Karosta prison

    
  - darkometer rating:  5 -   
  
A former prison in Karosta, near LiepajaLatvia, which is now a museum, or rather: one turned into a theatrical show, or "experience" – where actors play guards and subject visitors to interrogation, abuse and punishments. The whole controversial "theme park" approach to such a dark place has been much discussed, especially by journalists, who cast a critical eye on the development of dark tourism (see this example).
  
And indeed – this is possibly dark tourism at its very dodgiest, in particular the really intense long shows (including overnight! You can even arrange "exotic" stag nights  here!). But it need not be all that dodgy, the regular museum tours, not the theatrically enhanced group arrangements, are comparatively harmless …

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>photos

   

More background info: The prison was built around the turn of the 19th/20th century as part of a large military complex. "Karosta" means 'war harbour' – so it's mainly a naval base. Originally constructed by the Russian Tsar to improve control over the area, later the Soviet Union took over – and frequently incarcerated political prisoners here. During WWII and the occupation of Latvia by Germany, the Nazis turned the place into their own detention centre and execution site.
 
After the defeat of Germany, the Soviets were back and used the base as one of the most important naval bases for their Baltic Fleet all through the Cold War. The KGB continued to use the prison until they had to abandon the place after the collapse of the Soviet empire and Latvia's regaining independence. For a few years, the new Latvian state also continued to use the prison, though on somewhat less drastic scale, and in 1997 it was finally given up altogether.
   
The prison was taken over by an initiative, whose sense of humour already comes out in the acronym they use as their name: KGB – although it now stands for "Karostas glabsanas biedriba" – roughly 'naval port salvation association'. They offer all manner of packages, including those that have sparked off the controversy over the place – in a nutshell: is it ethically acceptable to play-act the horrors of such a prison for tourists who are possibly more interested in some kind of "extreme experience" than learning about the historical background?
 
I don't want to condemn anybody, and if the idea appeals to you, then by all means do take advantage of this pretty unique opportunity. Personally, though, I wouldn't. I have a bit of a problem with any kind of play-acting as part of dark-tourism offerings – I even find the identity card scheme at the US Holocaust Museum too much.
  
Obviously, not having subjected myself to the actual experience, I can't really tell – but I have some doubts as to how authentic an "experience" can (or should!) be created this way. After all, participants come voluntarily, pay for it, and can rely on being released a few hours later or the next day (depending on the chosen package). So even the verbal mock abuse during "interrogations" and the imposed punishments (having to clean floors or latrines …) will still be only "play", and thus cannot ultimately compare to what the real prisoners must have experienced here. I'm not saying it should – far from it. Nor am I prepared to pass judgement on whether it's an appropriate style of "commemoration" or not. I just know it's not for me. 
  
So when I went to Karosta, in April 2014, i.e. before the “theatrical” season started at the ex-prison, I only went on a specially arranged private guided tour as part of a half-day excursion all over Karosta
 
It is, however, precisely those “reality show” theatrical efforts they make at Karosta prison that made them famous/infamous and so much talked about in the media and academic dark-tourism writings. It is one of the usual handful of examples always given when the topic of dark tourism is introduced. That is a bit unfair, given that this sort of Karosta “experience” is such an exceptional case, so very far from being representative of dark tourism at large (see also my review of the Dark Tourism documentary film). 
  
But there you are. It is, undeniably, one of the best-known dark sites in the world. And therefore I had to go and see it. I “evaded” the controversial participatory theatrical bits, though, and without them I must say it is really quite an average prison museum that would never have made such headlines for just that (as a mere prison museum it is no match for such biggies as Alcatraz or Kilmainham, Dublin, or Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia).
  
Instead it lives off its “retro Soviet” quirkiness. And that appears to be very much endorsed in the local tourism business too. In fact it may well rank amongst Latvia's top tourism attractions, at least outside Riga.  
 
 
What there is to see and "experience": At the this (ex-)prison it depends on your choice. By prior arrangement, groups have the chance to get some real hard-core packages, including a full day's "life as a prisoner", complete with arrest, interrogation, prison meals and an overnight stay in a cell. Shorter varieties are also on offer – including a "surprise package" (they won't give away what it consists of, but you can use your imagination …).
 
