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Russia: Kaliningrad Residents Wrestle With Meaning Of Their History, Identity (Part 1)

  • Jeremy Bransten

In recent months, Kaliningrad has figured in the headlines almost daily, as Moscow and the European Union attempt to work out a political compromise that will give residents of the isolated Russian territory freedom of movement without compromising the security of the EU, which will soon include neighboring Poland and Lithuania. Politicians on both sides have made their positions clear, but what do Kaliningrad's people think? How do they view themselves, their land, and their future?

Kaliningrad, 4 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Winding country roads lined with rows of linden trees, black-and-white dairy cows grazing by the seaside, stork nests -- initial impressions of Kaliningrad Oblast are bucolic. The spirit of East Prussia still imbues the landscape.

But it is the spirit of Sovietdom, with its hectares of broken concrete, crumbling apartment blocks, and rusty monuments, that defines the city of Kaliningrad. No Germanic tidiness here. No Russian lyricism. Just the brutality of Soviet urban planning.

Kaliningrad is a Soviet city, with a Soviet Street, a Lenin Prospekt, and a Komsomol Road, as well as a Lenin statue still standing on its main square. British bombs destroyed the Baroque spires and Gothic towers of old Koenigsberg in the closing days of World War II. And Moscow rebuilt the city center in its own image.

The irony is that Moscow, the Russian capital, long ago cast off its communist-era names, returning to its pre-Soviet ones. But Kaliningrad's pre-Soviet names are German and unsuitable. It is just one of the territory's peculiarities. There is no past to return to, and the future seems up in the air. One point that irks Kaliningraders most, however, is the coverage they receive in the foreign press, which invariably paints their territory in dismal tones. Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, for example, recently labeled Kaliningrad "Russia's hell-hole [exclave]."

Local historian Ilya Dementiev said outsiders should remember that Kaliningraders are not to blame for the fact that they have become a Russian island in what will soon be a sea of European Union states. "The position in which Kaliningrad residents find themselves is not of their own making. It was created by Comrade Stalin, who divided this territory up at the Potsdam conference, who set this time bomb, which has now gone off. Most of the people here are hostages of historical developments tied to the Cold War, the division of Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the relations [that] developed after the collapse of the socialist world. On the other hand, they are also hostages of political games, because most politicians use the Kaliningrad question to further their own aims without taking into consideration the interests of the local population," Dementiev said.

One of those interests is preserving Kaliningraders' current freedom to travel without a visa to the rest of Russia, as well as to the neighboring states of Poland and Lithuania. University student Andrei Kozlovskii said he and his friends travel most often to Poland. "I think it's just simple logic. People usually leave the oblast when they want to go on vacation. Sometimes they have relatives, and so they travel to Moscow or other parts of Russia. But it's easier, quicker, and cheaper to go on vacation in Poland or Lithuania. Poland is the easiest option. It's not a problem for us to hop in a car with the family and drive to Gdansk or Gdynia," Kozlovskii said.

In addition to quick trips to neighboring countries, an estimated 1.5 million people traveled between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia last year -- 90 percent of them by train or by car. Kaliningraders express concern about the likely introduction of visas by Poland and Lithuania next year, ahead of EU membership, not only because it will make it harder for them to travel West, but also because it could cut them off from the rest of Russia.

At present, Kaliningrad residents who want to go to Moscow, for example, can board a train transiting neighboring Lithuania using only their internal identification. Or they can go by car, also showing their internal passport. All this could change in three months, forcing people here either to fly or apply for a visa, which would be issued at the discretion of the Lithuanian authorities. One option is expensive; the other may simply be a complicated and potentially demeaning process.

Kozlovskii said he understands both sides of the issue, but it does not make the prospect of visas any more comforting. "On the one hand, visas are an ugly thing. For example, if I want to visit my aunt in Moscow, I will need to get a visa. What does this mean? It means that some bureaucrat will look into his database and make a decision on whether to allow me to cross the Lithuanian border or not, and he can decide not to let me cross. And he would then be preventing me from visiting my own aunt on the territory of my own country. That would just be wrong. On the other hand, I fully understand the policy of Lithuania, which logically, needs to know who is traveling across its territory. If we were to trade places, I'd want to know who's moving around my country," Kozlovskii said.

Journalist Yelena Anashenko noted that while Kaliningraders may eventually get used to visas, their relatives in the rest of Russia, especially those who live far away from Moscow, will not, and may abandon future travel plans to the territory. "We're talking about [the problem of traveling from] Kaliningrad, but there are also Russians who have relatives here. If for us, in time, getting a visa will become normal, for those living in the rest of Russia, it will be associated with extra trouble. And they will start to consider Kaliningrad to be cut off, since traveling there will mean obtaining special documents, more red tape, et cetera," Anashenko said.

