NB: Science writing is now mostly published at my second blog, Longhand & Scribblings. Follow the link to find out more!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Building on the Corner

The ‘Building on the Corner’ has been empty for some time. Nobody wants to buy it. Nobody wants to demolish it. Inside, there is nothing of material worth. Instead, there is darkness.

In the small wood-decked lobby, a lady hands us a slip of paper each. These are passes granting entry into the building beyond, just as visitors in 1940 would have been given. Had this been 1940, we could only have been here for two reasons: to post a name into a box — to spy on your neighbour, who would then be hunted; or to search for someone who had been hunted and was now missing — or to answer a summons, to voluntarily answer the call of the hunter. Here, in 2014, that threat has gone, and we are here only because it is important to do so. We have stepped inside the former home of the SSR People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the Cheka — you may know it from any of its many other names over the years: the Committee for State Security, the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat of National Security or, simply, the KGB.


Latvia, 1918. After freedom from centuries of russification, and freedom from German occupation in World War I, there is, at last, independence.

No sooner is there independence, there is occupation. Vladimir Lenin, having locked his opponents outside of the Tauride Palace and declared Soviet rule of Russia in their absence, now sets his sights on the Baltics. From one direction the Germans advance, from the other the Bolsheviks. Riga, the capital of a proud, neutral nation, sits in the middle, awaiting its fate. The Soviets take the city, among their troops even Latvians themselves fight. Estonia now fends back the Germans: Latvia fights off the Soviets. In 1920, at last, there really is independence.

But now begins the semi-benevolent dictatorship of Kārlis Ulmanis. Elected democratically, he dissolves Parliament and illegally detains other elected officials and military personnel. And yet, education standards rise, illiteracy drops and national wealth soars. Amongst the darkness: progress.

Independence does not last, and it fails because Moscow has decided it should. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact is signed, a supposed non-aggression pact that is secretly a land grabbing exercise. ‘Spheres of influence’ in Eastern Europe are partitioned on paper between the Soviets and the Nazis. Finland is first to fall, but fights back hard: the Molotov cocktail is born, in defiance of the Soviet foreign minister who so casually decided Finland should belong to Russia. Finland’s success is deceptively reassuring, and Latvia is unprepared for when Stalin comes knocking. And so, in June 1940, Latvia’s ‘Year of Terror’ begins.


The neoclassical apartment building on the corner of Brīvības ielā and Stabu ielā was designed by Aleksandrs Vanags, and was once lavishly decorated. The doorways alone were considered by many to be works of art. But just twenty eight years into its history, in the Year of Terror, this ornate construction became home to the secret police.

We step through from the lobby proper, past steel bars. Here, there is no sign of any decoration. The walls are covered in plain wood panelling, the corridors intimidatingly narrow and labyrinthine, and the corners are blind: a visitor's fate around each corner remains hidden until it is too late. All character to the building has been concealed, and all stimulation stripped away.

We enter a large room, bereft of features, save the museum exhibit that has been installed — yet as interesting as the signs and notices are, the true museum is the building itself. On one side another room juts off, housing what might once have been a kitchen, with at least a sink. Now, a projector presents people revealing memories, but the walls speak aloud too: chipped pale blue and white tiles peppered with rust stains. It is cold and it is emotionally sterile.

Below our feet are prison cells. We do not get to see them, for our visit is late in the day and, having missed the English language tour, we are unable to see the building alone. Likewise, the apartments above our heads that became interrogation rooms are out of bounds. We are left, instead, with the details on display.

This was a hive of oppression. On receiving a summons, the residents of Riga would have to go to the corner entrance to register and meet investigators. When they left — if they ever did — they did so as different people. If they failed to answer a summons, they would be arrested anyway. Even if they were not summoned, the slightest slight against the regime would lead to arrest. The wrong surname could lead to arrest. The Cheka ruled by fear.

Arrests were done silently, families not told of their loved one’s fates. Detainees were at once stripped and placed in isolation before eventually being transferred to a cell. The heating remained on full, even in the height of summer, and lamps kept cells lit for 24 hours a day. Poorly ventilated and overcrowded cells were equipped only with a bucket for ablutions. Inmates were allowed 15 minutes of fresh air every ten days. Unsuccessful interrogation led, once again, to isolation. Bit by bit, the mental strength of detainees would be chipped away.

We leave the main hall and follow the signs to the exit. The route takes us into a corridor with three small rooms coming off of it. It is silent today in the museum. Here, there are no windows, and there is no light. Suddenly, over a loudspeaker, a pistol is cocked then fired, right into the soul I have been told to imagine kneeling before me.


During the Year of Terror, 22,000–23,000 people were executed. In June 1941, 14,424 Latvians were deported to inland Soviet territories, 6,081 of whom were executed or died en route. As the Year of Terror came to an end, the Cheka evacuated its prisoners to Russia — those unable to be transported were executed. Nobody knows how many people were killed in the Building on the Corner, but when it was liberated in July 1941, evidence of 94 shots and 240 expended cartridges were left behind.

And who should it be that liberated the Latvian people from such oppression? Nazi Germany. Darkness, it seems, is never simple.

