Picture this: It’s 1910 and you are a sailor in the Russian navy stationed at a Baltic port in Liepaja. You and some buddies go out for a drink and get into a fight with some rowdy locals. The next morning, you are arrested by your commanding officer and sentenced to three days in jail for your disorderly conduct. But you don’t get to serve your time in the relative comfort of the county clink. You need to be taught some soldierly discipline at Karosta Prison, the local correctional facility for czarist Russia.
Karosta Prison was opened in 1900 primarily as an emergency place to incarcerate sailors involved in a revolt aboard a Russian ship. The lovely red brick building was quickly converted from a hospital, the large windows sealed shut and the interior walls painted an ominous black. Amazingly, the prison was in use until 1997.
Tours of Karosta Prison are given on the hour in a multitude of languages. We joined the English tour with four Lithuanians, two Germans and one Ukrainian. Another group was made up of the 30 or so Latvians and Russians. Our guide, dressed in an old military uniform, explained the grim conditions that awaited soldiers inside the jail.
The cells contained no furniture of any kind save for wooden pallets on the floor, where prisoners slept. They were not given any blankets, sheets, or pillows, and the lights were kept on throughout the night. Six people were assigned to each tiny cell and body heat was the only thing that kept them warm in winter.
The prisoners were woken up in the night to use the bathroom en masse, with the men from five cells given just thirty minutes to take care of business. They also ate together in the canteen; no food was allowed in the cells.
Discipline was the name of the game at Karosta Prison, and the soldiers had strict rules to follow. For one hour every day, they had to endure political studies while squatting with their backs to the wall. If they fell over or sat down, they would be sentenced to solitary confinement. Our guide had us sit like that for as long as we could and within seconds my legs were screaming. She said the pose came to be known as “the earthquake” because by the end of the hour their bodies were shaking violently.
We were also shown the exercise yard, where prisoners were put through their paces, rain or shine. Workouts included running laps around the perimeter of the prison and an insane number of push-ups. If someone faltered, the entire group was punished with even more push-ups. Afterwards, the guilty party was often beat up by his cellmates. Of course, if they took the punishment too far and broke his arm, they’d all be given time in solitary. Our guide locked us in there for several minutes and it was no picnic. The room was utterly and totally dark and didn’t even have a pallet on the floor. I was on the verge of a panic attack when the Ukrainian kindly lit up the room with his phone.
Control of the region changed hands several times, from czarist Russia to Latvia, through the Soviet era and finally back to Latvia. Karosta, which means “War Port” in Latvian, was for decades a Soviet military installation so secret that it was left off maps and civilians were banned from entering. Today, the area is home to apartment blocks and playgrounds that have seen better days, and surprisingly beautiful tree-lined boulevards.
The golden onion domes of St. Nicholas Maritime Cathedral rise above Karosta like a beacon of light. Resembling Russian Orthodox churches from the 17th century, it was built in 1901 and consecrated by Nicholas II, the unfortunate last Czar of Russia. The Cathedral’s once ornate interior was stripped of its valuables during World War I, and the Soviets later turned it into a recreation center. Church services were resumed in December 1991.
Since it was a lovely summer day, we decided to walk the four kilometers from Liepaja to Karosta Prison. This was a decision we would come to regret as the blazing sun took its toll and we realized that the hour and a half could have been spent more fruitfully. But we did see some fascinating things along the way, from abandoned factories and a ghost train resting eerily amid the dunes, to a peaceful cemetery and one of the oldest bridges in the region.
Visiting Karosta Prison
Tours start every hour, on the hour, from 10am to 5pm, and are available between May 1 and September 30. Tickets cost €4.27. There are also various reality games available for groups. Click here for more information.
Another option is to spend the night at the prison – it’s actually a working hostel! Your stay won’t be the least bit comfortable, but it will certainly be memorable. I’m not up for the challenge, but rooms can be booked through HostelWorld.com if you dare.