Anashenko said she often ponders the issue of Kaliningrad's identity, whether people's ability to travel to other countries and their isolation from the rest of Russia makes them different from other Russians. "My friends and I often discuss this issue. Recently, Kaliningrad State University conducted a poll and it turned out that most Kaliningraders said they didn't consider themselves Europeans or Russians, just Kaliningraders. When my friends and I talk about it, this feeling comes up most often. We are Kaliningrad: not quite Russia but also not quite Europe," Anashenko said.

But not everyone agrees. Student Vladimir Bespalov does not believe in a unique Kaliningrad identity. "I personally consider myself to be Russian and all my roots are in Russia, so to speak about a special Kaliningrad identity -- I don't know. I'm just a Russian," Bespalov said.

Bespalov also rejected suggestions that the territory and city should find a way to shed its Soviet place names. "What do we mean by Soviet names? If we look at the streets of Kaliningrad, most of them are named after heroes who perished here in 1945. So renaming them would be blasphemous. It would mean forgetting our history, forgetting those who perished. And if we're talking about other Soviet names, like Kaliningrad, I think it's more a political problem than a social one. Lately, since 1991 [when the Soviet Union collapsed], or rather 1985 [when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power], a lot of mud has been thrown at the Soviet period and only the negative features were discussed. All the positive ones were forgotten. You get the feeling that the Soviet Union was a maniacal country that aimed not only to destroy itself but the entire world as well," Bespalov said.

Anashenko does not share Bespalov's sense of moral outrage at the drubbing the Soviet legacy has received, but she too, would oppose across-the-board name changes, but for purely personal, nostalgic reasons. "I grew up with Soviet names, and they are familiar to me. If everything is renamed on a mass scale, I'm no longer going to feel at home in this city," Anashenko said.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin, after whom the city is named, would also likely not feel at home here -- he never visited the territory. The decision to rename Koenigsberg in his honor was an accident of history. Kalinin died in 1946, just as the Kremlin was searching for a suitable Soviet name to replace Koenigsberg. Most Kaliningraders, Bespalov said, have long stopped associating their city's name with him. "The word 'Kaliningrad' is not associated with Mikhail Kalinin. Kaliningrad is just Kaliningrad. I only found out who Kalinin was when I was 5 or 6 years old. Kaliningrad is just Kaliningrad, a Russian city. It doesn't call to mind any other associations," Bespalov said.

This abstractness of place names is particularly striking in the Kaliningrad countryside. The landscape may in parts still look Prussian, but the names no longer describe the localities or bear any relationship to them. In 1946, all the territory's towns and villages were renamed in a matter of days by a military commission. Predictably, there are several "Sovetsks," a fair number of "Komsomolsks," but also, inexplicably an "Aralskoe," though the Central Asian sea lies thousands of kilometers to the east.

Historian Ilya Dementiev recalled that even in Soviet times, when all talk of Kaliningrad's prewar history was officially taboo, this lack of context prompted some, especially young people, to seek out links to another era. "It was forbidden fruit, and I remember well how, as a child, at the beginning of the 1980s, my friends and I took an interest in German buildings. We tried to describe them and photograph them. We undertook our own archeological digs and found German-made bricks and other objects. There was no information. We had to find our own ways. I remember the first chapter in a biography of [Immanuel] Kant published in Soviet times that was devoted to the history of Kant's native city. And this was the only legally available information about prewar Koenigsberg in Soviet times," Dementiev said.

As in other parts of the Soviet Union, local dissidents led a movement to uncover the past. After 1991, when open discussion about prewar Koenigsberg became possible, books were published and conferences organized on the issue. Former residents, long since exiled to Germany, began to return for visits.

But over the years, the flood of nostalgic visitors has thinned to a trickle and a locally inspired movement to rechristen the territory Koenigsberg has run out of steam.

The past, it turns out, has become an interesting footnote to local residents, but it is neither their past nor the past of their ancestors. It no longer speaks to them. Two years ago, the Russian oil company LUKoil proposed rebuilding the city's 700-year-old castle, torn down in 1969 on the orders of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. But the project was rejected. In its place remains the concrete hulk of what was to have been the House of the Soviets. The Soviet Union collapsed before the building could be completed, and the empty shell has come to symbolize the strange time warp the city finds itself in.

On Victory Square, a few blocks away, directly behind the Lenin statue, the government has decided instead to sponsor the building of a Russian Orthodox cathedral.

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