Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Friday, July 05, 2019

Kalingrad is Russia's Window on Europe

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Kaliningrad is either 764 years old, or only 73. It all depends on your definition – and therein lies an interesting tale.

The old German city of Konigsberg, founded in 1255, was captured by the Soviets in the final stages of the Second World War, along with the rest of East Prussia. 

The southern part of the region was incorporated into Poland, the northern half, renamed Kaliningrad Oblast (province) for a former Soviet leader, became part of the Soviet Union.

The German population in both parts was expelled, and the region completely resettled by, respectively, ethnic Russians in the north and Poles in the south. 

In 1946 the Soviet section became part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), separated from the rest of that huge union republic by the Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the Byelorussian Soviet republic.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and those non-Russian republics became independent entities, Kaliningrad Oblast was suddenly an exclave -- a portion of a country geographically separated from its main part by surrounding territory. 

It had become a region that was isolated from, the rest of what had become the Russian Federation.

Situated on the Baltic coast, the province today has almost one million inhabitants, about half living in the city of Kaliningrad. Its port is ice-free all year round and is an important naval base for the Russian fleet. 

After all, it now borders two countries that are now European Union and NATO members.

For both Germans and Russians, the region’s past, involving as it does a brutal war, followed by the displacement of one population and the settlement of new residents, is very traumatic. 

When the Soviets conquered the area, there was a radical attempt to replace one narrative, that of German Konigsberg, with a counter-narrative, that of Russian Kaliningrad.

Konigsberg was described as a bulwark of German militarism and fascism. Hence the German city was erased as Soviet troops systematically demolished most of it. Soviet planners opted for the construction of a new Soviet city which would bear no resemblance to the past. 

The city was transformed into a vast memorial site for the Soviet victory over Germany. Monuments to the Red Army were dotted around the cityscape.

Though opposed by Soviet veterans invested in this narrative, by the 1960s some Russians inside Kaliningrad began to rethink their attitudes to the German past of the city.

In the final years of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost made it easier for those individuals and groups who wanted to save what was left of the German heritage.

It gave their city an aura of cosmopolitan distinctiveness, and they were among the first to identify with “Konig” or “Kenig,” as they called Kaliningrad.

With the removal of travel restrictions after 1991, people were able to cross into Poland and even Germany with increasing frequency.

In this post-Soviet era, the 2005 celebrations marking the founding of Konigsberg proved a watershed. Even the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, was invited to participate.

Helped by German state and charitable funding, state and private initiatives worked to restore lost relics of East Prussian architecture. Excavations on the site of the old German castle and the restoration of the German Protestant dome aroused interest in the German past.

The university was renamed the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University. (The philosopher had lived and taught in Konigsberg.) 

Slogans used during the celebrations included “A Russian City in the Heart of Europe” and “Kaliningrad: Meeting Point of Russia and Europe.”

But Russian nationalists began to fear an attempt to “re-Germanize” Kaliningrad. When the brand-new Russian Orthodox Cathedral was opened in 2006, Patriarch Alexey II called it a sign that “this is Russian land, Orthodox land.”

Things have regressed further since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin this past May renamed dozens of the country's airports to honour famous Russians. The new names were chosen using an online poll.

Many Kaliningrad locals voted to name it after Kant, prompting accusations of a lack of patriotism.

The Kaliningrad airport will now be named after Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, whose army captured the city in 1758 but abandoned it five years later.

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