Thursday, December 27, 2012

Through a Mirror, Coldly

Since the Treaty of Versailles, the city we now call Kaliningrad has been an exclave of one state or other. East Prussia was separated from Germany by the newly created Polish Corridor (including the Free City of Danzig, now Gdansk), and Kaliningrad Oblast is now separated from Big Russia by the EU/NATO Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (as well as by Belarus, which isn't much of a barrier to Russians, but is to me). I don't know how it might have felt to be an East Prussian, but to be a Kaliningrader, especially a foreign one, can get claustrophobic. Staying here on a single-entry visa certainly contributes to that feeling, since it's not possible to leave the country unless you don't intend to return. The only possible domestic travel, short of a plane flight to Russia Major, are short bus rides to the sea or the neighboring villages. The city of Kaliningrad, with 430,000 people, is far and away the biggest urban center in the oblast, but people who've lived here for several years say it gets to feeling small before very long. I can understand. The moment I finally held my pale green multi-entry visa for the first time felt like I'd just won a get-out-of-jail-free card.

From Kaliningrad, it is just a short bus hop north along the Curonian Spit and over the border to Klaipėda, Lithuania. With the time difference in winter, you can leave at seven in the morning and arrive around eleven, even the wait at the border and the final ferry ride over the inlet. The drive itself is beautiful, and the final stretch along the Curonian Lagoon is filled with ice fishers sitting out on the frozen water, which is only a few meters deep. Bus is by far the cheapest way to take this route, since individual cars must pay an environmental usage fee for the Spit, as well as a much heftier ferry charge.

Klaipėda is an interesting city for many reasons. It is the third largest in Lithuania, after Vilnius and Kaunas, although its population has shrunk dramatically in the last twenty years as young people leave to seek education and work in other parts of Europe. Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare independence in 1990, but still has a large Russian-speaking population -- at over twenty percent, Klaipėda has the highest ratio of ethnic Russians of all major Lithuanian cities. But although Russian is spoken (we had no difficulty ordering in restaurants), its public presence is almost zero, and you can't see it on any signs or advertisements.

If it is possible for a city to have an estranged sister that lives in an alternate reality, then Kaliningrad's would be Klaipėda. Also founded by Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century (though christened Memel), the port city became part of East Prussia and later the northernmost city in Germany after unification in 1871. Although Königsberg remained the province's capital and largest urban center, Memel, and its narrow strip of surrounding territory, did a brisk trade in timber. German control of Memelland lasted until the First World War, or more precisely until the Treaty of Versailles, which placed the region under Entente (specifically French) protection until its fate could be decided, likely as a free city à la Danzig.

East Prussia between the world wars
The Lithuanians, however, similar to the Polish, had just re-established an independent state of their own in 1918, after over a century of living under Russian annexation. Rather than wait for a decision about Klaipėda's future, Lithuanian nationalists seized the city in 1923, and the League of Nations apparently decided the region wasn't worth fighting over. The area remained Lithuanian until March 20, 1939, when Hitler demanded the return of Klaipėda, and the Lithuanians, once again not deemed worth fighting over by Europe, quietly handed it back. This forcible annexation occurred nearly a week after German troops entered Czechoslovakia, and yet I've never heard about it in all my readings about appeasement. Apparently Europe still doesn't care.

In the aftermath of WWII, Memelland stayed with the Lithuanian Soviet Republic, while the northern part of East Prussia (what is today Kaliningrad Oblast) became Russian, and the remaining chunk of Prussia went to Poland. Stalin apparently offered the Kaliningrad area to Lithuania, but demographically it contained no Lithuanians, and they turned it down. Not knowing where else to administratively designate Kaliningrad, and never imagining that one day the USSR would disintegrate, Stalin joined Kaliningrad to the Russian Soviet Republic, and thus it remains Russian today, while Klaipėda is Lithuanian.

Walking through old town Klaipėda, I tried to imagine that I was strolling through old Königsberg instead, if history had happened differently and the Soviet iconoclasm hadn't intervened. Klaipėda does indeed feel European (with the EU circle of stars flying at the border to prove it), but not in the impressive Gothic-Prussian way that photographs of Königsberg convey. It has a cozy, local feeling, with something of the clean snow-covered efficiency that I remember from Helsinki. The beer is good, the buses run on time, and the cepelinai are cheap and so delicious.

It's hard to define what makes Kaliningrad today feel more like Russia than Europe, because so much of the landscape in Kaliningrad is still German, and so much of the landscape in Klaipėda is also ex-Soviet. I've heard it said that Russia is a state of mind, and the longer I live here the more I agree. It can be frustrating at times, but it's also the reason why I came here instead of Western Europe, which is much more like home. Regardless, the proximity of other ways of living is a nice reminder that the geographic isolation and claustrophobia of exclave life are temporary and easily relieved by travel.

And speaking of travel, I will likely not post again until February, when I return from the far reaches of Siberia. Until then, happy new year and до свидания!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Season's Greetings

They put up the ugliest tree I've ever seen in Ploshad Pobedy. It's about 150 feet tall, rigidly conical enough to be an example in a geometry problem, covered in fake greenery that looks like someone ran a monkey puzzle tree through a bark chipper and then plasticized it and glued it back together, and decorated with thousands of heinous bows and ornaments and rows of seizure-inducing flashing lights. Everyone agrees it's ghastly and incredibly expensive, but it's not like that will stop it from going up again it every year. Welcome to Russia!

I'm not sure how it's already nearing the end of December, but it feels like Christmas. Temperatures have been hovering around the -5 mark, which feels much colder in Celsius than it actually is (about 23 degrees F). There are a couple of inches of snow, which locals assure me is actually unusual for December and more typical for January. Salt and sand are the ice-removal methods of choice, which are hell on shoes and turn the sidewalks into dirty mushy slush-chutes, where they aren't solid sheets of ice. To put it more graphically, the slush on the roads is more like what you might get if you mixed cow diarrhea with beach sand, minus some of the smell. This is rumored to be the coldest winter in twenty years, but (knock on wood) it hasn't been too bad yet.