The point of all these showy/"experience" group offers, which all have to be pre-arranged and booked, and an "agreement" signed in advance, is that of giving the participants an impression of what it feels like being a KGB prisoner. If that's what you're after, then this is probably the best place in the world to receive such treatment voluntarily (short of actually committing a crime and getting the real thing) … the degree, or depth (= nastiness) of the "experience" can be chosen/tailored but it is supposed to be unpleasant – make no mistake about that!
 
For those (like me) who can do without all the theatrics and abuse, there's also the option of just visiting the place as an individual, almost like a "regular" museum – although it is very much pointed out that this is no ordinary museum. 
     
When I finally made it to Karosta in April 2014, I couldn't even go on a regular tour of the museum as the normal season hadn't started yet (see below for details). So I arranged for it to be included in my half-day tour of Karosta, which was possible because my guide also worked at the prison as a guide/“guard” during the season, and so had access to the site. 
  
My experience was thus quite different to what most normal visitors will find here, given that it was a private tour for just me and my wife. It thankfully lacked all the theatrics otherwise on offer here, but included most of the parts of the museum normally accessible on the tours in season.  
  
Outside in the prison courtyard some colleagues of my guide were still working on refurbishing/painting some larger outdoor exhibits, namely an old military truck and a field kitchen. Also on display outside was an amphibious Soviet vehicle. A watchtower between the entrance and the red-brick prison building had the look of a rather flimsy mock-up rather than that of being genuine, but maybe I'm mistaken.
  
Inside the prison, we were led through some dark corridors and were shown a number of cells. One painted black inside had lots of graffiti on the walls – ranging from genuine prisoners' messages to obviously more recently added band names (I spotted one AC/DC and one Depeche Mode).
  
Old Soviet surveillance apparatus was to be seen in a corner in the corridors (but without the dummy in Soviet uniform, as in their pictures, presumably that will be back when the season starts). There were also paintings of grim-looking Soviet big shots including one pop-art-like poster depicting Lenin hanging from the bars in one of the corridors. But otherwise there wasn't really that much to see in the cell block. 
    
The loos – latrines, rather – were a particularly disheartening sight, especially after our guide reported that back in the day prisoners were allowed access to these “facilities” only twice a day, all at once, under observation and severe time pressure. So if you couldn't “go” under such circumstances, tough luck! 
  
One set of rooms had been turned into a museum exhibition stuffed full with old Soviet relics: uniforms, hats, medals, flags, gas masks, old radios and other pieces of socialist technology, books, portraits of the Soviet Union's party leaders, and of course a Lenin bust in one corner.  
  
It was also here that the guide charged us for our admission tickets – well, as they like to do things a little different here, it's not so much an admission fee at all ... you don't pay to be let in, rather they make it out that you pay to be let out!
    
Back outside I also spotted large panels with historical photos. One of them showed the former submariners monument of Karosta, which incorporated the sail (or 'fin' or 'conning tower') of the Soviet WWII-era submarine ShCh-307. This was moved to the Victory Memorial park at Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow (see Great Patriotic War Museum) in 1995.  
  
From another photo I learned an interesting detail that I had been unaware of: amongst the various war-time images was one of a crashed biplane with swastika markings … but this was not a German plane, as my guide pointed out, but a Latvian one. So the Latvian air force also used that infamous symbol before WWII
  
All in all I must say that Karosta prison was less interesting as a prison memorial as such (especially when compared to much more striking ex-prisons such as Patarei, Tallinn, in neighbouring Estonia). Nor is it particularly large. What sets Karosta apart from other such sites is the “retro” Soviet elements, a) in the museum collection and b) in the “show” elements that Karosta so specializes in. I avoided the latter by going on an off-season private tour and I doubt I would have liked it in the theatrical way. But if that is what you are after, i.e. to get such an “impression” of what it must have been like to be a Soviet prisoner, then Karosta is just the place for you. Be aware, though, that these show-y exploits at Karosta are seen as controversial by many (see background). 
 
 
Location: in the middle of the former Soviet military garrison of Karosta, some three miles (5 km) north of the Baltic Sea coastal city of Liepaja, Latvia.
 
