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Russia: Kaliningrad Archivist Fights To Save Exclave's History

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russia's Kaliningrad exclave is estranged from its German past. The city and district were ruthlessly Sovietized in the decades after World War II and 800 years of history were almost completely blotted out. Anatolii Bakhtin is a senior researcher at Kaliningrad's State Archive. He is waging a one-man battle to spare what's left of Kaliningrad's prewar heritage.

Kaliningrad, 7 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Born to Russian parents in postwar Kaliningrad just after the territory was taken over by the Soviet Union, Anatolii Bakhtin considers himself a native Kaliningrader -- one of the first.

Bakhtin spent his childhood watching the bombed-out German city of Koenigsberg uneasily transformed into the Soviet city of Kaliningrad -- a process which eventually led him to question the wisdom of liquidating 800 years of history for ideological purposes.

For the past 20 years, Bakhtin has headed efforts at the Kaliningrad State Archive to collect documentation about the territory's history and preserve as many remaining monuments as can be saved. But Bakhtin admits he is fighting a battle he is destined to lose. He spoke to RFE/RL from his book-lined office at the state archive.

"I travel around the oblast and I see that people show little interest in prewar history, for the most part. They all know, of course, that 'Germans lived here, everything was fine, very beautiful back then, flower beds everywhere and now, look what's become of it.' And I ask them, 'What's the reason for this?' And they tell me: 'Oh, we're Russians, you know. We've never lived well....' That's their relationship to things."

Bakhtin and one assistant are the only full-time archive staffers dedicated to researching Kaliningrad's prewar history. Bakhtin says little of the source material remains under his trusteeship; most documents related to the history of East Prussia are today in Germany or the neighboring Polish city of Olsztyn -- once also part of the territory.

"There are very few prewar documents from the original archive that have survived. We're talking about maybe 1-2 percent of the original total. Most of the archives were moved out after the British bombings of 1944. The municipal archive was destroyed, but the State Archive of Prussia remained. They understood that they could lose this too and began transporting it out. The largest part was taken to the rest of Germany and part was taken to current Polish territory. In Olsztyn, there is a large archive. Here, we just have a few 'accidental' documents -- as I said, 1-2 percent of the original file, about 1,200 sheets of paper."

What Kaliningrad does have are scores of historic Lutheran churches and other architectural monuments, scattered throughout the district, reflecting 800 years of Teutonic and Prussian history. Many are centuries old. Most are crumbling. Almost none serve their original purpose. They are vanishing, along with the villages they once towered over.

"There are fewer and fewer settlements. Everything is constantly being destroyed. People live by taking apart old buildings, which have remained, and selling the bricks to people building in the city. And that's how most people make a living."

In the 1990s, Bakhtin catalogued every prewar church he could find, researched its history and photographed it for posterity, hoping to publish a book. With Russia plunged into one economic crisis after another, and interest in his project low, no local publisher took the commission. In 1997, Germany's University of Luneburg published Bakhtin's unique record, with photographs of each half-ruined church juxtaposed with earlier shots and a detailed description. Bakhtin still hoped that the book would come out in Russian. It was part of his idealistic vision, he says.

"I thought if only I could take these books and distribute them in every village where there is an old church, the local inhabitants would read about the interesting history that each of these churches has. More than 55 of these churches were built in the time of the Teutonic Knights -- they are churches that date back to the Middle Ages which have no counterparts in all of Russia. They only exist here, in all of Russia, only on our territory. And I thought this would act as a brake, so that their destruction would stop. But now, I don't think it would help."

One of the few prewar monuments which has undergone some restoration in recent years is Kaliningrad's 14th century cathedral, where the philosopher Immanuel Kant is buried. Partially damaged during the closing days of World War II, the building stood without a roof for decades. Under the direction of former Red Army construction engineer Igor Odintsov, a new roof has been built and the interior is also being renovated. The project is largely financed by donations from Germany but has been criticized by many art historians and architects as deeply flawed. Odintsov is popular with the region's governor, who has given him a free hand in reconstructing the cathedral. As a result, his critics say, little attention has been paid to using appropriate materials, consulting original plans, or staying faithful to historical details.

Bakhtin gives voice to those concerns: "First of all, it's not clear what's going on: is it repair work, restoration work, or preservation? They haven't figured out what they are doing. And secondly, the quality is dreadful, very bad. They repaired a segment and put on the roof and the plaster started to crumble. So they 'repaired' it again, and again...."

Bakhtin says that in his view, Odintsov's method of working is unconventional, to say the least: "They began building, using old photographs and only at that point asked for an architectural blueprint. It's natural that all the architects who initially worked for him have left. All the principal architects of the city were against the project. But he is just unsinkable."

Bakhtin says that amid so much destruction of the past, he is happy to see at least an attempt being made at bringing one monument back to life. But he wonders how long it will be before the efforts have to start from scratch again: "On the one hand, it's a great feeling to see a roof on the church. But knowing how much money he used for the project and knowing that it's going to have to be redone at some point.... We were just fighting for the quality of the work."

Bakhtin, unlike many of his compatriots, is a proponent of rebuilding the city's castle, which once stood next to the cathedral but was razed to the ground in 1969, following an order by former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The site is now dominated by the unfinished hulk of what was to have been a "House of the Soviets." The tower was never completed and the area has been abandoned to rusting concertina wire and weeds.

"Everyone, I believe, needs the castle. We have a peculiar city. The old center is empty and why is it empty? Because no one knows how to build it up, what to build. If there were some sort of anchor -- if the House of the Soviets were taken apart and the anchor were made the castle once again -- everything would be clear. There would be a base and finally, the city center could be rebuilt. There are all sorts of projects for restoring the island on which the cathedral stands -- the former Altstadt [old city], Kneiphof. The old city can be rebuilt. A good example is Gdansk, where the old city was restored as it was -- at least the facades."

Bakhtin says the idea is more than a dream. Two years ago, the Russian oil giant LUKoil, which has significant investments in the district, offered to finance the castle's reconstruction.

"LUKoil proposed rebuilding the Koenigsberg Castle. There was such an idea. I spoke to their representatives and they asked me if they decided to go ahead with the project, would there be enough documents and plans to guide the reconstruction? In principle, we have all the documentation. All the floors are documented and I think it could be done. But the city administration asked why we needed a castle when we haven't yet built an Orthodox church (laughs)."

Bakhtin believes it's time for Kaliningrad to move beyond the Soviet period, and he supports the idea of renaming streets in the city, noting that the idea is not as impossible as it sounds.

"Many streets could have been renamed already -- not all, but many. Look at Komsomol Street. The Komsomol is long gone. So return the old name: Queen Luisa Street. It's a beautiful name. Take Lenin Prospekt. We have no Kant Street, so rename Lenin Prospekt Kant Street. It won't be a lot, but at least some things could be taken away: Soviet Prospekt. It's laughable. There is no Soviet power but we still have a Soviet Prospekt...."

Many people live in their own virtual past in Kaliningrad. The present seems uncertain, the future unpredictable. But one thing is clear to Anatolii Bakhtin: despite his best efforts, Kaliningrad's remaining pieces of Germanic heritage will soon vanish forever.

"In the end, this oblast will become like the rest of Russia. All these monuments which we have been talking about and which make us unique, which shape -- I don't know -- the local way of thinking, perhaps -- at least as our local mythology has it. All this is crumbling. Everything will be destroyed. Only the memory that Germany was here once will remain -- but nothing will remain from the period."

Bakhtin takes one last drag on his cigarette and stubs it out. For a moment, sadness fills the room. He smiles. No man can stop the march of history and Bakhtin knows it. There is nothing else to say.