The Orthodox Christmas is a quiet religious holiday and falls on January 7, in accordance with the old Julian calendar, which differs from the Gregorian one by several days. Lenin brought the Soviet Union in agreement with most of the rest of the Western world by switching to the Gregorian calendar in 1918, but the church still uses the old dates. (Incidentally, the "October Revolution" is called that because it happened under the old calendar at the end of October 1917, which by the Gregorian reckoning was already early November.)

New Year's is the big holiday here, and the (more or less) functional equivalent of American Christmas. Russians decorate a New Year's tree and exchange gifts with friends and family on New Year's Eve. Salads are the traditional holiday fare (to a Russian, if you chop several anythings up and cover them with mayonnaise, it's a salad), with Оливье ("Olivier") being the most typical New Year's variety and consisting of potatoes, peas, meat, eggs, pickles, onions, and mayonnaise. Instead of making a resolution, it is traditional is to write a wish for the coming year on a slip of paper, burn it, mix the ashes in your champagne, and drink it -- all while the bells in Red Square are tolling midnight. Kaliningrad, however, is one hour behind Moscow time, so it's the only region in Russia where you can watch Putin give his annual midnight New Year's speech at 11 pm, and then an hour later see the fireworks here when the new year turns over in this time zone.

(Also incidentally, Russia's current time zone situation is a fiasco in grand national style. At the end of his last term, President Medvedev abolished the annual daylight savings switch, but he did so in the summer, while all of Russia was on daylight savings, and so now the entire country is stuck an hour ahead of when it should be. This means it doesn't get light here until about ten in the morning, and also that Kaliningrad is currently two hours ahead of Poland, which is directly south of us -- inconvenient bordering on ludicrous, to say the least. Putin was at one point promising to take the country permanently back off of daylight savings time, but nothing has happened yet, and for now people here are going to work while it's still dark and coming home after it's dark again.)

Everywhere on cards, calendars, and in kiosks I keep seeing stylized New Year's snakes, which are frequently wearing (what we know as) Santa hats (although Russians have Дед Мороз [Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost] and his granddaughter Снегурочка [Snegurochka, the snowmaiden]). At first, I just assumed that the snake was some symbolic new year's metaphor for cyclical time and rebirth, similar to how we have a fat baby in a top hat. But when I told this theory to my students, they laughed at me and said no, this is just the Chinese Year of the Snake.

The whole world probably knows from movies the main tenets of how Americans celebrate Christmas, but I've explained some of the less-known traditions so many times now that I can predictably tell which of them will draw the incredulous stares. For instance, the fact that some people really will use a small city's worth of electricity to cover their house in hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights and inflatable snow globes and wire moving reindeer and synchronized music, complete with inflatable Santa on the roof. Or the tradition of sending Christmas cards to friends and family with an inevitably bad family portrait in front of the word's biggest ball of twine, in which the young kid is totally distracted, the teenager bored and exasperated, the parents harried, and the dog relieving itself in the background. My favorite tradition, however, is the one where everyone bakes sixteen kinds of cookies and leaves plates on neighbors' front porches, until by the beginning of January no one wants to see another sweet again until March.

This is my last week of classes before the break, but the poor students have finals next week, then ten days off for New Year's and Orthodox Christmas, then two more weeks of more serious exams (they've explained this system to me so many times and I still don't quite understand it), and then a couple weeks of actual vacation before classes start again in February. For our final lesson before break, I've been showing "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (most of them have seen the Jim Carrey version, but the original 1966 animated one is new) and stuffing them full of cookies and fudge, which, considering Russians' love for condensed milk, is surprising they've never tried before.

I'm not religious, and my own holiday traditions are secular and not necessarily centered on December 25th. Nevertheless, as an American sharing my culture abroad, I find myself being an emissary of the majority in response to expectations of me, if not by my original intent. Whether that's a good thing or not is an entirely different can of moral and pedagogical worms, but it has slightly changed my relationship with Christmas this year. Living in a place where I am not constantly surrounded by the pressing consumerism and cultural ubiquity of Christmas, combined with the constant need to explain how it's celebrated in America, has brought me closer to the holiday in a way I wasn't expecting. While Christmas and I might disagree back in the States, here we are both foreigners, and now it's a tie back to home and family. Regardless, the winter holiday has always been more to me about surviving the longest nights of the year by making lots of light and celebrating with friends and family -- and I'm thankful that I have so many friends here with whom to get through the dark Russian winter together.

Mostly though, my plans for the next week are frantically finalizing details for my epic January travel adventure, which will begin with a week in Germany over New Year's, then a flight to Moscow where I'll meet friends and take the Trans-Siberian railroad to Irkutsk, stop to see Lake Baikal, then get back on and ride all the way to Vladivostok in the Far East (7 total days by train from Moscow). After that, the tentative plan is to see Kazan (interesting as the capital, on the Volga, of the predominantly Muslim Tatar culture) and possibly Nizhny Novgorod before heading back to Moscow for our mid-year conference. All told, I'll be gone for over a month, only returning to Kaliningrad on the very last day of January, although after all that I'm sure this city will feel like sweet familiar home! Blogging will likely be scarce over that time, but never fear -- I'll be sure to write about it when I get back!

I hope to make one more post before I leave for Siberia, but just in case, happy holidays to everyone back home and abroad! I'm sending frozen love from Russia.

If the man in the lift is hanging ugly ornaments at a rate of 3/min,
while the radius of the tree's base is x and the height is 60 meters,
how long will it take him to decorate the entire tree?

