Features Revisiting Kaliningrad and Its Region

The city of Kaliningrad itself with its 450,000 inhabitants has acquired a European face. New buildings and shops have appeared all over the center, and the modern shopping malls are packed with both imported and Russian products, marked and sold with electronic bar codes.

Published on balticworlds.com on January 9, 2012

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While the political landscape in Russia has remained relatively stable since Putin came to power in 2000, the country has undergone significant economic and cultural changes. In order to investigate how this has worked out in a Russian region, I made a trip to Kaliningrad in November 2011, my first visit since 1999. I also went to Sovetsk (Tilsit) to check whether developments were the same in a smaller town. I got several fresh impressions and new insights.

The first thing I discovered was that, during the winter, the region has its own time zone, one hour ahead of the Baltic states and one hour behind Moscow, which must be rather confusing. But I was glad to note that nowadays not only Russian airlines fly there, but also the Latvian airline AirBaltic, the Ukrainian Aerosvit, and the Polish LOT. SAS is planning to reopen a route from Copenhagen in March 2012. As elsewhere, the tickets are much cheaper than before.

A European City

A first general impression is that Kaliningrad has become quite a modern European city. This is a result of Russia’s economic recovery in the 2000s and the region’s status as a special economic zone, which has meant customs-free trade with the neighboring states, large-scale smuggling to and from Russia, and tax breaks for investment. The Khrabrovo airport terminal for example, which originally served the Soviet fishing fleet, has undergone a total makeover. The new airport was built by the local airline KD Avia in the late 2000s and was intended as a hub between Russian and major European cities, but the airline soon went bankrupt. In place of the old one-story terminal building with its single security and customs lines, there is now a modern, Western-style, multi-story, glass-and-steel building with many arcades, shops, and multiple security checkpoints. In addition to the usual host of more or less legal taxi drivers in black leather jackets offering “bargain” prices, a traveler now finds a taxi reception desk offering fair fixed prices, and the taxis even have meters.

The roads and streets are also being improved. Instead of the old narrow road from the airport to the city, there is now a broad modern highway with lamp posts lining it from end to end. Cynics claim that the former governor Boos had a personal stake in the lamp factory and made a lot of money. In addition, a ring road is being built around the city and connected to a highway between the small towns along the coast (Baltiiskoe koltso). This may have to do with the fact that many rich Russians have built fortress-like summer houses along the coast, which is advertised as an alternative to the Black Sea to Russian and Western tourists. Putin has made Svetlogorsk and its five-star Grand Palace hotel a venue for political summit meetings, and a presidential residence is being built nearby. The region is also planned to become one of Russia’s four legal casino zones.

The city of Kaliningrad itself with its 450,000 inhabitants has acquired a European face. New buildings and shops have appeared all over the center, and the modern shopping malls are packed with both imported and Russian products, marked and sold with electronic bar codes. Computers and cellphones are everywhere. In order to cater to businesspeople and tourists, there are a number of rather expensive international restaurants and cafés, including one in the town hall. An example is the fashionable café chain Kruasan. Genuine Russian or Caucasian restaurants catering to the numerous guest workers from all over the former Soviet Union have become hard to find in the center.

Several modern hotels have also popped up in the city, the latest addition being a luxurious Radisson. I chose the hotel called Kaliningrad, which was the city’s biggest in Soviet times. I remembered a large wall relief of the Soviet Union in the lobby and a good view towards the river Pregel and the German cathedral. Now I found that the interior has been totally renovated and the view is now partly blocked by a new building and a large flashing advertising display. The traffic has grown so tremendously that Kaliningrad is second only to Moscow in the number of cars per capita.

A Soviet Russian City

However, beneath this modern European veneer, Kaliningrad remains a very Soviet and Russian city. The population is a true Soviet mixture, dominated by Russians. The huge House of the Soviets (Dom Sovetov), which was begun in the 1970s but never finished due to weak foundations, still stands as a modern ruin in the very center, overlooking the river. It is now commonly called the Monster, and in the words of Kristian Gerner in his excellent book Ryssland – en europeisk civilisationshistoria (2011), it has become a fitting symbol of the Soviet epoch. The only change to the ruin in forty years was a light blue coat of paint for the city’s 750th anniversary in 2005. Today it only serves as an antenna platform.

