“You will tell us exactly what we want to know,” my interrogator barks, coating my face in a vile veneer of vodka-scented spray.
My eyes struggle to focus in the dimly lit room and my peripheral vision is tested to the limit as I try to take in my surroundings. Hanging in an old frame on the wall, a picture of Lenin stares down at us, giving tacit approval to the proceedings. Beside me, my fellow alleged conspirators cower. To one side, seated at a rudimentary wooden desk and clad in a distinctive military uniform, is a Soviet officer. He inhales deeply from a cheap roll-up before speaking calmly to his subordinate in Russian. My interlocutor translates, “How did you gain access?” They both stare at me with an intimidating glare.
“I will tell you nothing you communist dog excrement,” I reply, bracing myself for the inevitable backhand across my face. But it never comes. Instead, an almost imperceptible grin forms on their faces and I am bundled off to solitary confinement for my insolence.
But, in no time at all, I am released and sharing a joke and a vodka with the two men. For they were only acting, and this is all part of the Behind the Bars interactive experience on offer at the former Karosta Prison in Liepaja, Latvia.
For almost a century, the red-brick building in the back streets of Liepaja was the Karosta Prison, a temporary – and in some cases final – domicile for several generations of convicts. Unlike many of its former internees, it has outlived the authoritarian regimes that controlled it. German deserters, Latvian legionaries and many who fell foul of the KGB were confined in its cramped, concrete cells. It served as a prison after the Soviets left, but closed in 1997.
Today, visitors to the prison can experience it first hand. Should you choose to take the innovative Behind the Bars tour, you will be treated as a prisoner and marched into the grounds in single file by Latvian tour guides dressed, and acting, like Soviet soldiers. Forbidden from communicating with each other, tour inmates are thrown into the grimy cells and ordered to press their noses up against the walls while soldiers pace up and down outside. ‘Guests’ then undergo a cursory but individual medical examination in the original prison infirmary before being marched down the corridors for mugshots.
Finally, inmates appear before a senior officer for sentencing. Will it be solitary confinement? Will it be toilet-cleaning duty? Will it be an encounter with the firing squad? Meagre prison rations and generous helpings of vodka are served to those who survive.