View from the dormitory kitchen towards everyone's favorite asbestos-filled building

View from my university classroom

"In this place will be built a monument to world peace"

Yes, they are fishing in the river

Hotel Kaliningrad

Monday, December 10, 2012

Apocalypse Yesterday

With the world supposedly about to end in less than two weeks, this seems like a natural time to pause and reflect on catastrophic endings. While I see no reason to suspect that December 21, 2012 might finally be The Big One, all the talk about possible doomsday scenarios has got me thinking about contemporary apocalyptic mythology, and about how it's not so crackpot after all. If the world seems in perpetual danger of ending, that's because it does end -- frequently. It's not usually so all-encompassing as a giant meteor wiping out most life on earth, but the use of 'world' in a planetary sense strikes me as relatively modern. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of the word from a combination of the Germanic bases were ('man') and old ('age'), meaning literally 'age of man,' deriving its primary definition 'Human existence; a period of this.' The archaeological record is filled with civilizations that no longer exist; consider the Mayas.

But worlds can be more abstract or local than entire civilizations. The twentieth century seems to be one long story of destruction, even as it's also a story about unprecedented achievements. If World War II was, for Americans, a last moment of moral clarity before the following decades, its legacy in this city is a mess of identity and blame. For Königsberg, 1945 was the end. It had been firebombed, besieged, and bombarded into surrender, its center razed to the ground, and the rest of the city lucky to be left in snaggletoothed ruins. The last remaining Germans were expelled by 1947, taking their memories of Königsberg with them, replaced by an entirely new population with no attachments here. This was a small apocalypse.

People adapt quickly, and I have gotten used to life in Kaliningrad. It has been less than three months, and although my stay here is bounded by the knowledge that it is temporary, I can imagine a version of myself for whom Kaliningrad is home. At first, all I could see were the untouched ruins and the patched grenade holes in the brickwork, but now I am just as likely to walk past them on my way to some other destination. Home is a place of solidity and belonging, not endings and exile. It feels strange and unnatural for me to think that this city -- with which I engage so concretely everyday -- was the site of Armageddon not seventy years ago. But instead of good and evil fighting over Kant's tomb, there were just people who used to live in this city and people who would; and I am left to make my own last judgments about what happened here.

I don't know much about post-apocalypse as a genre, but Kaliningrad's landscape surely belongs to it. There are buildings that have only been fenced off since the bombs fell on them. Today, their blackened rafters and empty windows are just skeletons for the rain to fall through, where groups of schoolboys sneak through the fencing to play soccer and smoke cigarettes. You don't have to look far to see evidence of Königsberg's final days, but that is because, unlike other European capitals that were re-inhabited by the people who lived there, Kaliningrad wasn't so much rebuilt as built over. Its bricks were sent to be used in the reconstruction of other Eastern European cities, and the people who moved into the once-German buildings here patched them up and made do as best they could, even while the official party line was about de-emphasizing the German past. The result is that I am living in a place where the world ended -- and yet I am living. Post-apocalyptic stories rest on the idea that not everything ends after the end, and I suppose I must consider myself a strange example of that.

I'm sure that a portion of my disconcert at the feeling of a schism in the immediate past comes from my perspective as a non-European, and specifically as an American. My German friends here, especially those from the former GDR, say that, what to me is a bizarre and surreal juxtaposition of architectures, feels more or less like home to them, albeit with Cyrillic lettering. And the buildings from before the war, rather than looking like exotic European survivors, just look old and poorly maintained. So much of (white) American identity, especially in the last hundred years, is predicated on the fact that we were the enders of worlds, not the ones who had to pick up the pieces of our cities and figure out how to go on. The United States' last half-century of global dominance was largely a result of the fact that when the dust settled in Europe, we were the last country standing. Chicago was never firebombed; there was no atomic bomb dropped on New York.

And yet, for Americans, the last few decades have hardly been ones of moral certainty or unchallenged dominance. While stories about the end of the world may not be so physically rooted in the American landscape, they are familiar from anxiety about a different kind of loss. Half a century under the imminent and very real threat of nuclear winter can't help but leave a psychological mark. Added to the increasing effects of climate change, threats of terrorism, changing demographics, technology, economic crisis, and the switch to a multipolar international system, and it's no wonder apocalyptic stories are popular today. I'd say the end of the world could be seen as an end of innocence, but that would be supposing we still have some innocence left to lose.

There is a Baltic myth about the medieval port city of Vineta, which may or may not have actually existed somewhere around the current Polish/German border. It was said to have been the largest city in Europe and more wealthy than Constantinople, surrounded by twelve gates and peopled by traders from across the known world. The main source of the city's vast riches was the region's natural amber, which fueled a rich trade in rare treasures and commodities. But Vineta's success was its undoing, as the citizens grew arrogant and sinful from their wealth, and the city was swallowed by the Baltic Sea.

Although Kaliningrad only inherited seven German gates, I can't help but feel there is a poetic parallel to be drawn. Königsberg is said to have been beautiful, and while that's not an adjective I would still apply to Kaliningrad, it makes up for it with experience. This was a key member of the Hanseatic League, trading timber, wax, fur, and amber throughout the Baltic. Caught in an awkward geopolitical position between Russia and the European Union, Kaliningrad is no longer a major mercantile hub, but shipping still makes up a significant part of the local economy. Kaliningrad does still, however, draw a relatively international population, at least by Russian standards, and I feel cosmopolitan here.

My literary instincts scream that this is a cursed city -- a broken, tired place with a past so full of oppression and horrors, dislocated in time, and built, probably literally, on the bodies of its own people. Those same instincts say that when the ice caps melt and the sea level rises up to flood this unhappy place, creeping through the shattered gun slots in the empty German forts and closing over the castle's buried foundations, it will be well deserved. My humanist instincts, through, say that curses are too easy an answer. This is just a city, the product of those who live here, and there is nothing so bad in the past that it cannot be overcome in the future. Apocalypses come and go, but while we're between ends of the world, life goes on.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Scenes From the City

I. November Fog

The air is heavy and wet, and you can almost smell the Baltic sea in between the layers of petrol and exhaust. Trees drip, a few last brown leaves still clinging stubbornly, but their branches are mostly bare. A thick white fog covers everything, diffusing the weak winter sunlight into a pale pervasive glow, as though the entire sky were frosted glass. It's warm enough, but a thin layer of condensation covers everything from the tress' bark to the iron gate of the central park.