The Mother Russia war memorial, erected in place of a Stalin statue, stands near the main avenue, which is still called Leninskii Prospekt. The central square, formerly Ploshchad Lenina, has been completely remodeled and renamed Victory Square. A victory column, albeit unfinished, stands in the middle, and the ubiquitous Lenin statue has been moved to the far end of Leninskii Prospekt. The square is flanked by a stately new Orthodox cathedral, the second largest in Russia. It was consecrated in 2006, sixty years after the city was renamed. Next door there is a chapel financed by private donors, among whom the former governor Boos is mentioned first.

Modern war memorials were erected in the 2000s, some of them in connection with various anniversaries. Next to the History and Art Museum is a statue of Alexander Marinesko, the submarine commander who sank the liner Wilhelm Gustlow in the Baltic Sea with 9500 refugees, most of them civilians, in January 1945. It was the worst maritime disaster in history, and the statue has angered German visitors. Marinesko’s boyish face indeed makes a strange impression.

The popular Oceanography Museum has been enlarged and modernized. It exhibits the research ship Vitiaz, a Foxtrot submarine and a display of naval weapons along the river bank, but there are also civilian and scientific departments worth seeing. On an adjacent promontory is a new war memorial, topped by a statue of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker with a sword in his right hand. Kaliningrad thus clearly illustrates the general rule that the Russian army and the Orthodox church, apart or together, are the pillars of the postcommunist Russian state’s power. The victory in the war has become Russia’s main legitimizing legacy, replacing the October Revolution and Marxism-Leninism.

One more legacy from the Soviet period must be mentioned, namely the widespread poverty and decay that can still be observed alongside all the novelties of the last decade. Beyond the central streets, the city and its outskirts are characterized by ugly apartment blocks, pot-holed streets, unkempt parks, and stray dogs. Indeed, in socio-economic terms, the whole region ranks very low in Russia.

The German Heritage

Every visitor to the Kaliningrad region is bound to look for remnants of its Prussian past and to be curious about how it is preserved. Most of the city was destroyed by British bombing in August 1944, and by the final Soviet attack in April 1945. All the surviving Germans fled or were expelled to Germany after the war, and the remnants of German culture (with a few “progressive” exceptions) were either destroyed, transformed, or left to decay when the new Soviet city was built.

However, when the Soviet Union fell apart and Russia established cordial relations with Germany, efforts were made to attract German tourists and local people became more interested in the region’s history, as Kristian Gerner and other researchers (including myself) have shown. In 2005 Russia celebrated the 750th anniversary of Königsberg, combining it for safety’s sake with the 60th anniversary of the city and region as parts of Russia. This event also brought federal money to brush up the face of the city.

The imposing royal castle, the ruins of which were pulled down in 1969 to make space for the House of the Soviets, has become a symbol of the city. German archeologists are now allowed to excavate the grounds (although the site is closed in winter), and a memorial stone from the castle has been placed in front of the other major German cultural site, the medieval cathedral. Restored with German assistance, the cathedral contains a museum, which has been recently enlarged with the reconstructed Wallenrodt library. Part of the museum is devoted to Immanuel Kant, who in Soviet times was respected as a predecessor to Marx, and has become the city’s favorite son. Next to Kant’s burial chapel, a new monument has been dedicated to Albrecht, the first Duke of Prussia and the founder of its first university (Collegium Albertinum, 1544). Formerly considered a representative of German expansionism, the duke is now praised as an ally of Muscovy. In his honor the Kaliningrad State University was first renamed Albertina in the 1990s, before it adopted the name Immanuel Kant Baltic University in 2005. It is now being renovated with federal funds.

Other extant German buildings have been carefully restored, including Lutheran churches, the city gates, and even fortification works, although historical connections with Russia are pointed out when possible. In connection with the city’s 750th anniversary, a mock-German “Fishing Village” was built on the river bank, which actually consists of modern hotels, restaurants, and a lighthouse. Baron von Münchhausen is also celebrated, because he visited the city twice.

