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Dark Tourism – Inmate in a Soviet Prison

The light flickers rapidly before the prison guard starts yelling. First in Russian, then in English. I don’t longer hear the actually words, but knows what to do: Get out of bed, leave the cell and stand at attention on the right side of the door, while the guard searches my cell. It’s the third time tonight, but I have no idea about what time it is. Only that it’s still black night. When he is done throwing my bed around (it’s not actually a bed, just a couple of wooden planks for a matrass and a few blankets) I get locked up in my cell again, with the knowledge that I need to clean up before I can go back to bed – otherwise there will be additional punishments.

I’m part of an “Extreme Night” play at Karosta Prison – an old KGB prison in Liepaja,Latvia. Lasting from 9pm to 9am. The stuff in the cell is not mine, that’s locked up somewhere else, and I had a thorough briefing about what to expect(and signed a contract) before being allowed to participate.

It’s all a play, where it’s possibly to experience some of the horrors prisoners under the KGB were exposed to during Soviet times. All in all, I was woken up five times during the night, with the trashing of my “bed” as part of all of them.On the fourth time the bed wasn’t made well enough and I was forced to clean the most degusting (squat) toilets I’ve ever seen… I really hope the shit on the floor – and everywhere else – was fake!

The idea sounds repulsive, I know. The horrors of the KGB – exposed to innocent people just 20 years ago – performed as a game. But it was a possibility I just couldn’t miss out on.

 

The concept is called Dark Tourism. And was first coined in 1996 by two British professors who defined it as: “the phenomenon which encompasses the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites”.

It still sound’s rather repulsive that sites associated with deaths and disasters should be the end goal for tourists and travellers, and that people make a profit on the suffering and deaths of – sometimes – thousands.

The concept isn’t new however. Think of gladiator fights in Rome or public executions. These practises have luckily been abandoned, but have been replaced with sites such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Ground Zero. Hundreds ofthousand visitors visits these places each year – something they surely wouldn’t have if there had been no deaths in connection to the imprisonment of Jews or attach on the WTC buildings.

Granted,visiting a prison; living there for a night; in a place no one have ever heard of, seems more horrendous then a visit to Ground Zero. And sure the literature on the subject of Dark Tourism devise between pale, grey, dark and black forms of Dark Tourism. Ground Zero would probably be considered pale, Auschwitz and the Extreme Night experience dark and visiting a public execution in China or the Congo as black.

The literature also differs on the reasons why people travel to these places: from visiting a grave or assassination scene of a celebrity, where the visit focuses more on the persons’ lives that their deaths; over a focus on historic significance or nostalgia at battlefields and memorials, such as Utah Beach; to fantasies about stepping in the footsteps of the death in order to experience the borderline between life and death in a safe distance; and finally directed integrations with death by going on tourist tours to places like besiege Sarajevo during the civil wars in the Balkans. So to some extent all of these reasons are educational.

A less morbid reason – also mentioned in the literature – for visiting sights and places for dark tourism is the traveller wanting to ‘survive to tell the tale’:to go somewhere to be able to tell “I went there” or “I did that”.

 

So why did I spend a night locked up at Karosta Prison, cleaning toilets?

Some of the reason is definitely the prize: To be able to write this story. But this is only a (big) bonus to the experience. I must admit to being fascinated by everything Soviet or Communist. As every boy I liked to play “war” and some of that fascination is left in me. During the last few weeks, I’ve been visiting old Soviet facilities in Estonia, a nuclear bunker in Latvia, a half a dozen of WWII memorials and a handful of museums describing the Soviet occupation of the Baltics, and I’m on my way to an old nuclear missile silo.

So a big part of my visit was to learn, how KGB-prisoners was treated. And although I knew it was artificial and that it would end in the morning, the night gave me just a glimpse of what those poor people went through. Not that I have the mental capacity to imagine how it have actually been! I don’t think anybody who hasn’t tried the real thing can… But I’ve learn from it – both about myself and about a world that just ended.Remember it isn’t more than 22 years ago, within my lifetime, that the Soviet Union was finally dissolved in 1991.

So for all the above reasons, with the exception of the integration with death, I’ll continue to visit, and to go out of my way to do so, sights of Dark Tourism.

It might be hard to accept that these sighs are becoming touristy-lized. But if it can be done, without disregard or contempt for the victims and their families,dark tourism sites – whether it is memorials, prison tours or Holocaust extermination camps – should be kept open and visited in order to remember the crimes and horrors that happened there. In order to make sure that it never happens again!

Journal info

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Photos

  • Karosta Prison - probably the most scary hostel in the world

  • My 'room'

  • The latrine

  • Abandoned Soviet housing blocks in Karosta

  • And a peek inside

  • Old Soviet newspapers

  • The view from 4th floor

  • A surprisingly bonus with the areas 50 years as top secret military base: pristine beaches