Morning traffic is muffled and the cloud creates the illusion of isolation; a woman in her sixties with a black turban-like fur hat and a plastic shopping bag materializes suddenly out of the whiteness before dissolving back into it again. Every now and then a trolleybus clatters over the cobblestones, its electric poles sparking along the net of wires overhead, red tail lights fading into white. Somewhere a church tower tolls ten-thirty. This is Europe.

It is half like Christmas and half like fiction -- temporal surrealism enforced by the insulation, a conviction that the cloud has dissolved our bond with time. Only this small circle of a world exists, floating in an opaque bubble until it collides with something more solid, more real, and ends in a wet pop. A flock of pigeons pecks at the stones around my boots -- half have black claws, half have white -- before something scares them and they take flight together with the percussive whit of many wings.

II. Central Market

A light rain falls on the corrugated metal roof but is inaudible over the babble of hundreds of conversations and transactions, all echoing off the high rafters with the ersatz camber of a lofty railway station, open to the weather. Four long counters run the full two hundred yards, laden with the best of autumn produce and staffed by surly attendants in market aprons over their puffy winter coats. Each row is a checkerboard of fall color in piles of cucumbers, oranges, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, beets, horseradish, kiwis, squash, and persimmons. Jars of amber honey abut high mounds of dried apricots and walnuts still in the shells. Artfully opened pomegranates skewered on sticks look like exotic flowers or dragons' maws.

On one side, the smell of fresh fish wafts in from the seafood stalls nearby, and on the other, the faintly sour metallic scent of raw meat leads into the adjoining butchers' hall. The tinny voice of a loudspeaker plays advertisements and jingles on an endless loop, but the words themselves are lost in the rafters between the pigeons. Underfoot, a wet layer of sand and mud grinds on the pavement, glistening slightly in the filtered light. A few errant leaves have been trampled into pulp under the shuffling heels of old women in long coats. And behind each booth the bundled clerks weigh their produce on sets of blue metal scales, exchanging weights and potatoes until both come into balance.

III. Victory Square

The first of three buses clips the corner puddle, splashing grimy water from the inland sea on one side of the curb to the series of small ponds on the other, starting a chain of tiny overflows between the depressions in the sidewalk. Flotillas of soggy cigarette butts and discarded advertisements make waterlogged wreckage in the puddles. A crowd gets off the bus and navigates the archipelago, umbrellas slung over forearms under the grey sky. The two or three people standing safely behind the crosswalk quickly swell to a couple dozen, all jostling and chatting while the traffic light counts down in red LED numbers.

The counter reaches zero and transforms into a little green man with a stream of electronic chirping. No longer bound to land, crowds spill over the curb from both sides of the street, meeting between the tram tracks before dissolving through each other en route to their counterparts' distant shore. It's a chaotic game of leapfrog from one cobblestone to the next, caught up in the momentum of migration.

One girl, long blonde hair in a loose bun, clutches her bag over one shoulder, umbrella over her elbow. Her thigh-length black belted coat barely covers the hemline of her skirt, leaving a stretch of bare leg before the flange of her boots begins just above the knee. She moves with a series of delicate hops like an exotic bird, balancing on platformed soles and golden stiletto heels as wide as a drinking straw. Almost to the other side, one heel goes awry and she wobbles for a long second before springing to safety.

The little man chirps three last times and turns red again.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


If last week's effort was not enough to satisfy your need for poorly translated poetry, you are in luck because I am apparently delusional enough to make a second attempt. Also by Joseph Brodsky, this poem is a short sketch of Baltyisk in the 1960s, which was then the Soviet Union's top-secret naval base on the Baltic Sea, a short distance to Kaliningrad's west. Today it is still a naval base, although the extreme secrecy has lifted somewhat.

I make absolutely no guarantees about the quality of this translation -- I asked a couple of my Russian friends what they thought about a few of the trickier stanzas (especially the fourth), but they didn't seem to make much more sense out of it than I could. I am especially unsure about to whom or what the "him" referenced there refers (man in general? someone specific yet unnamed?) and about the use of выступать in the last line, and I'd love to hear advice or corrections in the comments. But since I can't find any other English translations, I suppose I have a duty to post my attempt.


В ганзейской гостинице «Якорь»,
где мухи садятся на сахар,
где боком в канале глубоком
эсминцы плывут мимо окон,

я сиживал в обществе кружки,
глазея на мачты и пушки
и совесть свою от укора
спасая бутылкой Кагора.

Музыка гремела на танцах,
солдаты всходили на транспорт,
сгибая суконные бедра.
Маяк им подмигивал бодро.

И часто до боли в затылке
о сходстве его и бутылки
я думал, лишенный режимом
знакомства с его содержимым.

В восточную Пруссию въехав,
твой образ, в приспущенных веках,
из наших балтических топей
я ввез контрабандой, как опий.

И вечером, с миной печальной,
спускался я к стенке причальной
в компании мыслей проворных,
и ты выступала на волнах...


In the Hanseatic hotel Anchor,
where flies land on the sugar
and destroyers sail along
the deep channel, past the window,

I kept my cup company,
staring at the masts and guns
and saving my conscience from reproach
with a bottle of Cahors.

Dance music blared, and
soldiers climbed into their vehicles,
woolen pants bending at the thigh.
The lighthouse winked at them cheerfully.

I often hurt my neck, thinking
about the similarity between him and the bottle,
deprived by conditions
of knowing his contents.

From our Baltic marshes
I smuggled your image, like opium,
into East Prussia
behind eyelids at half-mast.

