With a fair amount of trepidation, I had previously passed the imposing facade awaiting me. Moving past the infamous bricked-in windows, I walk down the steps to the KGB Prison Cells, one of many prisons still used by the NKVD/KGB into the 1990s.
Bars remain, closing off the blank hopelessness of the windows; slated benches are pushed against walls, interrogation tables command the room’s center, a lone urinal. Five printed photographs stand in one cell; others are there, a river of projected faces, much like a piece by Boltanski. Listening to the audio bank of memories, my eyes well up.
I make it to the final cell, in a separate corridor removed from the others. A place of solitary confinement for those who would not speak, despite the sleepless days and nights of delirium and torture, the torture depicted in the paintings by Joaan Saarniit that line the corridor, painted from visual memories that never ceased to invade his mind.
Closing the heavy metal door behind me, I slip inside the smallest cell. Its light shrouded as if never again could that space face the glare from a bare bulb never turned off. My hands touch the pockmarked scars on the bilious green curve of the wall that pushes inward, distorting my perception of space. I sit on the wooden slats of the narrow bench, looking for some small focal point in the room; the place to latch onto that people speak of who have endured solitary confinement. Looking up, a triangular void as black as pitch seems to stare back with sentience. A repository.
But the metal door has not fully closed. From the small crack, I overhear a portion of a tour given to a visitor filming a documentary: the bodies found in the courtyard, the description of torture, and the length of time in the cell I currently sit in with my door ajar.
Silently I sit in the dim light as a man is being questioned. He says he makes a point in his travels to visit places such as this in homage to those who have been tortured and killed, as a reminder of the preciousness of freedom. As a reminder of what happens when it fades away.
His grandfather was in a Nazi concentration camp.
Interview over, I push open the creaking door, passing back through the corridors, stumbling on the cobblestones into the sunlight of the street.
I order a coffee and review the news for the first time in over a week. I read of the meeting between Putin and Trump, Nato, another mass shooting – this time, not school children but journalists. I read about the refugee children ripped from their parents and placed in cages, the callous coat of a woman, the move toward the dissolution of unions, ICE raids, and protests. All this a fraction of the news this week. My eyes well up over coffee.
And this is why Silvia’s story is important. This is why I have traveled to Estonia.
So as not to forget the preciousness of freedom and what it means otherwise.