KGB Museum

YOUR Home Away From Home

It is not your run-of-the-mill museum. Exhibits include water torture cells and banal documents ordering the execution of prisoners. Located in the former KGB headquarters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, the Genocide and Resistance Centre offers visitors a chilling first-hand look at a dark chapter from the Baltic state's past.

Better known as the KGB museum, it is the only one of its kind in the former Soviet Union. ``This building stands as a symbol of Lithuanian suffering. Almost every Lithuanian family suffered during the Soviet occupation,'' said museum director Eugenijus Peikšienis. Six years after Lithuania celebrated its newly acquired independence by dynamiting a huge Lenin statue across the road, the centre attracts more than 10,000 visitors each year. Many of the guides are former inmates.


Built in 1899 to serve as a court house in what was then Czarist Russia, the sprawling building was appropriated by the dreaded NKVD, the KGB's predecessor, when dictator Joseph Stalin snuffed out Lithuania's independence in 1940. Used by the Gestapo during the Nazi-occupation from 1941-44, the NKVD returned in 1944 after the advancing Red Army swept back into Lithuania. That initiated a new wave of terror from 1944-53, which saw some 350,000 Lithuanians packed into cattle cars and shipped to Siberia. In the same period, 15,000 people suspected of anti-Soviet activities were brought to the NKVD building in Vilnius for questioning. More than 700 were shot and what is believed to be their remains have been uncovered in a mass grave a few kilometers (miles) from the city centre.

``Many of the people brought here were tortured in the cells in the basement,'' said Peikšienis.  Sleep depravation was a favorite method of extracting information. In the two water isolation cells, prisoners had to stand on a cement slope built into a wall to avoid standing in a room flooded with cold water several inches deep. Falling asleep meant toppling into the water and a rude awakening. In another basement cell used for interrogation purposes, padded walls muffled the victims' screams. Prisoners who violated the rules were locked for up to seven days in the unheated and windowless solitary confinement cell. Their daily ration of 300 grams (10.59 ounces) of bread and a half liter (about a pint) of water was pushed though a tiny slot in the heavy wooden door.


The prison's inmates included former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Arrested in Vilnius in September 1940 for heading a Zionist youth organization, he was detained in the NKVD building for several days of questioning and later transfered to another prison. In an ironic twist of history, he was deported to Siberia one week before Hitler's June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. That trip probably saved his life. More than 90 percent of Lithuania's pre-war Jewish population of 220,000 perished in the Holocaust. Begin's NKVD file is one of thousands now stored in the KGB archives.

``The KGB personal who fled the building in 1991 only shredded and burnt documents implicating themselves and those who worked for them,'' said Virginija Rudienė, the museum's deputy director. Several bags of shredded documents are on display in the museum. ``But from the earlier periods, most of the documents on prisoners are intact,'' she said. One of the files is that of Adolfas Ramanauskas, 1918-1956, a leader of the ``Forest Brothers,'' Lithuanian partisans who waged guerrilla war against the Soviet military until 1962. Arrested in October 1956 and shot in November the following year, his prison photo and execution order are displayed outside the grim confines of his former cell.

Several Lithuanian clergymen were also imprisoned here and at least one bishop was shot on the premises. Some inmates left personal records. ``Helena Boufal 8-VII 43,'' is one of several inscriptions carved by prisoners into the walls of their cells.

The building may yield more grisly secrets. ``We think this was the room where condemned prisoners were shot,'' said Rudienė as she pointed to a bullet-sized hole in a dank, dark room with a low curved ceiling. The room is closed to the public as archeologists begin digging to see what lies beneath the floor. ``This room is not included in any KGB map of the building and they built a second, thick cement floor over the original floor,'' she said. ``They must have had something to hide. We are going to find out what it was.''