And in the evening, with a melancholic face
and flitting thoughts,
I went down to the quay wall
and you stepped out on the waves…


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Postcard from the City K.

Joseph Brodsky was a poet and a writer, born in Leningrad in 1940, and exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972. With the help of a friend, he settled in the United States, where he taught at Queens College and Mount Holyoke College among others, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was named national poet laureate. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he never returned to Russia.

He dropped out of school at fifteen and worked odd jobs for several years while writing poems with only underground circulation, until he was arrested for "social parasitism" in 1963 under the accusation that his transient work record was not enough of a contribution to society. Only members of the Soviet Writers' Union could be recognized as real poets, and he was not a member. The Kafkaesque transcript of his trial was smuggled out to the West, where it made him a hero of artistic integrity.

Judge: What is your profession?
Brodsky: Translator and poet.
Judge: Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?

He was sentenced to five years of exile and labor in Arkhangelsk, but was allowed to return at the protests of many Soviet and Western figures after only eighteen months. After his return to Leningrad he continued to write for seven more years, most of his work being published abroad, until in 1972, after refusing to emigrate to Israel, he was put on a plane to Vienna and never came back.1

Brodsky published several books of poetry and book of heartrending English essays entitled Less Than One, and his writing is remarkable not for any overt political subversiveness, but for his quiet attention to themes of freedom and dignity. I was very pleased to discover that he also wrote three poems about Kaliningrad. The first, an unfinished fragment ("Отрывок"), from a visit that he presumably made to Baltiysk, the top-secret naval base on the peninsula a few kilometers to the west of Kaliningrad, as a photojournalist for the magazine Костер in 1963. The second and longest poem, "Einem alten architekten in Rom," he wrote in his northern exile, and the third, "Открытка из города К." a few years later, after a second trip to Kaliningrad while visiting his Lithuanian friend and fellow poet Thomas Venclova.2

These three poems are not among Brodsky's most famous, and the only English translation I have found is George L. Kline's version of "Einem alten...".3 Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, and my Russian is mediocre at best, but I suppose an overcast Kaliningrad weekend afternoon is an appropriate time to put laziness aside and try to render at least Brodsky's general meaning in English, if not his eloquence. I hope the state of my Russian hasn't mangled it too badly. The Castle's ruins no longer stand by the river, but having shuffled through my own piles of fallen leaves and broken bricks, the image is still real enough.

Открытка из города К.

Томасу Венцлова

Развалины есть праздник кислорода
и времени. Новейший Архимед
прибавить мог бы к старому закону,
что тело, помещенное в пространство,
пространством вытесняется.
дробит в зерцале пасмурном руины
Дворца Курфюрста; и, небось, теперь
пророчествам реки он больше внемлет,
чем в те самоуверенные дни,
когда курфюрст его отгрохал.
среди развалин бродит, вороша
листву запрошлогоднюю. То – ветер,
как блудный сын, вернулся в отчий дом
и сразу получил все письма.

Postcard from the City K.

Thomas Venclova,

The wreckage celebrates the oxygen
and time. A modern Archimedes
could add to his old law
that a body, placed into space,
is by itself displaced.
in its murky mirror, refracts the ruins
of the Castle; and I suppose now
it pays more heed to the river’s prophecies
than in those heady days
when it was newly built.
wanders among the rubble, stirs up
last year’s leaves. That is the wind,
like the prodigal son, returning to his ancestral home
and a pile of unread letters.

1. Robert D. McFadden, "Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Won Nobel, Dies at 55," New York Times  January 29, 1996.
2. "Иосиф Александрович Бродский," Калининградская областная научная библиотека.
3. George L. Kline, trans., Joseph Brodsky: Selected Poems, Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1974.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Election Reflections

Not surprisingly, my absentee ballot never arrived. Undeterred, four weeks ago I stuffed a federal write-in ballot that I'd printed from the internet into a very Russian envelope, tried to scrawl my county election office's address on lines that were clearly not designed with American destinations in mind, wrote a big США/USA at the bottom, and dropped the whole fat packet into a mailbox with a silent prayer to the postal gods. I have absolutely no idea whether it ever arrived in my precinct, but knowing the Russian postal system, my election officials will probably receive a mysterious ballot covered in Cyrillic and pictures celebrating Novgorod's 1150th anniversary just in time for the 2016 election. Novgorod will be 1154 by then, and I'll be surprised if Obama is still on the ticket.

Before last Tuesday, I would have told you that I was glad to be out of the country for all the election-season chaos. If my home state had been Ohio, I'd probably be 15,057,639 times more grateful, or the number of dollars spent only by Romney and Obama on advertising in that state in the final campaign week alone. I did not miss the mudslinging on the front page of every newspaper, I did not miss the poorly veiled derision from people who are obviously voting for the other guy, and I certainly did not miss the inane punditry, vapid media, and varyingly blatant lies that make me either want to plug my ears and cry or run screaming from the world in frustration. In Russia, the best way to stay caught up with American news is to read American news, which is a solitary act of browsing a few websites over my morning breakfast before closing my laptop and not thinking about it again for the rest of the day. Campaign slogans are not on any billboards, and I haven't received any robocalls to my Russian cell phone. If you want to ignore the election here, it is certainly possible, and until Tuesday I managed admirably to do so.

Russia has an annoying habit of being half a day worth of time zones ahead of the United States. I woke up on election day and realized that a side-effect of ignoring the whole shebang is having to suffer the shock of suddenly realizing the election is going to happen whether or not I follow it. It's not that I'm apathetic or indifferent towards American politics -- quite to the contrary, I care passionately about what happens -- it's all the commercial trappings and media coverage to which I'm allergic. I'll skip the campaign, but there's nothing like that little flutter in the pit of your stomach on election day to remind you how exhilaratingly unknown is the future.