Google maps locator: [56.5465,21.0205]
 
 
Access and costs: A little bit off the most-trodden tourist paths, but not too difficult to get to; moderately priced.
 
Details: To get to the former prison you first have to make your way to Liepaja, from there head north to Karosta. It's easiest by car or bicycle, walking it all the way may be a little far. Alternatively you could take a bus – line 3 is said to go in that direction, but I cannot confirm this. Anyway, the entrance to the prison museum is at 4 Invalidu iela, which branches off Turaidas iela, which in turn connects with the main north-south thoroughfare of Atmodas bulvaris just north of Kalpaka Bridge (see under Karosta).  
  
When I was in Liepaja, I arranged to see the prison as part of a longer, half-day tour of Karosta (also including the Northern Forts), for which we used the car I had hired in Riga.    
This tour was arranged through the place I was staying at, Ezera Maja (see under Liepaja – esp. here). My guide was a chap who also worked as a guide/“guard” for Karosta prison in season (see below), so he had access to the site even though it was still only April. The whole tour cost 40 EUR, and given that it was over four hours long, it wasn't a bad price. Not included in this, however, was the admission price for the museum: 
   
Admission to the regular guided tour of the prison and its museum is now 4.50 EUR (students/pensioners 3 EUR). Prices for the various longer “show” packages obviously cost more, but current prices will have to be enquired about. The Karosta prison's website is (at the time of writing in July 2014) not up to date! Contact: email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phone: +37126369470  
  
Opening times normal “plain” museum visits are possible for individuals (and small groups under 10 persons) daily, in high season (June to August) from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in May and September, but only at weekends between 12 noon and 3 p.m. the rest of the year; other times only by prior arrangement.  
   
 
Time required: depends on what you want. A regular visit to the museum takes only an hour max, but you can arrange for theatrical packages of between 1-2 hours to up to a full 24 hours.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: For the immediate environs see under Karosta. Further up the main road north, the Northern Forts and further north still the Holocaust memorial site of Skede can be found. And to the south, the civilian town of Liepaja also offers a few sites of interest. Further afield, the Irbene radio locator is another relic from the Soviet days that may be worth the excursion if you are interested in such things.
   
   
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Liepaja and Karosta.
  
  • Karosta prison 01 - outsideKarosta prison 01 - outside
  • Karosta prison 02 - watchtowerKarosta prison 02 - watchtower
  • Karosta prison 03 - field kitchen and play areaKarosta prison 03 - field kitchen and play area
  • Karosta prison 04 - some sort of caged areaKarosta prison 04 - some sort of caged area
  • Karosta prison 05 - entrance signKarosta prison 05 - entrance sign
  • Karosta prison 06 - a pop Lenin greetingKarosta prison 06 - a pop Lenin greeting
  • Karosta prison 07 - corridorKarosta prison 07 - corridor
  • Karosta prison 08 - darkKarosta prison 08 - dark
  • Karosta prison 09 - cellKarosta prison 09 - cell
  • Karosta prison 10 - cell wall scratchingsKarosta prison 10 - cell wall scratchings
  • Karosta prison 11 - surveillance technologyKarosta prison 11 - surveillance technology
  • Karosta prison 12 - open toiletsKarosta prison 12 - open toilets
  • Karosta prison 13 - prison gamesKarosta prison 13 - prison games
  • Karosta prison 14 - museum partKarosta prison 14 - museum part
  • Karosta prison 15 - gas masksKarosta prison 15 - gas masks
  • Karosta prison 16 - museumKarosta prison 16 - museum
  • Karosta prison 17 - back to the USSRKarosta prison 17 - back to the USSR
  • Karosta prison 18 - all the Soviet leaders, plus prison guard actorsKarosta prison 18 - all the Soviet leaders, plus prison guard actors
  • Karosta prison 19 - Soviet-era calculatorKarosta prison 19 - Soviet-era calculator
  • Karosta prison 20 - past gloryKarosta prison 20 - past glory
  • Karosta prison 21 - historic photos outsideKarosta prison 21 - historic photos outside
   
  
  

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