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Russia: Kaliningrad Seeks Its Identity

St. Petersburg, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Before World War II, this Baltic enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania was part of Germany's East Prussia. Then, until 1990, it was a major Soviet naval base and closed to the outside world.

After a little less than a decade of 'exposure,' life and attitudes have changed immensely in Kaliningrad, and the region seems to be developing a mindset unlike elsewhere in Russia. Kaliningrad's population now takes pride in a German past, and is influenced by its geography, being the only Russian territory located in Central Europe.

Though the Soviet government attempted to obliterate the region's German roots from people's memories, Kaliningrad has retained a distinctively German feel to it - from the narrow, well-built roads to the architecture of the older buildings.

In the media and in private conversation, Kaliningraders often refer to their main city as Konigsberg. More surprising - given the bitter memories of the epic Soviet-German clash, which decided Kaliningrad's fate - a certain amount of pride in the German heritage has begun to take hold.

Also, people speak of traveling "to Russia," or of relatives who live "in Russia" - as if Kaliningrad were not a part of the Russian Federation.

Such observations beg the question: just how Russian is Kaliningrad?

A random survey of Kaliningraders of various ages and backgrounds, by RFE/RL proved insightful.

"Immediately after the Second World War, when the territory was annexed, the region was certainly not Russian," said Avenir Ovsyanyev, 60, who grew up in the Kostroma region in Central Russia, but, who has lived in Kaliningrad for nearly 20 years. Ovsyanyev added, however, that the younger generation might feel differently, because they rarely travel to Russia proper, since it is both expensive and not so interesting to them. He added that most of the influences on the young now come from Europe, whereas in Soviet times that was impossible.

And, younger people did indeed seem more willing to describe Kaliningrad as something apart from Russia.

One young woman, Larissa, argued that Kaliningrad is much more free and liberal, more like Europe - in contrast, in her view, to Russia proper.

Another, Yelena, agreed. "The level of culture and education is both different and higher here than in Russia," she said. "You feel the German influence here, such as the church architecture and other buildings. Everything German-built here is beautiful, while everything built after the War is ugly."

Leonid Kesselman, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, cautioned against drawing any sharp conclusions from such comments, however. He says that Russia is a large country, where regions have their own specific mentalities and tastes. The people in Kaliningrad might think differently from the rest of Russia, but they are certainly Russians, Kesselman says.

Most Kaliningraders seem to understand this. When asked if they wanted officially to return the city its old name of Konigsberg, or unite with Germany, both young and old were united in saying, "Nyet."