The flip-side of not having to endure endless political arguments and campaign coverage is that there isn't anyone to talk to about the election when you want to have that good argument. Nobody cares about American politics like Americans, and damned if by the end I didn't actually miss the whole rabid mud-slinging buzz-feeding electoral shit storm. Presidential elections are like either civic cocaine or the ultimate national sport -- a bizarre fetishistic ritual, national masturbatory frenzy, commercialized, streamlined, commentated, and spoon-fed in the perfect focus-group tested mixture of ideology and entertainment that's simultaneously addictive, repulsive, bestial, and one hundred percent American. How dare the U.S. of A. go on without me.

I realized I had fallen off my own wagon sometime Tuesday afternoon, when I had exhausted the election coverage of CNN, NBC, CBS, the BBC, and the New York Times, and the polls had barely even opened on the East Coast. Nothing tastes so American as that sweet media drip of constant info updates by correspondents with unprovocative hair. My media binge was dampened only by the inconvenient reality that the East Coast wouldn't count ballots until three in the morning my time, and at some point I was going to have to put down the computer and try to go to sleep, hopefully to wake up to clear results. Thank Ohio that Florida wasn't the tie-breaker this time.

It is amazingly difficult to explain American civics to Russians, all of whom were surprised both that it is possible to vote from abroad and that I would go to such efforts to do so. To me, it is unthinkable that I wouldn't try to vote from wherever I am in the world, but attempting to describe that sense of civic obligation has made me consider how deeply ingrained it is in my worldview -- and how American that is. Russians, especially from the younger generation, are notoriously politically ambivalent, and given recent elections here I can't really blame them. I see pervasive structural problems in the American political system as well, but elections have a way of revealing that my own cynicism about the political situation in the United States is not as deep as I sometimes fear. I worry about many political problems, but at least I can take it for granted that my ballot will be counted fairly and the election process is generally free of major fraud. And then I watch a country of over three hundred million people proceed orderly to polls in fifty different states and despite a hurricane in order to choose a new government, and I think maybe this democracy thing is okay after all. How American of me.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Myth of Königsberg

Most English guidebooks claim that there are very few German buildings from Königsberg which still remain. It would be more accurate to say that very little survived in the center of the city where the bombing was heaviest, and which is now mostly open space -- wooded park on Kant's Island, greenish swaths along the river, grass and concrete around the House of Soviets. The foundations of the cathedral, the old stock exchange, and several Prussian brick gates are the most commonly cited German buildings still in existence, and indeed they are impressive. But it is also true that a remarkable amount of peripheral Königsberg did survive both the war and the later Soviet iconoclasm of German culture, and has quietly continued to function as apartments, warehouses, and stores to this day.

I find it problematic to discuss "the destruction of Königsberg" as though it were a single tragic event, or as if it occurred in an easily definable place. Cities change all the time, even without such drastic interludes as a world war and complete change of population. It is natural for buildings to be renovated, torn down, or replaced according to local pressures, and for cities' infrastructures to transform along with the people who live there. Of course the Second World War falls far outside the scope of everyday urban evolution, and the number of buildings that were destroyed as a direct result of military bombing and the city's capture account for the majority of pre-war structures that no longer exist today. The Royal Air Force conducted a series of aerial raids in August 1944, and estimated that they had destroyed twenty percent of the city's industry and around forty percent of its residential buildings. When the Red Army finally took the city in '45 after a long siege, heavy bombardment, and a violent four day battle, somewhere around eighty percent of the existing buildings were no longer completely standing.

Königsberg Castle from the air, ca. 1925

Ruins of Königsberg Castle in the 1950s

However, when people speak about the destruction of old Königsberg, they refer to more than the devastation directly attributable to the war. The Old and New Synagogues, for example, built in the early and late nineteenth century respectively, were both destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht in 1938. On the other hand, Königsberg Castle and many less-notable buildings sustained some damage from the bombings and could have been restored, but instead were demolished by the Soviets in the 1960s. Other structures, such as the Albertina University's main building and the city hall, experienced extreme Soviet renovations and are now almost completely unrecognizable as their former selves. Yet despite meeting their fates in very different eras, the synagogues and the Castle are mourned today in the same breath as the architectural casualties of the war itself, if they are mourned at all.

Main university building, ca. 1900

University building today

Hansaplatz/Adolf-Hitler-Platz, ca. 1942

Victory Square today -- city hall is on the left, and the former
Nordbahnhof is visible on the right. Both have been heavily renovated.

I speak of physical divisions between Königsberg and Kaliningrad in the sense that some houses and squares were built before 1945, and some were built after. There are a few streets in this city that survived almost undamaged from German times, and in those places it is easily possible to imagine yourself still in East Prussia. Similarly, there are neighborhoods that are entirely Soviet, indistinguishable from identical streets in every major Russian city. Most areas fall somewhere in between, populated with some clearly Soviet buildings, the occasional German one, and new Russian constructions filling the gaps between. With a certain amount of doublethink, it is possible to see one city and unsee others, to walk down many streets in a single step.

Ул. Майора Козенкова, original apartment buildings and
church, which is now Orthodox

Cities are never just physical spaces. They are ideas and identities, shared experiences as well as shared terrain. Königsberg and Kaliningrad exist perhaps more distinctly in the mind than in the landscape. In the immediate post-war years, the new Soviet proprietors expelled all remaining Germans from the territory and imported (sometimes forcibly) Russians from deeper within the Soviet Union. Königsberg ceased to exist as a physical city, and remained only in the minds and memories of its scattered inhabitants. The new Russians, on the other hand, inherited a pile of ruins, but no cohesive idea of what this new city might be.

