The writer is the author of The glass wall: lives on the Baltic border
In 1992, I traveled by train from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to the Russian city of Kaliningrad. Until 1945, Kaliningrad was the German, or more precisely East Prussian, city of Königsberg. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who never left the region, even briefly became Russian when Königsberg fell under Tsarist control from 1758 to 1762 during the Seven Years’ War. Russian officers attended his university lectures.
Now tensions are rising around Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave bordered by Poland and Lithuania, over another war – Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine.
My train entered Russia, passing through old red-brick Prussian stations, some with an old German name still legible through sloppy paint. I arrived at an impressive terminus which had escaped post-war reconstruction.
From 1945 to 1991, the Kaliningrad region, roughly the size of Northern Ireland and with around 1 million inhabitants, had been a closed Soviet area, its recent German past recorded in memories of flight and terror as the Red Army advanced west. Königsberg was renamed in honor of Mikhail Kalinin, the titular Soviet head of state under Joseph Stalin. The Germans were driven out. The Russians came with their Baltic fleet, missiles and troops to guard the western border of the USSR.
It was raining. I walked to the hotel in the central square, past the crumbling story. As if to get rid of any high detachment, a German friend had told me: “Of course it was the British who destroyed Königsberg” – referring to the 1944 RAF raid that destroyed the medieval castle and the town centre. town.
Cracked concrete and cratered streets seemed a parody of decaying Soviet planning, with Ladas spewing exhaust fumes, dented dirty trams and people bent against the cold wind. The medieval brick cathedral was in ruins. Above this gloomy scene loomed a brutalist gray tower known as Monster, the still unfinished headquarters of the local communist party, riddled with asbestos. Prostitutes and drug dealers patrolled the hotel.
Sleek German tour buses glided through the city. In 1992 former East Prussians arrived Heimat tourism, sometimes bursting into tears when they saw, in the words of one, not the Königsberg they remembered, but what looked like the Siberian city of Irkutsk. They had to travel to outlying neighborhoods or coastal villages in the Baltic region to see their ancient homeland.
Rumors swirled then that Kaliningrad, cut off from Russia by Poland and newly independent Lithuania, might be up for grabs. Did the German Chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, offer to buy it out? Could it be run jointly by Germans, Poles, Lithuanians and Russians? The Russian students I met told me that the name had to go, because Kalinin represented catastrophe. Was a new role possible, they asked: a link between East and West? The feeling of siege, anger and isolation must change. As if to underline this, we spoke German.
For a few years the prospect of change seemed real, especially when Kaliningrad rediscovered its Prussian past. The cathedral has been restored. It was planned to rebuild the castle. Kant’s tomb becomes a place of pilgrimage. Plaques are mounted to the artist Käthe Kollwitz, even to the Nazi sympathizer and poetess Agnes Miegel. The city’s German-Russian House organized cultural events, including a lavish dinner on Kant’s birthday, with speeches in German and Russian. You could walk around the bunker from which German General Lasch had led the defense of the city in 1945.
Kaliningrad has become a free trade zone. New investments (and corruption) began: manufacturing, tourism, even – at the end of collectivization – some German farmers. Kaliningrad was one of four Russian regions where casinos were allowed. Residents could visit Poland and Lithuania. Direct flights went to Berlin and Warsaw, and even to London.
Then came Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. Relations with the West collapsed. The German-Russian House was closed, accused of foreign propaganda. So-called Prussianization was condemned, in particular an attempt to rename the airport after Kant whose tomb was defaced, probably with official approval.
The enclave’s military content has been beefed up, almost certainly including nuclear-capable Iskander missiles. The region has become one of the poorest regions in Russia, with most food imported from the EU. Today, the latest sanctions against Russia allow food but prevent many other goods from entering overland through Lithuania. Empty trains stand idle in Kaliningrad station. The hopes I heard about 30 years ago have faded again in isolation and anger.