Kaliningrad: Russia’s Outpost in Europe’s Heart

Kaliningrad is one of the world’s ugliest cities. It is full of crumbling communist estates, with glinting neon hoardings. Maintenance is unheard of and faulty wiring hangs across dank, filthy socialist avenues, each wide enough for three tanks abreast. Entertainment of a sort exists at the five half-empty “Euro” malls, where things are seldom bought. There is a Karl Marx Avenue, a Felix Dzerzhinsky Street and a Lenin Prospect, just like anywhere else in Russia. A new yet tasteless church, a white slab of golden domes, is in Victory Square. There is a regular mist, which, because of the pollution, tastes a bit like toast. It is almost impossible to believe this misery was once a beautiful German city known as Königsberg, where Kant thought, Herder wrote and Prussia began. 

It is now Russia’s outpost in the heart of Europe. The Kaliningrad Oblast (regional administrative area) is cut off from the motherland and sandwiched between the EU member states of Lithuania and Poland. The Kremlin regularly threatens to station short-range nuclear missiles here to cajole Nato into abandoning expansion or defence plans. Today, its population is almost entirely Russian, but its history is anything but. Prior to its capture in 1945 by the Red Army, it was known as East Prussia. Stalin renamed his prize after his blind lackey, Mikhail Kalinin, who sent his own wife off to the Gulag and never deigned to visit. 

This quintessentially German town was founded in 1255 by the Teutonic Knights. Here, the kings of Prussia were crowned and the virtues of order and militarism instilled for centuries. Expansive aristocratic estates surrounded old Königsberg. A great Lutheran university emerged, whose idealist philosophy would determine much of the course of Western civilisation. But the city was also cradle to an expansionary militarism that viciously denied Eastern Europe’s ethnically mixed realities. Persecutions in East Prussia did not begin with the Nazis. In the late 19th century, forced Germanisation and discrimination against a large Polish minority attracted international opprobrium. 

When the province was detached from the fatherland by the Versailles Treaty, racism thrived. In the infamous 1933 election, the Weimar Repubic’s last, more than 55 per cent of votes were cast for the Nazis. For Goebbels, this was “Fortress Königsberg”. 

But “Fortress Königsberg” would become the first German city on the Red Army’s relentless march westwards. Hitler’s nightmare of the great Dark Age migrations of starving Germanic hordes began to come to life. Survivors recall that you could hear the frontline edging ever forward. Eight million Germans were ethnically cleansed from the territories formerly known as Pomerania, Silesia and East Prussia. These territories had been German for longer than Bordeaux has been French. As Soviet forces bombarded the city from all sides, British bombers detonated phosphorous bombs on the civilian population. The combined effects upon Königsberg would be the equivalent of a small nuclear bomb. Today, these measures against non-combatants would be classed as war crimes. 

At the 1945 Potsdam Conference, East Prussia was divided between Poland and the USSR, which was awarded Kaliningrad. A systematic erasing of German traces was begun, and virtually completed in 1969 with the blowing up of its attractive medieval castle and its replacement with a brutalist party headquarters, “The Soviet House”. Germans were systematically ethnically cleansed until the early 1950s. By 1991, ony four were left.

Every year, the glorious victory in the “Great Patriotic War” is remembered with louder bands and more energetic ardour. Yet at first the place seems to have no history at all. Six alcoholics have made the iron circular sculpture commemorating the three cosmonauts of Kaliningrad their hangout. They are not alone. Groups of drunks and slumped drug addicts are more or less everywhere. Hunched and headscarfed babushkas flog buckets of their unappetising nodular vegetables. They are survivors of the Communist Party’s drive to collectivise, Stalin’s purges, Hitler’s Barbarossa, Brezhnev’s totalitarianism and Yeltsin’s social chaos and economic casino. 

The factories have mostly closed. The jobs will not come back. Humiliated men without work turn to the bottle. Women talk about being abused. Their sons are not remotely equipped for the e-age. Pretty girls torture their waists and put themselves online to be “your Russian bride”. Hustlers hook up these women with seedy losers who come here for cheap and easy sex. 

Normal Russians live in a socially failed modernity. Kaliningrad exemplifies this. Across the Federation, the average man dies at 59. Putin’s government has admitted a 30 per cent surge in poverty since 2008. Officially, 24 million people are living on less than £110 a month. It is estimated that around six per cent of Russians go hungry. Around 10 per cent of Russian women are infertile due to crude abortions. Unemployment has at least doubled since 2008. Estimates of the number of heroin addicts range as high as six million. At least a million Russians are HIV-positive. Putin has restored stability and military power while creating a prosperous but disconnected super-elite. He has not stopped the social rot. 

Kaliningrad’s misfortune is to be a colonial territory in the heart of Europe. The Kremlin has insisted that its isolated enclave has the same visa regulations as the rest of Russia. This has severed once rich economic ties with Poland and Lithuania. Like any other province in the country, the local governor is a Kremlin crony viewing his time here as a step on the way to bigger things in Moscow. 

People are growing angry. Kaliningrad has seen the biggest mass protest in Russia since the collapse of the USSR. On 30 January, more than 10,000 people gathered in the main square, calling for the governor and even for Putin to resign. The mass action shocked the Kremlin. The regime is strong enough to kill a few journalists but it does not have the strength for anything approaching a “Tiananmen option”. In late February, around 2,000 demonstrators took to the streets again, demanding the right to elect regional officials. Nervously, the Kremlin told the governor to talk to a protest leader about “problems of an exclusively economic nature”. Putin had blinked. Anti-Soviet protests broke out first in the Baltic because locals lived close enough to Europe to see how far their lives were lagging behind those further to the West. With the Baltic states now in the EU, the contrast is stark. “We have been left behind in this ghetto,” sighed a chain-smoking hospital director. “They promised we’d catch up, but we’ve fallen further behind.” 

