A Vacation Package With a Twist - 24 Hours in an Old Soviet Prison
New Types of Offerings at Museums
April 4, 2011
Museums and historic buildings and places have long been popular tourist destinations.
Rising incomes and the growth of the middle class have led to increases in the number of tourists and this, in turn, has led to an increase in the number of museums and the preservation of increasing numbers of historic buildings.
Naturally, with more museums and historic places available to visit, competition between these places has increased.
One of the things that many museums and historic places have done in an attempt to attract more tourists is to move from static displays that are simply viewed by visitors to more interactive displays designed to give people a better feel for life in the area being depicted.
One type of interactive museums employ actors who, after researching the people and era being depicted in depth, dress and act as if they were a living part of that era. Known as living history museums, these are becoming both more common and more popular with tourists.
For the tourist, this results in their being able to step back in time and observe life as it was in the era being depicted. However, while the actors are basically, at least during working hours, living
in the era being depicted, the tourists remain observers from our era.
Having visited and enjoyed visiting many living history museums as a typical observer, I was somewhat surprised to learn of a museum that offers vacation packages in which visitors get to participate in the life of the area being depicted.
Surprisingly, the era in question is only a few decades in the past as the museum is a former Stalinist military prison.
An Author is Injured in a Living History Museum
The first mention I saw of this was in a March 25, 2011 Wall Street Journal interview (An Unlikely Story for Teens by Alexandra Alter) with Ruta Sepetys author of a new novel titled Between Shades of Grey.
The novel, which is aimed at teens and adults, is an account of a young girl and her family’s experience of being among the thousands of Lithuanians who were rounded up and deported to work camps in Siberia and other Soviet Asian Republics by Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin’s secret police.
What caught my eye was a paragraph that began with the sentence She spent 20 hours in a historical immersion program at a former Soviet prison in Latvia, which she now calls "one of the stupidest decisions I've ever made."
The paragraph goes on to describe her being roughly interrogated, being deprived of food and water, being in a cell with rats and littered with human feces. She also suffered a ruptured spinal disk while being forced to do push-ups with a guard standing on her back.
While I can understand an actor preparing for a part or even a novelist, like Ruta Sepetys, undergoing this type of treatment while doing research for a historical novel, I could not imagine there being sufficient numbers of actors and novelists for it to be economically feasible to put together an offer vacation packages that enable people to experience the horrors of a Stalinist prison.
While tourist destinations and travel groups are always creating new types of adventure vacations and other unique vacation packages, this seemed crazy.
Location of Karosta Prison
Location of the Karosta Prison which offers opportunity to experience life as a prisoner of the Soviet KGB
A Google Search Locates the Museum
However, after a few Google searches I discovered that the Karosta Prison, whose address is Invalidu iela 4, Liepāja, Latvia seems to be attracting an increasing number of tourists.
The prison tour offerings are especially popular with tourists from nearby Western Europe.
Like other historical museums, the Karosta prison has been kept in order to educate and preserve the memory of an important era in the history of Latvia.
However, in this case, the era is only a few decades distant and the horrors on display at the prison are similar to what many who are still living today suffered under the communist rule in the old Soviet Empire.
Some History of Latvia and Karosta Prison
Latvia and its neighbors, Lithuania and Estonia, endured centuries of subjugation as control over them passed between Poland, Prussia, Sweden and finally Russia. During the Great Northern War (1700 - 1721) control of Latvia and its neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania, passed from Sweden to Imperial Russia.
Because the Baltic Sea does not freeze in winter, control of Latvia and its neighbors gave Imperial Russia a western sea coast with year round access to the ocean.
Liepaja in Latvia became a major Russian naval base and the Karosta prison, which is located on the grounds of the old naval base, was constructed between 1900 and 1905 by order of Tsar Nicholas I as a prison mutinous sailors in the Russian Naval Fleet.
In 1920, during the Civil War that engulfed Russia following the October 1917 putsch which brought Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks into power in Russia, Latvia and neighboring Estonia and Lithuania broke away and become independent states.
This independence lasted until 1940 when the Soviet Dictator, Josef Stalin, had his armies invade the three nations and forcefully incorporated them into the Soviet Union.