With the eyes of Europe upon it as a Capital of Culture for 2014, Riga has had the courage to open the corner entrance of the Building on the Corner for the first time in years. But, as the exhibition now draws to a close, questions arise. What do you do with such a powerful symbol, once left to oblivion, its horrors now awoken? Should you destroy the very thing that reminds you daily of those horrors? What do you do when that same reminder is so powerful, and the horrors are so important, that that reminder becomes a part of the fabric of a nation's character?

Riga has a problem. What to do with the Building on the Corner, and the darkness that lies within?

Stūra māja ("The Building on the Corner") is open as part of Riga 2014 until October 19th. Upstairs exhibitions and the cellar tour cost 5 Euro. Main exhibition free.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


At thirty thousand feet above the ground, my heart breaks.


I am not built for Business Class. The gentlemen to my left, wearing shirt and suit and sipping Scotch, frantically types emails to remote colleagues, running his hotel empire from the skies. En route to Singapore, he had embarked fresh from a meeting and is heading straight to another. His body language is deliberate; his emails are succinct. He is a professional businessman: he is to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, I have found the buttons that make the seats go up and down.

And through the perks of business travel — the myriad films, television programmes, radio stations, music albums and even interactive language classes; the four course meals and fine dining; and that ultimate luxury, a bed on an aeroplane — I fail to conform. I do not want to sit and watch a screen. I do not want to sit and do business. I want to know the stories of those travelling. I want to know what is taking them to where they are going. I want to know their businesses, and how they fit in to this world. But most of all, I want to see what is going on outside that window.

It is mid-afternoon, and not a cloud can be seen in the sky. Out there, through my tiny portal from this irrelevant flying metal tube, is the red centre of the entire Australian subcontinent. Dust and spinifex dominate for hundreds of miles. Barely a human scratch can be seen on this scorched surface. The Great Dividing Range and the plains beyond have disappeared, the ground has morphed from yellow-green to yellow, and now the rust colour is kicking in. Giant old river networks stretch across this desolate place, their long evaporated waters leaving behind bleached scratches and scars, deceased capillaries of a once pulsating lung.

We fly so quickly, yet the landscape passes so slowly. I turn back to my screen, lower my seat once more and watch my film. Yet whereas in any other context this otherwise decent picture would keep my attention, I, like the titular hundred-year old man who was to climb out of a window and disappear, am desperate for a story, for an adventure. The seat motor whirs as I lift again to peer out on to the world below. My neighbour ignores me, and orders a refill of Scotch.

Desert. Dust. Spinifex. A road! Houses! A grid based system so far from anywhere, on the shores of a salty lake relic. What possesses such souls to live in a desperate place like this? What draws them here? What sustains them?

The town passes. I return to my film. It is not long before the window is my theatre stage once more.

Lines, perfectly straight, pattern a ground that has quite suddenly become a much stronger red. We are over the red spot in the centre of the continent: the Simpson Desert, an erg or sand sea. For hundreds of miles, in all directions, nature has been practising with set squares. Her winds have whipped up the sand into perfect dunes, untouched by man. Her flaming carmine palette flaunts her ores, so lucrative to this mining nation.

Suddenly a sizeable town. It can only be Alice. I am flying above Alice Springs — Uluru might be visible from the other side of the plane! My face is wedged against the window. My attention is rapt.

It is at this moment that my heart begins to ache.

It has not even been a full day since my three-year old niece, fresh from her bedtime story, had been found defying her parent's instructions to go to sleep. After much singing heard over the monitor hidden in her room, her mother had gone to investigate, while I sat in their living room, glowing with pride from having been personally selected to read to her one last time before I flew home. Her mother returned to describe how my niece, far from sleepy, was pressed up against the window, enraptured by the traffic on the street below, by the lights and the sights of this corner of the city. She had been desperate to know all that was going on below, just as I am now, thirty-three thousand feet above and many hundreds of miles west from that moment, heading much further away.

My hardened soul had been melted. The in-laws I so rarely get to see had welcomed me in, loved me, cared for me, entertained me and accepted me in a way I had not been expecting. It had been so comfortable and had felt so right to be one of their clan for a few days. I had been uncle to the greatest niece and a miracle nephew. I had been brother to the most loving of people.

Desert. Dust. Spinifex. Desert. Dust. Spinifex. Ocean. Volcano. Night time.


Image sources: 1 2 3

Sunday, 27 July 2014

King George Square

I'D had a day of wandering. Partly, this was to fill time, to make the most of a rare free day before business began. Mostly, however, it was to fend off jet lag, for I had arrived at 7am after a day of flights on the back of a full working day, with little sleep in between.

I packed it in. First there was the music emanating from the West Side, next the story of the kuril and the elephant, the dinosaurs, the Nepalese pagoda and finally the lizards of the botanic gardens. I was all ready to head back to my hotel, when I heard it.

"ABC. Easy as 123."

Except... this was no Jackson 5 song. As far as I recall, the Jackson 5 version did not include such words as 'boycott' or 'Israel'. I walked towards the sound. There, in the shadow of a cafe whose logo is of Batman, the masked vigilante, a speaker rallied masses to boycott Israel.

No matter your feelings, expertise or interpretation, sometimes a sight is truly stronger than words, certainly stronger than words I can think of. The sight of 1000 people, including children, marching in solidarity with Gaza through the streets of Brisbane, is one I shall never forget.