The Spoils Of Victory & Defeat – From Kaliningrad To Konigsberg: Letting Them In, Only So Far

The Roman historian Tacitus recorded for posterity a speech that the Caledonian (present-day northern Scotland) chieftain Calgacus made to rally his forces. In it Calgacus said the Romans “make a desert and call it peace”. And they certainly did that time and again. The most notable instance of which was the Third Punic War (149 – 146 BC), where they wiped Carthage off the face of North Africa. In modern times, the closest historical parallel to that Roman aphorism was the Soviet Union’s transformation of Germanic East Prussia into a thoroughly Russified territory at the end of World War Two and its immediate aftermath. 80% of the old capital of Konigsberg was destroyed in an apocalyptic siege at the end of the war. The German population was deported and Russian speakers were resettled in the area. Eastern Prussia, which had once been the seat of power for the crusading Teutonic Knights and had provided the German Reich with many of its greatest generals, was totally transformed into a constituent part of Russia.  The Soviets made a desert and called it Kaliningrad.

Königsberg & the Pregel River in 1945

Königsberg & the Pregel River in 1945

From Teutonism To Putinism – Russia Moves West
Once known for its fairy tale Gothic architecture and serpentine medieval streets, also as the home of the philosopher Emmanuel Kant and where every Prussian King had been crowned since 1701, the former capital of Eastern Prussia was rebuilt in a planned Soviet style. With only a few notable exceptions, gone were any hints of the Teutonic. It was replaced by a concrete encased, brutalist architecture with all the imagination that totalitarian ideology would allow. In other words, not much.  Kaliningrad suffered mightily in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Much of its prosperity was built on military spending which dived during the 1990’s.

The Russian Baltic Fleet became little more than a rust bucket, bobbing in the half empty harbor of Baltiysk. Officers and sailors were reduced to penury, many forced to live with their families aboard rusting ships. Meanwhile, the citizenry suffered from crime, drug and alcohol abuse on an unheard of scale. Only with the rise of Vladimir Putin did the situation improve. Today, Kaliningrad is one of the most strategically fraught points in Europe, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, it provides Russia with a year round ice free port in the East Baltic Sea and a staging ground for nuclear weapons aimed at the heart of Europe. Kaliningrad is also a barrier for travelers, as I discovered while studying the map on my way back to Poland from Lithuania.

I have always been attracted to places that are difficult to access. Show me somewhere that entry is not freely granted and I am interested. It is hard to explain the allure, but I feel a magnetic pull to places that do not allow easy admission. I did not have time to try and get a visa to Kaliningrad, as I had to be in Warsaw for a flight back home the next day, but that did not stop me from lamenting the fact that I should have tried to go there earlier in my trip. After crossing the border from Lithuania into Poland, I got as close to Russian territory as I have ever been. I was less than 20 kilometers as the crow flies from Kaliningrad Oblast. If I had been able to take a sharp detour to the north, what would I have found?

Kaliningrad - Russian strategic wedge

Kaliningrad – Russian strategic wedge


Separation Anxiety – Parting of The Ways

In my mind, I envisioned shadowy forests, crumbling aristocratic mansions and shimmering lakes teeming with wildlife. This image was idyllic. Later after my trip was over I did some research. I discovered that Kaliningrad was a pale reflection of what it had once been. The reality is much different today. The culture of rural aristocracy in the countryside and brilliant intellectual life in the capital had died or was deported along with hundreds of thousands of Germans at the end of the war. Kaliningrad could not look back at its Germanic past with pride, only disdain for where that had eventually led.  It was a troubled territory suffering something of an identity crisis. This was to be expected since it was the Soviets who gave the oblast (similar to a province) its contemporary reason for being. Kaliningrad was part of Russia, but not of it. The neighboring countries close on its borders had now become members of the European Union. Where did this leave the place? With a massive bout of separation anxiety.

Mother Russia was hundreds of kilometers away, while Poland and Lithuania were just as distant politically and economically. Kaliningrad was a Cold War anachronism, but proved to be quite useful for Putin. Russia’s window on the west was no longer St. Petersburg, it had shifted southwestward to Kaliningrad and looked to stay that way. Russia had long since lost control of the Baltic States, most of Ukraine and the entire Eastern Bloc. Kaliningrad was the last thing left from the spoils of the Red Army’s ultimate victory on the Eastern Front in 1945.

Rising from the ruins - Kneiphof Island with reconstructed Konigsberg Cathedral

Rising from the ruins – Kneiphof Island with reconstructed Konigsberg Cathedral (Credit: Gumerov Ildar)

An Open Secret – Not To be Ignored
I knew that even if I had the time, inclination and most importantly, a visa to enter Kaliningrad, I would not be visiting Russia proper. Only a place that had been pacified and then Russified. Everyone might speak Russian and live like Russians, but this was a product of imposition, an unnatural ordering. There was a part of me that longed to see Kaliningrad, but only because of its Prussian past. The Soviet legacy hung over it like death, The Russian past and future offered some hope, albeit limited. To get beyond this, one would first have to get beyond a border which was still controlled. Kaliningrad had been a secret city when it was part of the Soviet Union, off limits to foreigners and most Soviet citizens. Now it was an open secret, that the world could not afford to ignore. It was always there, in the way. A reminder of what once was and never will be again. A reminder of the cost of conquest. A reminder of a place that only lets someone in so far. A reminder of a place I could only go in the imagination. And that would never be far enough.