The official identity of new Kaliningrad would be antithetical to the city's past. As much as Königsberg had been the center of Prussian militarism and National Socialist fascism, so Kaliningrad would be a symbol of Soviet victory and a bastion against the capitalist West. Every street, square, and landmark was renamed with what I can only imagine was gleeful abandon, Adolf-Hitler-Platz becoming Плошадь Победы (Victory Square) in a heavy-handed reconception of the city's new identity. Victory Day, the anniversary of Germany's defeat (May 9th) is apparently still celebrated here every year with a reenactment of the Storming of Königsberg, complete with the simulated deaths of actors in Nazi costumes.

There are few people still alive who actually remember pre-war Königsberg, and I would be surprised if any of them live in Kaliningrad now. Germans may have a nostalgic memory of East Prussia based on the stories of those who once lived here, but present-day Russians have a myth of Königsberg of their own. No one who lives here today remembers this place before it spoke Russian, and they are left to fill in the past with different stories, to lump the loss of Königsberg's notable buildings together with Germany's loss of the city.

The Soviet Union also no longer exists, and Kaliningrad now struggles to find a new place between Russia and Europe. With that transition has come a rediscovery of old Königsberg. Recently constructed buildings, especially residential ones, tend to be modeled more or less on the German style, the most obvious example of which is the modern "fishing village" just opposite Kant's Island. The region's German past is something of a Russian novelty, and in era of tourism from both Europe and Russia, I suppose it makes sense to capitalize on the city's unique background. But Russians didn't live through that history, and the majority of them probably don't care about the details of it. The myth of Königsberg is not based on personal memories of a real city, but consists of a strange imagined past, extrapolated backwards from where Kaliningrad begins. It comes across in the new architecture as a stylized, sanitized, commercialized version of the city's history, plucked from mute photos of Königsberg and transported into 2012, leaving all context behind. If a city can appropriate itself, then Kaliningrad is doing so.

Fishing Village (aka fancy hotels), ул. Октябрьская

Construction of new homes on the city outskirts

New Russian houses imitating old -- the two
long buildings on the far right are original

I am not sure if this is one city, or two, or many. Are Königsberg and Kaliningrad distinct places despite their shared terrain, or are they two halves of a whole; one a city without a future, and the other a city without a past? Do they really have anything in common besides the war? The destruction of so many beautiful buildings is certainly an aesthetic and an intellectual loss, but apportioning blame seems as futile as definitively pinpointing the origins of the Second World War. Artists, authors, and philosophers have been trying to make sense of the twentieth century ever since the nineteenth. If any place encompasses both humanity's philosophical aspirations and the incomprehensibility of the last hundred years, then it is this bastard city of Kant's. Everyone who has ever lived here or tried to invade has shaped this city according to their own requisites, and perhaps that is only natural, after all. Cities are not static things, they are abstract amalgamations of the people who live in them -- and people are good at many things, but perhaps my favorite is change.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Let It Rain

Today feels like winter. The last few autumn leaves still cling quivering to their branches, but their compatriots have long since abandoned them in favor of forming a thick slippery mat on the streets below. After one last week of relatively nice and sunny weather, this week has been cold and rainy. Temperatures are hovering around the mid-40s, dropping below freezing at night for the first time, and it all seems much colder when the Celsius thermometer reads six degrees. The sun comes up around 8:30 in the morning, but today there was thick cloud cover and pouring rain, so it stayed black until much later. When it rains here, it rains hard and cold, and the roads are so topographically challenged that small inland seas form in the depressions, up to a foot deep with water. Every Kaliningrader's first line of defense is a good umbrella, carried always, even (especially) when rain seems unlikely. A few of my students tell me that this is supposed to be the coldest winter for twenty years, and I'm not sure whether this is good or bad news. On one hand, snow is eminently preferable to rain, but on the other hand: cold. I suppose if I'm not living in Siberia, I don't get to complain.

Everyone seemed to sense that last weekend was our last chance to enjoy the sun for the next several months, and headed to the sea. The local beach-goer has several options for their coastal destination, from Зеленоградск (Zelonogradsk), about forty minutes by bus almost due north, to Светлогорск (Svetlogorsk) and Янтарный (Yantarny), slightly farther away and to the northwest, and to Балтийск (Baltiysk), west and a little south out on a small peninsula. All are easily reachable from Kaliningrad by frequent bus service and a highly convenient new highway called the Приморское кольцо ("Seaside Ring"), which connects all the above cities and the airport in one big circle.

View Larger Map

On Sunday I decided to join the mad seaside rush and headed for the Baltic beach with a few of my students. When we left Kaliningrad it was sunny. When we reached Zelonogradsk, it was so foggy you could barely see one hundred meters ahead. Determined to show me the beach, we turned northeast out onto the Куршская коса (Curonian Spit), a picturesque geographic oddity and UNESCO Heritage Site. The Spit itself is a long thin stretch of sand dunes and forest reaching 98 kilometers from the Kaliningrad Peninsula to Klaipeda, in Lithuania. The southern half of the Spit is Russian territory, the northern half is Lithuanian. Several towns exist along its length on both sides of the border, although we only ventured as far as Лесной (Lesnoy), since the fog was so thick. On a clear day from a high point, it is supposedly possible to see both the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon at once.

Once we broke out of the trees along the road, we crossed over a crest of sand dunes and down onto the beach, which is surprisingly sandy and inviting. It's easy to imagine how this is the place to be in summer, when it's warm enough to swim or sunbathe on the shores of the Baltic, but for now I was glad that I brought a warm jacket. My students say that the fog is eerie and atypical, but I am struck by how similar it feels to the Oregon coast. For me, beaches are supposed to be foggy, drizzly, and chilly, even in summer. What I'm not used to are all of the small purple stones washed up along the tide line. Apparently it's possible to find pieces of amber washed up as well, but I was not lucky enough this time.

