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Don't Look Back: De-Germanification Campaign Gains Steam In Russia's Kaliningrad

A life-like statue of German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the Russian city of Kaliningrad.
A life-like statue of German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the Russian city of Kaliningrad.

SOVYETSK, Russia -- The 235th anniversary of the birth of German poet Max von Schenkendorf passed quietly in the city of his birth on December 11. And the annual December 17 birthday tribute to internationally recognized actor and author Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was also born in this city, has been canceled this year.

Both developments appear to be part of a bid to recast the past in this formerly east Prussian city known as Tilsit, which sits on the eastern border of Kaliningrad Oblast just across the Neman River from Lithuania and is presently the second-largest city in Russia's westernmost exclave.

In fact, the entire region seems to have been closing the door for years on its German past, an effort that has noticeably gathered steam in recent months.

Kaliningrad Oblast was annexed into the Soviet Union from Germany after the end of World War II as an exclave of the Russian soviet republic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic states and Poland joined the European Union and NATO, and the region and its roughly half-million Rusian citizens were geopolitically isolated.

"These days, for some reason, some people think that knowledge of our region's prewar history will lead to the transformation of public opinion and engender separatist yearnings," said Anzhelika Shpilyova, the former director of the local History Museum in Sovyetsk.

Anzhelika Shpilyova
Anzhelika Shpilyova

Shpilyova was removed from her post in November after "losing the confidence" of local officials. She and her supporters, however, see her firing -- after 36 years at the museum, 18 of them as its director -- as retribution for her refusal to downplay the city's centuries-long German past and to cut ties with cultural organizations in Germany.

"The museum maintains contacts with the Tilsit diaspora," Shpilyova told RFE/RL. "We exchange information and have ties with museums in Lithuania. Our city is located on the border. Our geographic position makes it obligatory to know also the history of our neighbors. The history of our city is intertwined with it."

The apparent anti-German campaign in Kaliningrad Oblast made international headlines recently when the Russian government organized an online poll to attach the names of historical figures to regional airports. In the city of Kaliningrad, which was formerly the Prussian city of Koenigsberg, the locally born 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant jumped out to an early lead in the voting. That prompted a campaign against him in which the commander of the Baltic Fleet was captured on video disparaging the thinker as a "traitor" and author of "books none of us has read."

Duma Deputy Andrei Kolesnik also spoke out against Kant, and unknown vandals poured pink paint on the philosopher's grave and a memorial in the city before "Empress Elizabeth Petrovna," daughter of Peter the Great, made a late surge and won the airport poll.

But the Kant contretemps was just a particularly visible salvo in a conflict that has been simmering for at least two years. As late as 2010, Kaliningrad Oblast Governor and United Russia member Georgy Boos publicly proposed restoring the name Tilsit.

A student in Kaliningrad demonstrates in support of Immanuel Kant on December 8, 2018.
A student in Kaliningrad demonstrates in support of Immanuel Kant on December 8, 2018.

However, since at least 2016, local state television and several smaller local media outlets have been regularly running stories about the purported "creeping Germanization" of the region.

Such reports regularly featured historian Vladimir Shulgin, who ironically used to teach at Kaliningrad's Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, sounding the alarm.

"These efforts have an overarching goal, in my opinion," Shulgin said in a broadcast in November 2016. "To weaken Russia on its extreme western frontier, to make it so that this outpost lost its nature as an outpost and instead became an open door, so that the West can shape public opinion here. And what is its interest here? To take Kaliningrad away from Russia. The West has no other interest here."

In 2017, state-media reports featured Aleksandr Orshulevich and other members of the Baltic Avantgarde of Russian Resistance (BARS), an obscure fringe organization that calls itself "nationalist" and "monarchist" but advocates Kaliningrad's entry into the European Union and the return of the historic name Koenigsberg. The group had almost no public profile or popular support, and four members were arrested in the summer of 2017 after their TV appearances. They are still being held pending trial.

Other activists in Kaliningrad said they disagreed with BARS's positions but insisted the group was nonviolent, advocating aggressive decommunization and the exposure of the crimes of dictator Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders.

"Undoubtedly they are not guilty," activist Yakov Grigoryev told RFE/RL in November. "I think their case is part of the pressure on dissent. Since their nationalist ideas could be popular among young people, the authorities fear them and are trying to root out any attempt to organize."

Another example of the purported Germanization of the region that has attracted attention is the locally made beer. In early 2016, the brewery's Dutch owner, Heineken, relaunched the beer as Koenigsberg beer, using the German spelling of the name instead of the former Russianized version, Kyonigsberg.

"Now on the front of the bottle you won't find a single word in Russian," an article on the nationalist Russky Mir website fumed. "Instead you'll find in two separate places the slogan 'Mit respekt zu den Deutschen brautraditionen.'" ("With respect to German brewing traditions.")

History Museum Director Shpilyova came under scrutiny in 2017 over an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of Tilsit native and German pacifist poet Johannes Bobrowski. Bobrowski, who served in the German Army on the Eastern Front during World War II and spent four years as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, was lionized in the Soviet Union, with mass editions of his poetry.

"The city authorities were there, diplomats," Shpilyova recalled. "Some deputies from the [German] Bundestag came. There were university professors. Everything was excellent and on the highest level. But suddenly, opinions changed."

She was told to take the exhibition down and asked to resign because one of the photos showed Bobrowski in his German Army uniform. She refused to step down.

The offending photo of German playwright and author Bobrowski in his Nazi uniform.
The offending photo of German playwright and author Bobrowski in his Nazi uniform.

"So they tried to blackmail me," she said. "They told me I'd be sentenced for promoting extremism. This was a violation of all labor and administrative norms. I still refused to resign, but they gave me an official reprimand for supposedly 'distorting history.'"

In June, officials in Sovyetsk announced they would close the local History Museum, supposedly to cut the budget. Shpilyova mustered public outrage and waged a campaign in the local media that forced officials to back down.

In November, a delegation of four officials appeared at her office and dismissed her.

"Of course, I expected it," she told RFE/RL. "I knew they wouldn't leave me alone."

Shpilyova said she is convinced the museum will be radically transformed.

"It is interesting that a museum has suddenly become a threat," she said. "Battles are being waged as if it was a key enterprise in the city -- a hostile takeover. What will happen next is hard to say."

Her story echoes the experience of Kaliningrad sociology professor Anna Alimova, a high-profile local environmental activist who was fired in September after 20 years of teaching. Her dismissal was prompted by a purported anonymous complaint from a student that was covered by the local Regnum website. The student reportedly claimed Alimova was promoting "Kaliningrad separatism" among her students.

"There was no such student," Alimova told RFE/RL. "I would like to see this student who somehow knew about the unknown journalist [Andrei] Vypolzov and the website Regnum. They don't even have an address on their website."

Viktor Gofman
Viktor Gofman

Last year, a campaign against the longtime director of Kaliningrad's German-Russian House, Viktor Gofman, accused him of promoting Nazism and extremism, partially for allegedly "popularizing" Koenigsberg-born German poet Agnes Miegel, who was a member of the Nazi party, and for alleged ties to BARS. Gofman was exonerated of the charges in court, but he suffered a heart attack and resigned his post. A local ally of President Vladimir Putin, Genrikh Martens, took over the position.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Gofman said the campaign against him was aimed at taking over the independent German-Russian House.

"We were independent and conducted cultural events that brought together all nationalities," Gofman said. "And that made a lot of people upset. How could there be something independent in Kaliningrad?"

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yulia Paramonova

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