The Monster, the Fishing Village, and the Circus

However, there is one element largely missing in Kaliningrad: its Jewish heritage. As elsewhere, the Nazis destroyed almost everything and the Soviets did not care about the rest. This is true of the big New Synagogue which stood near the present site of the Fishing Village. The spot has long been occupied by a circus, but the small Jewish community now wants to rebuild the synagogue. However, at the Northern Station a plaque has been put up commemorating the Nazi deportations of Jews. Furthermore, in cooperation with German and Israeli artists, a monument was set up in the town of Yantarny (Palmnicken) in January 2011, commemorating a death march from the Stutthof concentration camp in 1945, in which about 10,000 prisoners died. In Soviet times, nothing of the sort was done here.

Sovetsk (Tilsit)

In order to compare my impressions of Kaliningrad, I made a short trip by express bus to Sovetsk, the second largest town in the region with some 40,000 inhabitants. The bridge across the Neman river made Tilsit the Prussian gateway to the East during the 18th century. The bridge now marks the border with Lithuania. The town is most famous for the meeting of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I on a raft on the river, which led to the the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807. On that occasion the two emperors became allies, and Alexander agreed to force Sweden to join the continental blockade against England. In 1808 he started the Finnish war, which eventually led to the division of Sweden. The meeting is commemorated only by a plaque on the house where Alexander stayed.

The most important landmark in the town is the arched bridge that was inaugurated in 1907, one hundred years after the Tilsit treaty, and named for the Prussian queen Luise. Luise’s popularity was allegedly due to her efforts to persuade Napoleon to ease the truce conditions for Prussia. When the Soviets restored the bridge after taking the town in 1944, the relief of Luise on the arch was replaced by the Soviet hammer and sickle, but in about 2003 Luise’s image was restored to the bridge along with her name.

The rest of the town was not as thoroughly destroyed as Königsberg, and several nice German buildings can still be seen along the main street. In general, however, Sovetsk is true to its new name. As Ulla Lachauer says in her book Die Brücke von Tilsit: Begegnungen mit Preussens Osten und Russlands Westen (1994), the heart of the town, Schenkendorfer Platz, has changed beyond recognition. The statue of the native poet and the town hall have been replaced by an untidy lawn and a public toilet. No German churches have been restored. The main street is now called Victory Street, and Lenin still stands on the main square in front of the Rossiya hotel, where Leninskii Prospekt starts. Soviet political slogans are visible on the walls.

The town museum devotes one room to the sad history of the once famous Tilsit cheese. After the war the factory moved to Switzerland. Later an attempt was made to relaunch it in Sovetsk under the name of Sovetskii, but it did not catch on. Now, the town is trying to launch a sausage called Tilsit instead.

Nowadays Sovetsk is dominated by heavy border traffic, and there are plans to build a ring road and another bridge to the Lithuanian side as the old bridge is often congested. Otherwise Sovetsk has not been much affected by the European modernization visible in Kaliningrad. There are few new shops, restaurants, and cafés. On the whole the town makes a depressing impression. It was also sad to see all the fallow fields and deserted farm houses along the road back to Kaliningrad, contrasting with the city’s lights and bustle.

East and West, Past and Present

Judging from the observations above, Kaliningrad has become an interesting postmodern city with a curious mixture of Prussian/German, Soviet/Russian, and European elements. The city has evidently developed a great deal in the last decade and can be compared with St. Petersburg as a Russian window on Europe. Living in an exclave surrounded by EU states, the inhabitants are also more exposed to Western influences than in other parts of Russia. The region’s unique Prussian heritage serves as a special link to Germany, even though little remains in a material sense and much of that is only cultivated for purposes of tourism. Despite these signs of change, the Soviet Russian imprint remains very strong, clearly visible behind the façades even in central Kaliningrad. The rest of the region, including the gateway town of Sovetsk, has been touched even less by the winds of change.

  • by Ingmar Oldberg

    Research associate at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) since 2009, member of its Russia and Eurasia programme, formerly Deputy Director of Research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).

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