In 1968 the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev issued a directive that the ruins of Königsberg Castle were to be blown up and cleared from the center of Kaliningrad. Brezhnev, as a true communist ideologue, stated that the castle represented “a hornet’s nest of militarism and fascism.” Despite the protests of intellectuals and preservationists, it was not long after Brezhnev’s decree that the castle’s ruins were dynamited and bulldozed. Over 600 years of history exploded into dust and then was swept from the surface of the city center. The physical remnants of the castle were gone. Beneath the surface though, the situation was much different. Subterranean chambers of the castle still existed. These would exact a bit of poetic vengeance on the Soviets. For the rest of history, the castle has been more than a memory. It has been a curse upon Soviet efforts to recreate the site in their own image.
Sinking Into Dystopia – Model for a Model City
Kaliningrad – formerly Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia – was supposed to become a model communist city where all traces of its ethnic German past would vanish. Instead the newborn city would be transformed into a place where many of its citizens wished for a return to the city’s Germanic past, at least in an architectural sense. Soon after the final destruction of the castle ruins, the Soviets set about recreating the site. They constructed a building that would come to represent them in ways they could not possibly have imagined. The plan was for a 28-story building, created from that all-time favorite Soviet building material, concrete. The building was to act as Communist Party headquarters for Kaliningrad and the surrounding region. It would be called the House of Soviets, a lasting centerpiece for the totally Sovietized city.
The problems started early and often. The site did not have the best foundations, partly due to all the destruction that Soviet demolition efforts had wrought upon it. The building was placed in an area that had been one of the castle’s moats. To make matters worse, originally the castle had been built atop what had once been marshland. Former marshland, on a former moat, turned out to be a good place for one thing, sinking. The extreme weight of the building from tons and tons of concrete served to further destabilize the site. Subsurface chambers from the castle began to collapse adding to the porous quality of the site. The sinking became known as the “Revenge of the Prussians.” The end result was nothing less than a monstrosity. Among innumerable problems were structural deficiencies exacerbated by a flawed design. The construction took longer than expected. Only 21 of the 28 stories were finished, meanwhile the interior was still uninhabitable. When the project dragged on for decades the city administration lost interest. Lack of funding finally brought construction to a halt.
Facing up to the Faceless –Post-Cold War Style
The House of Soviets was never completed as originally designed. The result was more like a house of never ending horrors, from structural to financial to aesthetic. Kaliningrad was left with an eyesore in one of its most prominent public spaces. It could be seen throughout the city, always lurking as a reminder of the failure of centralized state planning. Utopia could not be created, but dystopia was certainly within reach. Kaliningrad never came close to the grand designs placed upon it. The House of Soviets was a microcosm of the city, impersonal, dehumanizing and unsightly. After the Soviet Union collapsed a conversation started among the city’s leadership on how to improve the look and feel of the city. Not surprisingly their focus turned to the House of Soviets. How could it not, the building never had gone away. Stolid and unyielding the building stood as a testament to waste and stupidity.
In 2005 none other than the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin visited Kaliningrad. In preparation the city decided that something must be done to spruce up the House of Soviets. New windows were installed, quite a feat that the communists had been unable to achieve. A face lift was also in order, but only in a cosmetic sense. The exterior was painted blue and white to help cover up the concrete. A paltry attempt to give the House of Soviets something it never really had: a veneer of aesthetic respectability. Whatever Putin thought of this, if he even noticed, was not forthcoming. His actions on behalf of Kaliningrad spoke louder than any paint job ever would. Putin paid for a new organ to be placed in the reconstructed Königsberg Cathedral, that Gothic symbol of Teutonic creativity and style. Even for a man who had publicly mourned the passing of the Soviet Union, the House of Soviets was not worth Putin’s attention or considerable financial resources. Perhaps that is because the building exposes the failure of Soviet style administration.
Backwards Into the Future – The House of Königsberg
Since the Soviet Union’s collapse one question keeps arising: What to do with the House of Soviets? A renovation seems beyond the realm of possibility. It would actually cost less to build an entirely new structure than try to modify the existing one. With this idea in mind, some have went a step further, traveling backward into the future where they re-imagine Königsberg Castle once again taking shape, albeit in a new form. There have been plans to rebuild the castle with modern additions that could be used for commercial enterprises. There is precedent for a successful historical reconstruction in the city. One has to look no further than the Cathedral, which was rebuilt with the help of donations from ethnic Germans. Yet the Cathedral’s core still existed when its rebuilding began, a new castle would have to start from scratch. There are also questions concerning foundations at the site. Another problem is that it has long been rumored that the House of Soviets cannot be destroyed because it is owned by a mysterious figure who will not allow that to happen. If that is true then there is only one question that really needs to be asked: Where is Brezhnev when they need him?