Kaliningrad is one of Europe’s more bizarre geo-political entities. This Russian exclave, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, was created from German territory. Formerly, it was known as the province of East Prussia, taken by the Soviet Union in the last months of World War II. Today, Kaliningrad is both a city and an oblast. The latter is roughly analogous to a state or province, while the city itself occupies what up until 1946 was the historic capital of Prussia, Königsberg. Prior to World War II it was a prosperous city on the frontier of the far reaches of Eastern Europe, home to no less than thirty four churches, including a stunning cathedral that was a Gothic masterpiece par excellence. The city also included impressive fortress walls replete with bastions, neighborhood upon neighborhood of tidy and colorful homes, plus a beautiful castle at the very heart of the city. The latter structure had been the site of multiple coronations for Prussian kings. The Pregel River acted as a languid, watery thread weaving past gothic, baroque and neo-classical architectural offerings. It is hard to envision just how fantastically ominous a scene the city must have been when set beneath the leaden grey skies of a Baltic winter.
On The Border – Between Luck & Fate: The History of Königsberg
Such aesthetics had been preserved as much by luck, as by the hands of man. Königsberg had somehow been lucky enough to escape the ravages of war since its founding in 1255. Historically, the city was something of a safe haven. When Swedes rampaged across Eastern Germany during the Thirty Years War, the powerful Hohenzollern rulers sought refuge in Königsberg. During the Seven Years War’ when Imperial Russian troops gained control of the city, the citizens wisely bowed to their rule and saved Königsberg from the usual excesses committed by an occupying army. As Napoleon extended his might across German lands, Prussian King William III led his court to safety in Königsberg. The city was occupied again in 1807, this time by the French. There followed a time of suffering, but not destruction. The closest Königsberg came to cataclysm was brought about not by guns, but by germs. A plague that visited the city during the early 18th century claimed the lives of roughly a quarter of its population. Other than that sobering incident, Königsberg was one of the few places in Europe that was a consistently safe and prosperous place to live from the Middle Ages all the way up into the modern age. It was always just remote enough to avoid the vicissitudes of war. The military might of the Teutonic Knights, than the Prussians certainly helped safeguard the city. All of this history meant nothing during the latter part of World War II as the city was changed irreparably by the all-consuming vortex of total war.
In late summer 1944, Allied Bombers laid waste to much of the city center and its industry. Several nights of deadly incendiary bombing were an ominous warning of the apocalypse to come. In April 1945, the city was reduced to smoking ruins. A German Army in its final death throes, vainly attempted to stave off the overwhelming might of the Red Army colossus, hell bent on vengeance. The resulting siege devastated the city. Königsberg was singled out for greater suffering than the rest of Germany both at the end of the war and afterward. Prussian militarism was considered a major reason for the two catastrophic invasions of Russia that had occurred in the previous thirty years. An overriding sense that a German invasion must never be allowed to happen again underlay the destructive actions of the Red Army as they reduced Königsberg – which means “King’s Mountain” in German – to a heaping, convulsive mass of smoldering rubble. The old Königsberg ceased to exist, but it could have been rebuilt. The Soviets had another plan in mind, one which would recreate the city in their own image.
From Facelift To Facelessness– The Creation Of Kaliningrad
As the war came to an end the Soviets were really just getting started with the city. Their vengeance extended from days into decades. A plan was hatched to Sovietize the city. It meant that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans would have to be relocated, what would become one of the largest forced migrations in human history. Naively many citizens of Königsberg and East Prussia returned to the region at war’s end. Approximately 800,000 were shipped eastward to far flung points all across the Russian interior. They were now slaves of Stalin’s Empire. In their place came Soviet citizens, Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians who traveled west to repopulate a city and surrounding region that in the summer of 1946 was renamed Kaliningrad. The name was taken from Mikhail Kalinin, one of Stalin’s cronies. He had been with the dictator from the early days, but over the last decade and a half of his career was largely a faceless bureaucrat. The most notable thing about his life was that Stalin had his wife tortured and exiled to Siberia, the same fate that so many of Königsberg’s citizens experienced.
Kalinin died of cancer in 1946, during the last decade of his life he was little more than an afterthought.
Once of supreme importance, Kalinin had slowly been lost to obscurity. The same fate awaited the city which would bear his name. As an honorific, the Soviets affixed his name to the conquered capital of East Prussia, a faceless bureaucrat for what at the time was a largely faceless city. That facelessness was soon to change for Kaliiningrad as it took on a much harsher appearance. It was not just that the people of the city had changed, but also the urban environment began to undergo an ideologically infused architectural transformation. Concrete block buildings, whether administrative or residential were constructed to house Soviet transplants. These were the physical embodiment of a brutalism just as bleak and unforgiving as Stalinism itself. The very idea of Königsberg was inexorably buried beneath this rapidly rising concrete edifices. This was a new city for a new world that bore the stamp of a mind deadening ideology. No section of the city was to be spared, especially in the center.
A Monument To Ruin – Centrally Planned Decline
At the end of World War II, that monumental symbol of Prussian power and royalty, Königsberg Castle had been reduced to ruins. These ruins lay as a silent and sullen reminder for the destruction of this once great city. In the late 1960’s the Soviet leadership hatched a plan to relegate even these ruins to oblivion. On the site where Königsberg Castle had stood for centuries a plan was conceived that would inadvertently create something unforgettable, a building which would come to symbolize the folly and waste of Soviet style communism.