The 2018 World Cup in Russia will require new stadia, and one of them is in Kaliningrad. The 35,000-capacity stadium is still under construction and we saw everywhere signs (in red) showing “Russia 2018”. While Kaliningrad is often described as an exclave of Russia, it is in fact a semi-exclave, which means that it is separated from the rest of the country by other states (Lithuania and Poland) and yet has its own coastline (on the Baltic Sea). The city and the province are named after Mikhail Kalinin (1875-1946), a Bolshevik revolutionary and Soviet bureaucrat.
The prime minister of Sweden once described Kaliningrad as “heavily polluted. There are illnesses there like AIDS and tuberculosis. There is atomic waste. You find almost every imaginable problem in Kaliningrad”. Like much of Russia, it has a reputation for drunkenness and feral dogs, yet in August this year, Peter and I found a clean, attractive and historical city.
Kaliningrad has a strange history. The territory was originally a Prussian settlement under the Teutonic Knights and, in common with the rest of the eastern Baltic, it was predominantly German. Its main city was known as Königsberg, which became the capital of the Duchy of East Prussia, which in turn became a part of the German Empire. Heavily damaged in 1944 by a British bombing raid, it was further damaged by a massive Soviet siege in the spring of 1945. At the Potsdam Conference of 1945, the allies agreed that the Soviet Union should take temporary care of the territory.
In a process that would today be called ethnic cleansing, the surviving German population was forcibly expelled between 1946 and 1949 and the territory was repopulated with Soviet citizens. Although 99% of the population is now Russian, it was not envisaged that Königsberg would remain a part of Russia and, after Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev offered it to the Lithuanian SSR. In addition, recently discovered secret documents appear to show that, after the fall of the Berlin wall, Russia tried to sell the territory to Germany.
The first step on our journey to Kaliningrad was the acquisition of a Russian visa. After US and EU trade sanctions imposed on Russia early in 2017, Russia required British citizens to complete an online questionnaire of 20 pages before visiting a Russian Consulate in person to have their fingerprints taken. When we put this idea to the representative of the Russian consulate in Lisbon, she was astonished. Because we live in Portugal, everything could be done simply and by post.
In Kaliningrad, we stayed in the Hotel Moskva (built in 1930 as the main office for a German insurance company), where we met lots of elderly Germans on a regular pilgrimage to the homes from which their families had been expelled after the war. In spite of their expulsion, many Germans look on this area as their ancestral home and, in fact, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a great deal of German money has gone into the reconstruction of Kaliningrad city.
Investment was apparent – there were cranes everywhere. During the war, the centre of the city was nearly completely demolished and the cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin and St Adalbert, was heavily damaged by the RAF. After perestroika, it was completely rebuilt, largely with money from Germany.
The capital of Prussia, Königsberg, remained the coronation city of the Prussian monarchy even after the administrative centre was moved to Berlin in 1701. During the 19th century, the Germans built two immense brick defence systems around the city, paid for by reparations after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
These defences and the determination of the German defenders were the reason that the Soviet Army struggled to capture the city in 1945, in spite of their superiority in artillery. The Inner Ring of brick bastions and gates (including Rossgarten, now the Amber Museum) are still hugely impressive and dominant, and include 13 separate structures. In the Outer Ring, we visited the moated fort no 5 (King Friedrich Wilhelm III), now a museum of the WW2 siege, frustratingly labelled only in Russian.
The university of Königsberg was founded in 1544, and the city became an important cultural centre, whose most famous son is the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1802). He is a central figure in modern philosophy and his most famous work is the Critique of Pure Reason. Reason, he wrote, is the source of morality, and the mind creates the structure of human experience. Kant’s mausoleum is situated next to the cathedral and the museum, which honours his memory, is in the upper part of the rebuilt western front of the cathedral.
Kant never married, and his bachelor rules for a good dinner party are still valid: no fewer than three and no more than nine guests; good conversation is as important as good food; and anything said at the table remains at the table as a shared secret; no music (it interferes with conversation); no extended silences; absolutely no dogmatism.
At the Museum of the World Ocean on the Pregolya River, you may visit the scientific research vessel Vityaz moored alongside the space research vessel Kosmonaut Victor Patsaev and the pre-atomic B-413 foxtrot class submarine. The pavilions contain aquaria and general information about the ocean. In our view, this museum is world class.
Despite its violent past, its current reputation for drunkenness and its overlay of Soviet bureaucracy, Kaliningrad justifiably revels in its German history, and we can heartily recommend a visit.