (a good half mile) to the west.
Even closer by to the south-east you can find (in a rather hidden location) the antidote to the “Genocide Victims' Museum” with regard to its under-representation of the real genocide that was the Holocaust
, namely in the Jewish Holocaust Museum
of Vilnius. Here you get a full and grim picture of this darkest chapter in Lithuanian history, including the active role of Lithuanians in it.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The very central location of the museum makes it perfectly suited to being combined with virtually everything else that this city has to offer – just walk down the central boulevard of Gedimino pr. from right in front of the museum in an easterly direction and you get straight to the lovely Old Town and one of the prime mainstream sights of Vilnius, its cathedral.
- Genocide Victims Museum 01 - grand former KGB pile
- Genocide Victims Museum 02 - plaque on the wall
- Genocide Victims Museum 03 - names on the wall
- Genocide Victims Museum 04 - separate memorial outside
- Genocide Victims Museum 05 - entrance
- Genocide Victims Museum 06 - down to the KGB cellar
- Genocide Victims Museum 07 - grim
- Genocide Victims Museum 08 - guards room
- Genocide Victims Museum 09 - Soviet communications technology
- Genocide Victims Museum 10 - photography room
- Genocide Victims Museum 11 - rather bare cell
- Genocide Victims Museum 12 - slightly more furnished later cell
- Genocide Victims Museum 13 - corridor
- Genocide Victims Museum 14 - cell door with peephole
- Genocide Victims Museum 15 - torture cell with straightjacket
- Genocide Victims Museum 16 - cold water punishment cell
- Genocide Victims Museum 17 - look-out
- Genocide Victims Museum 18 - looking out
- Genocide Victims Museum 19 - the look-out as seen from the outside
- Genocide Victims Museum 20 - showers
- Genocide Victims Museum 21 - library
- Genocide Victims Museum 22 - only one small room about the Holocaust
- Genocide Victims Museum 23 - bullets and keys
- Genocide Victims Museum 24 - backyard open-air exercise cells
- Genocide Victims Museum 25 - little fresh air and even less daylight
- Genocide Victims Museum 26 - narrow
- Genocide Victims Museum 27 - doorway to the execution cellar
- Genocide Victims Museum 28 - stairs down to the execution cellar
- Genocide Victims Museum 29 - execution chamber
- Genocide Victims Museum 30 - model of the execution cellars
- Genocide Victims Museum 31 - glass floor
- Genocide Victims Museum 32 - glasses under glass
- Genocide Victims Museum 33 - upstairs in the main exhibition
- Genocide Victims Museum 34 - KGB office
- Genocide Victims Museum 35 - restistance through writing
- Genocide Victims Museum 36 - resistance through sewing
- Genocide Victims Museum 37 - resistance through praying
- Genocide Victims Museum 38 - gulag crochet
- Genocide Victims Museum 39 - cinema and lecture room
- Genocide Victims Museum 40 - surveillance room
- Genocide Victims Museum 41 - still in use in the museum
- Genocide Victims Museum 42 - cabinet with gas masks
- Genocide Victims Museum 43 - interactive info screen
- Genocide Victims Museum 44 - Molotov cocktail
- Genocide Victims Museum 45 - Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as the root cause
- Genocide Victims Museum 46 - from a demonstration for independence
- Genocide Victims Museum 47 - token of solidarity with Ukraine by the ticket office in April 2014