The brutal rule of Stalin was quickly replaced when Adolph Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 and occupied the three Baltic states along with other Soviet territory. The tide of World War II turned for the Soviets in 1944 as they succeeded in driving back Hitler’s troops and reconquered the Baltic states in the process.
Following the reconquest of the three Baltic states in 1944, Josef Stalin resumed the policy he started in 1940 of mass arrests and deportations to labor camps in Siberia of people in the Baltic states.
The deportations continued until the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. It is this second, post World War II, period of deportations that is depicted in Ruta Sepetys’ book Between Shades of Grey.
Of the approximately 10 million people living in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania at the time of the Stalin’s take over of these states in 1940, some 600,000 were deported to Soviet prison camps in Siberia and other remote locations in the Soviet far east. As many as 70 percent of these deportees were women and children.
Soviet NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) secret police rounded up people in their homes at night and at work and school during the day and marched them off to train stations where they were crammed into box cars and transported to the other end of the Eurasian continent. Some 200,000 or more of these first spent time in Karosta and other Soviet prisons before being moved to labor camps in the Arctic and Far East.
Given these horrible statistics, one can understand Ruta Sepetys feeling a need to spend a night in Karosta Prison in an attempt to better understand her characters’ experiences.
Karosta Prison Museum Today
Karosta Prison remained in use as a prison until it was officially closed 1998. As a prison, Karosta has the distinction of never having a prisoner escape in the over nine decades of its existence as a prison.
Of course, being located in the middle of a naval base, once a prisoner made it outside of the prison he would find himself in the middle of a guarded military facility. Further, those imprisoned there following the 1940 Soviet takeover, would not only find themselves in the middle of a guarded military base but the entire surrounding area was heavily guarded and off limits to outsiders.
The Karosta Prison Museum is open from May 1st to October 1st although private tours can be arranged at other times of the year.
While all tours of the museum are conducted by guides impersonating Soviet prison guards, there are traditional tours where the guards/guides still act like Soviet prison guards but treat tourists as visitors rather than as prisoners. Also, while many of the guides are actors playing a role, some are actual former Soviet prison guards which is about as authentic as one can get.
In addition to the general tours, the museum also offers a range of participation tours in which the tourists participate as prisoners. These vary in duration and intensity and, in addition to being more expensive, require that the participant be over 12 years of age, not have serious medical problems and sign a waiver releasing the museum from liability for injuries.
The most intense tour is the 24 hour tour where one gets to exist for 24 hours as a prisoner enduring the trials of real Soviet era political prisoners. Of course, unlike real prisoners of that era, today’s tourist prisoners have two advantages with first being that their stay will only be for 24 hours and the second being the option to leave at any time - however, there is no refund on the tour price for those exiting early.
Surprisingly, these 24 hour so called Stag tours are very popular and draw thousands every year from Western Europe. They are especially popular with young men looking for something different as well as business groups looking for a unique team building and bonding exercise.
The website and a hostel guide also advertise a hostel option where one can spend the night on a prison bunk or iron bed and also be treated to a prison breakfast (I presume that the breakfast is better than the standard Soviet era prison fare which some sources have described the food as consisting of about 80% sawdust and 20% grains).
Based upon the room in the photo on the web, the Karosta Prison Hostel accommodations looked about the same as the room in the Hi-Ottawa Jail Hostel in Ottawa, Canada where I spent a night on the way home from a ski trip in the 1970s (although, I must add that the rooms in the current Hi-Ottawa Jail Hostel website look far more luxurious than what I remember).
For Visitors, The Past Depicted at Karosta is not that Distant
Like all museums, the Karosta prison museum is intended to both link to our past and help us to understand our past and its people. However, for the Karosta Prison Museum the past is not that distant.
On the museum website there is an account of the last known attempt by a couple and their teenage children to escape from the city of Liepāja to freedom in the West. These were ordinary citizens, not prisoners in Karosta Prison. However, despite a rough sea, they managed to reach neutral waters between Latvia and Sweden and hoped that they would either make to across the Baltic to Sweden or be picked up by a Swedish ship.
Unfortunately, at dawn, Soviet border guards saw their footprints in the sand on the shore in Liepāja and dispatched a Soviet gunboat which plucked them from the neutral waters in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Instead of making it to freedom, they found themselves in the hands of KGB interrogators in Karosta Prison.
The year was 1984.