Soviet style hospitality: Doing time in Latvia
On Latvia's Baltic coast, one hotel is offering bed, board and round-the-clock exercise classes for next to nothing. The bad news is, the only bars are those on the windows and it's your turn to clean the loo - with a toothbrush. Matt Carroll does his time, Soviet style
Sunday 10 December 2006
I wonder if James Bond felt like this when he got caught by the Russians. I'm sitting in a pitch-black cell, wondering what on earth is going to happen to me. Moments ago, I was shoved in here by a guard in Soviet uniform, whose only comment in English was: "We own you." All I can hear outside my cell is angry shouting in Russian, followed by the metallic echo of slamming doors.
All right, I confess. I'm not here on some secret spying mission. The whole thing is a set-up. The reason I have come to Karosta, a disused military jail on the west coast of Latvia is to experience what life was like as an inmate. For the next few hours I will be at the mercy of my guards, who no doubt have some nasty surprises in store.
The prison is located in the town of Liepaja (pronounced "lee-i-pi-ya"). It was built in 1905 by Tsar Nicholas I to house mutinous sailors from the Imperial Russian fleet, and was later used by the Soviets. The "guards" are a mix of ex-Soviet military personnel and tour guides.
Although it officially closed in 1998, everything inside the prison remains pretty much as the Soviets left it. As my eyes slowly adjust, I note that the black-painted cell walls are still etched with graffiti carved by previous inmates; names of cities from where prisoners originated, and lines representing the number of days they spent here.
You would think no one in their right mind would come here through choice, yet in the past year over 20,000 people have visited the jail. More surprising still is the fact that many of them are Latvian schoolchildren, who are brought here as part of their education in Soviet history. While their tours comprise a quick look round the cells, lasting only a few hours, an increasing number of Brits sign up for the "extreme night".
As the expression suggests, this involves spending a whole night in a cell, during which time your sleep is disturbed by random "interrogations" and trips to the exercise yard to perform various painful exercises. I should stress that you can leave at any time , and that no one actually gets physically roughed up. Even so, these are intim-idating experiences you will never forget. So what on earth makes people do it?
"Our business partners over here invited us on a 'jolly'. We thought it sounded like fun," says one of the women in my tour group.
So do a lot of the Brits who come here, according to Julian Tall, the owner of Baltic Adventures, who run trips from the UK. He gets a lot of bookings from men on stag weekends who are looking for something different to the usual bar crawl in the Latvian capital, Riga.
Along with other former Soviet-controlled cities such as Tallinn in Estonia and Vilnius in Lithuania, Riga has shaken off its drab Communist image in recent years and gained a reputation as an exciting city full of buzzing bars, restaurants and casinos. Nevertheless, you do not have to look far to find signs of the old Soviet Latvia. On the three-hour journey from Riga to the prison we pass clusters of ugly concrete flats, plonked in the middle of nowhere during the Soviet era to provide housing for workers in the nearby factories.
There are, however, moments of bleak beauty too. Between the blocks of utilitarian housing it is possible to glimpse forests and open fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.
And then we arrive at Liepaja. The city is perched on the Baltic coast, where an angry grey sea lashes the exposed land. Established as a Russian naval port back in the 19th century, it is now slowly following in the footsteps of Riga, with funky bars and restaurants.
However, I have no time for such frivolity; I am due to start my jail stretch. The prison is situated in a disused military city 10 minutes' drive from the centre of Liepaja. You can spot it a mile off, its presence signalled by ominous-looking chimney stacks that poke above the trees.
At the height of the Soviet regime there would have been tens of thousands of service personnel living here, most of them accommodated in the dreary barrack blocks. As we drive around the site, I see row upon row of empty apartments, their windows smashed. As if this wasn't depressing enough, closer inspection reveals that others are actually inhabited. A three-room flat here costs about £6,000.
Little children wrapped up in shabby coats and woolly hats stare at us as we drive past, wondering what on earth we are doing here. I am beginning to wonder myself.
We finally arrive at my "accommodation", its red bricks eaten away by the damp, front steps worn by more than a century of shuffling boots. I am already feeling uncomfortable. It is going to be a long night.
As we nervously line up outside, a black-uniformed guard paces up and down, the only sound his heavy boots crushing small stones underfoot. Then he begins shouting. "You are now the property of the Soviet government! Do not think of escaping. There is no way out of here. You will do exactly what we tell you!"
Though staged, the oppressive atmosphere is instantly believable. We are marched upstairs to a dark, dingy hallway lined with cells, and made to stand facing the wall with our hands behind out backs. The air reeks of damp; it is so cold you can see your breath.
Nervous titters from some of the girls are immed-iately quashed by a barrage of abuse in Russian. Suddenly I am grabbed from behind and shoved into the medical room, where a nurse proceeds to quiz me gruffly on my medical history. "When was the last time you visited the doctor? How many fingers am I holding up?"
Out of the corner of my eye I spy several metal implements lying around; I try not to think about what they might be used for.
From here I am dragged unceremoniously to yet another room, where my photograph is taken, before being marched down to the governor's office. Under the glare of a spotlight I am made to answer questions about my background, and what I am doing in "Russia".
Less than 20 years ago, this scenario might have been for real. At that time, Liepaja was such a secretive place that only those with state approval came here. As the final frontier between Russia and the West, it was fiercely guarded; the penalty for unlawful entry was indefinite imprisonment, or worse.
In the dim light beyond the spotlight, I notice a portrait of Lenin hanging on the wall. The governor smokes nervously while studying my paperwork, then stamps the form so hard I fear he might have broken the desk. The next thing I know, I am being pushed into a cell, and the door slams behind me.
All I can hear outside are faint footsteps and distant shouting. I crouch in the corner - partly through nerves, partly in a bid to keep warm - waiting to see what happens next.
Hours seem to go by, and then I hear footsteps getting nearer. The door to my cell is unbolted and I am blinded by a shaft of unfor-giving light. In the doorway is the silhouette of a figure in a trench coat and military hat. He babbles something to me in Russian and I auto-matically rise to my feet. They hardly touch the ground as I am manhandled down the corridor towards the toilet block. My jailer hands me a toothbrush, pushes me on all fours and shouts: "Clean!" The loos consist of three rusty holes in the ground; the smell from a century of sewage wafts up, stinging my nose. It is disgusting; it is also the middle of the night.
Before being allowed back to my cell I am made to squat with my back against the freezing wall, hands out in front of me. Another guard approaches; at first all I can see are two pairs of legs, then he is in my face, all cigarette breath and cheap aftershave - and shouting so hard that the veins on his neck look as if they are about to burst.
My thighs are on fire, shaking violently, and I start to slide down the wall. Finally I am yanked back to my feet and shoved back into the pitch-black cell.
I am not sure how Bond would have coped with this treatment, but I don't know how much more of this I can take...
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HOW TO GET THERE
Matt Carroll's trip was organised by Baltic Adventures (01582 462 283; balticadventures.co.uk) and the Latvia Tourist Bureau (latviatourism.lv). Tailor- made itineraries available for small or large groups. The military prison package costs from £35 per person. Flights to Riga from £89 return with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted, Liverpool, Glasgow and Dublin.
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