Photo credit: John Oxley

A Vilnius descent

Progress only goes so far

Artillery Row

There’s something deeply unsettling about standing in a Soviet prison cell, even when it is part of a museum. The air feels dank. The walls are thick, the windows frosted out, and the heavy door can swing closed with surprising ease. There’s an unavoidable sense that with one shove, you could be disappeared, trapped, invisible to the world outside. Instinctively, you do not feel comfortable lingering too long inside. 

I was in the basement level of Vilnius’ Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights — known as the “KGB Museum” to the tourist tours. It’s housed in the building that played host successively to the Gestapo and then the organs of Soviet security who despite ever-changing names (NKVD, MGB, KGB) never altered their purpose or cruelty. Operational as a prison until the dissolution of the USSR, the newly independent Lithuania preserved it as a museum.

The first two floors are typical history museum fare. Display cases show off weapons, uniforms and other ephemera as you are guided through the story of Lithuania’s repeated conquest by the two evil empires of 20th century Europe — first the Soviets under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, then the Nazis, then the return of the Red Army which, a description wryly notes, “forgot to go home”.

Much more remarkable is the final floor, as you descend to the prison which the successive regimes used to hold their most prominent enemies. There is a bleak simplicity to walking the long corridor with its echoey stone floor. You cannot help but feel the reality of the terror, both Soviet and Nazi. This is not the totalitarian state on an industrial scale of millions, but on a comprehensible, digestible, individual level.

None of the names on the walls belong to a survivor

Each of the cells has been preserved to tell a different aspect of the story. One contains the furniture of a 60s era cell, a sparse but not sadistic set up for two, with rickety wooden beds. At a squint, it could be from an ageing prison in any part of Europe. A notice records that in the 40s, dozens of prisoners would have shared it, with just a bucket for the human essentials. Preserved on the walls of another are the graffiti of Jewish prisoners, who carved their names on the wall when rounded up by the Gestapo. Most of Lithuania’s Jews didn’t even survive as far as the death camps — instead they were shot in pits outside of the major cities. None of the names on the walls belong to a survivor.

Even more viscerally shocking are the “torture cells”, designed to cause exceptional discomfort with minimum effort. The solitary confinement cell is bare concrete, barely two yards across and windowless. A light would come on randomly so the prisoner would lose all concept of time. There is a padded cell, soundproofed to hide the sounds of torture and those driven mad by it. Two other cells have a cement stool around ten inches high in them. The bottom of the cell would be flooded with cold water, and the prisoner would stand on the stool until they collapsed into it from exhaustion — an effortless way to induce sleep deprivation and physical stress. 

The tour ends with a macabre mirroring of how many prisoners ended their time in the prison. You walk up through a short courtyard and down into a deeper cellar room. The wall is pock-marked with bullet holes, where prisoners were executed at point blank range with minimal legal formalities. Bodies were passed through a hole in the wall and spirited away to mass graves. Only one such grave has been found, containing about a third of the thousand people authorities estimate were killed in that room. 

The still simplicity of the cells highlights the grotesque cruelty which happened daily under both the Third Reich and the Soviet regime. I’m not one for ghosts, but there is something haunting about those cells where men and women were tortured and killed — and where men and women tortured and killed others. Walking the corridors, one has an inescapable realisation that for every victim of this horror, there was perpetrator, and there was no veneer of ignorance — the guards would be splattered with their victims’ blood, spit and shit. 

The collision of new media and old terrors dispels the myths of progress

With any confrontation with the past, it is impossible to escape the present. It would be good if a walk through a KGB prison, the home of unspeakable atrocities, felt like some other world preserved in aspic, but instead it serves as a reminder of the constant presence of man’s barbarity to man. The spectres in those cells are not just those of the 1940s. 

In a day or two you could drive from Vilnius to the Eastern Front of the Ukrainian war. There you’d find the behaviour you might have expected to have left in the past. The squalid prisons, tortured bodies and mass graves are not museum pieces there, but daily events. They are no longer shrouded in the secrecy of a totalitarian state, but broadcast in almost real-time on social media, impossible to explain away. The perpetrators are not horrors from history books with glassy gazes, but real people whose Facebook accounts you could probably pull up in seconds. 

The collision of new media and old terrors dispels the myths that progress allows us to transcend our basest instincts. The teeth-pullers and the firing squad are not things that disappear with economic growth or intellectual enlightenment. Both the Gestapo and the KGB could give you full-throated explanations of how they were the good guys. Some of their defenders still do. Equally, Russian crimes in Ukraine are no unique aberration — the Chinese government is engaging in industrial genocide in Wuhan, whilst repressive regimes with shiny buildings and theme parks populate the Middle East. 

Nor are these crimes something done by other people: despicable behaviour was seen from Western soldiers in Abu Graib, and it happens on our own streets by criminal gangs who have no compunction about slavery, rape or murder. The world is marked by racial, tribal and political conflicts which can show the same cruelty. The only thing that varies is the scale — and the strength of the dam of humanity holding it back. 

The cells of a prison museum will only ever be a facsimile of this. In that moment you have only the most fleeting of insight, and the hope that the vanguard of the good can hold back the instincts that lead to death camps. There is no panacea through progress, or wealth, or intellectual evolution. 

Comfort comes, perhaps from an earlier part of the museum. The room dedicated to the families deported eastwards from Lithuania by the Russians, to land they didn’t know and couldn’t farm, bears witness to their attempts to hold on to a forbidden faith and culture. There are religious symbols secreted in matchboxes, and traditional embroidery produced in secret by fearless furtive fingers. It’s a reminder that just as human cruelty endures and finds new forms, so too does human pride, ingenuity and love. Whilst we cannot erase our worst instincts, the same is true of our best ones. 

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