Those who participated in the protests complained about what Russia had become. “The country is now just a petrol station,” was a frequent gripe. “We thought Putin’s authoritarianism was about restoring order to make democracy work, but the birth of United Russia as a dominant party shows he is making us another China,” said a university teacher. “Recently, the authorities have started asking us in our dormitories who we voted for,” complained one student. “The young generation think this is an embarrassment. We have been to Europe and we don’t want to live like Asians.” Those who had protested spoke of the older generation with contempt. “They are Soviets whose heads are still full of propaganda. We are different,” was a frequent complaint. Those who didn’t protest gave their excuses. “If I protested it would be bad for my career. It’s like living under a constant pressure,” explained a primary school teacher. 

The protests were partly organised by activists from the new united opposition movement, Solidarity. Ilya Yashin, a popular blogger, explained its strategy: “Previously, we have focused on trying to raise an opposition where the living is too good, like in Moscow, and one is not needed. We ignored the small towns where most people live. We successfully organised protests in Vladivostok. This is the region’s first strategy.” Boris Nemtsov, the pre-eminent opposition leader in Russia today, told me: “We are trying to build a network out in the provinces where people only have state TV and simply don’t know that there is an alternative.” The protest in Kaliningrad is the first sign that young Russians are not all comfortable with Putin’s drift towards “the China model”.

The longer I spent in Kaliningrad, the more of Königsberg I began to see. I started to notice that many of the dilapidated buildings I had presumed to be Russian were actually German. The Hotel Moscow turned out to have previously housed an insurance company. The old German cathedral still stands, thanks to Lenin’s adulation of Kant as one of the sources of Marxist-Leninism. The tomb of the philosopher sits beside it. But when one enters the building, the first sight is a framed copy of Putin’s business card beside the ticket office. Some of the old red-brick renaissance gates of the city are visible. One is now a restaurant, with a plaque saying Putin himself has eaten there. Packs of wild dogs roam streets where the trams still run on German tracks.

Russians seem nostalgic for a past so destroyed they could even appropriate some of Königsberg’s as their own. The young have taken to affectionately calling the city “Konig”, aware that its German past is the only way of attracting the attention of tourists or business. Old photos adorn café walls. There is a sense of shame among the Russians that they have not been able to build anything that matches its former glory. Yet the overriding emotion is one of absence. Königsberg is dead and exists only in dwindling memory. 

In search of German ghosts, I took a trip to a remote corner of the countryside, through towns renamed after the Red Pioneers who settled here after the war: “Soldiers”, “Sovietish”, “Fishermen.” 

After an hour and half, we reached the seashore. Sergei, the driver, cranked open the boot and produced the usual crumpled photograph of an unattractive little girl. “My daughter.” Her hands are plunged into shoals of orange glass beads. “That’s our amber. Sometimes the sea brings it in. Let’s have a look at that beach. A great place for windsurfing.” 

Sergei lights up. Small-talk is an art, and I am bereft of it. “Are these German houses?” I ask rhetorically. The road is lined with poplar trees. They remind me of Lorraine. The red-brick houses, with their mock-
Teuton window-frames, are fully detached. There is an air of Surrey about it all. “Yes. The Germans used cruisers to bomb the towns as they retreated. But not this one. They held out here until after he [Hitler] had committed suicide. There were hundreds of thousands of refugees gathering here.” I can’t imagine what tens of thousands of refugees on a beach sound like. Or smell like. 

We trudge on. “Stalin wanted a German town, so he took Königsberg. At first people were too scared to come. They thought the Germans would come back and go…” He bats his hand against the air. “Some Germans stayed. They were deported in the 1950s. They had great apartments and my parents got a nice fully equipped…” We are almost at the beach. The snow is rolled into the sand by the wind. 

“Have you ever met a German?” 

Sergei smokes right down to the filter. “Well, usually I take German tourists around. Sometimes they cry. But quickly we Russians tell them it’s OK and sometimes we visit them in Germany. It’s good to make connections.” A strange pang hits me. Can’t you even be proud of what you’ve done, rather than profiteering from heritage tours to buy a new home appliance?  

The night is drawing in. The regimented poplar trees that line this long, formerly suburban road cast Euclidean shadows. I think of the Russian conscripts who howled when they broke into Prussian larders and found neatly stacked jars of jam. “Why had they invaded our lands where there has been no jam since 1914?” Königsberg was thus destroyed in the Carthaginian manner, with experimental flame-throwers and bulldozers, its annihilation built into the plan. 

The guide has rushed back to the car. “I show the Germans this.” It is a laminated map of the area, covered in a thick coating of place names. We are in Yantarny, formerly Pamlicken. He grins. “The Germans find this very interesting. They pay good money to see these sights. Take photos. Come back every year.” 

I noticed a Star of David engraved on a monument on the shore. “What’s that?” Sergei dusts snow from a plaque. “פנ“[Hebrew for “Here Lies”] Here in 1945 more than 7,000 Jews were marched into the sea by the German Army.” Marched into the sea? There is something so medieval about this that I shudder to think that some of the perpetrators may still be alive.

Pink pastels scrawled across the sky, and thick bouncy clouds. What a nice sunset. What a lovely beach. It’s a little too much. 

“Have you ever been windsurfing?”

There were no waves upon the iced sea. 

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