As of tomorrow, I will have been in Kaliningrad for four weeks already, which seems unbelievable, but the calendar doesn't lie. Now that I have reliable amenities such as a kitchen and working radiator, and am settling into something of a steady schedule, each day is less of a challenge and more of an opportunity. Between my classes, I take time to find new bookstores or wander around new neighborhoods, gradually expanding my knowledge of the city and comfort with its transportation methods. I know where the nearest grocery stores are, and I have my favorite cafe, pizza place, and Uzbek restaurant. Even speaking Russian, while not easier, is not quite as scary, now that I am slightly more confident in my ability to negotiate most everyday interactions with adequacy, if not grammatical precision. I thought I was going to get a lot of Russian practice here, but I speak more English than anything else, either as the language of common denominator amongst my international friends, or to give my students more practice with a native speaker.

Now that my living situation is set up and I can come home to my snug little over-heated babushka-protected общага room at the end of the day, I can afford to appreciate differences in the way certain things are done here, rather than be frustrated by them. The Central Market, for instance, is across the street from my dormitory, and is an overwhelming wonderland of everything from fresh produce to old coins and hand-knitted winter hats. It requires some initiative and a little Russian language to make a successful purchase, but the quality of the fruits alone is worth it.

The трамваи (trams), for another example, date to at least the 1980s and have been repainted as many times as Lenin has been re-embalmed. They run agonizingly slowly on fixed tracks down the middle of the street, much to the consternation of all other drivers, never appear when you need them, and let you out in the middle of traffic (which usually stops for you). At times it's possible to walk to your destination faster than a трамвай will crawl you there. As modes of transportation, they're hardly reliable, but as anachronisms, they're almost charming. The Great Трамвай Irony is only completed by what is either the most desperate business scheme ever, or the most inspired: free wi-fi on all trams. Now it is possible to enjoy the best of Soviet transportation while checking your email at speeds slightly slower than the vehicle itself! Never say Russia is not part of the modern age.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Shortcut to Mushrooms

First, I would like to thank everyone who offered support and concern for my well-being last week. I am pleased to announce that we now have working toilets, sinks, and showers on our floor, and the kitchen is to all appearances close behind. I have also managed to acquire, in whatever ways one does, such prized possessions as a mirror, electric kettle, and (miracle of miracles) a French press and bag of ground coffee, which wouldn't impress any true west coaster, but which has earned my personal reverence on the level of something approaching the Holy Grail. Together with a wonderful cadre of eclectic friends who have done much to take the edge off the disorientation and shock of finding myself very far from home, I am starting to fill in the details on the map of Kaliningrad in my head. Every day adds another cafe, market, or bus line to my geographic repertoire, and my phone's contact list is expanding correspondingly. I suppose this is what adjustment feels like.

Besides vodka and football riots, there are few activities more stereotypically Russian than mushroom hunting, unless you combine both vodka and football riots. Fortunately, last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in a peaceful fungus harvest, rather than a Bacchic brawl, and can now cross the former off my long Russian bucket list. Given the damp weather recently -- by recently, I mean all year, and by damp, I mean rain that makes Portland look dry -- it seemed like a good autumn for mushrooms, so I tagged along with some of my international colleagues out into the slightly soggy countryside.

Калининградская область, the surrounding province also by the name of Kaliningrad, is roughly the size of Connecticut. The city of Kaliningrad is by far the largest urban center within the exclave's borders, but several smaller towns are scattered across the region, connected by a network of roads in varying stages of repair. From our centrally-located dorm, we pass through Kaliningrad's outer ring of fortifications, which circumscribes the city in a connect-the-dots of twelve major and several minor German forts (visiting them all is also on the list). Before 1945, this northwest road was called Reichsstraße 143, connecting Königsberg to the seaside town of Rauschen (now Светлогорск, Svetlogorsk). Today it goes by the less grandiose name of A192, although sections of it are still lined with rows of oaks that predate the war, and are apparently known locally as "the last soldiers of the Wehrmacht." Large trees seem a dangerous way to mark a road, but I have to admit that the way they frame the fields and arch overhead in hues of gold and rust is impressive against the October sky.

In the general vicinity of Переславское (Pereslavskoe, German Drugehnen), we turn off the main road and pile out of Nikita's black Volga, a car so deliciously classic that I may have been having Cold War spy daydreams for most of the trip. The experts among us have deemed this particular patch of woods a likely mushroom habitat, and I try to avoid the worst patches of mud as I look around. I am used to the evergreen forests of Eastern Oregon, full of hanging lichens and granite outcroppings. In contrast, the trees here are mostly deciduous, just starting to turn their autumn colors, and they form a delicate stamp against the overcast light filtering through from above. For the moment, the rain is holding off, and we stand at the bottom of a small hill, looking upwards and listening for the calls of fungi.

The problem with mushrooms is that they all look the same. The other problem with mushrooms is that some of them will kill you. Our experts describe to the rest of us what types we are looking for, and I try to absorb this information, although I suspect that if we leave here with mushrooms today, they will not have been found by me. We set off up the hill, and I train my eyes on the ground. At first I see nothing but the springy mat of leaves underfoot, but then something whitish and dome-shaped catches my eye. "Is this a good one?" I ask. It is not. It has a red stem, which is apparently a poisonous attribute. We move on, but now I see mushrooms everywhere! Yellow ones, red ones, puffy ones, shelf-like ones, ones with spots, and ones that ooze a milky white sporific substance if you squeeze them. I leave most of them alone.

What a wonderful snack this slug must have had before crawling six inches
to the upper left and departing from this world.

As we traverse up the hill, we spread out, each deep in our own fungal pursuits. Stooping along the ground, I begin noticing large depressions in the terrain, three to four feet deep, some of them unusually rectangular. They're trenches from the Second World War, Nikola explains matter of factly, and points to a shallow ditch winding off into the brush. The deeper square holes were dug deliberately, the rounded ones are probably craters from exploding shells. I think I stare at him in shock for a few seconds and then mutter a string of expletives because I have no idea what else to say. Perhaps I shouldn't be as surprised as I am, but I came here looking for mushrooms, not the war. The war does not belong here in my Sunday afternoon, and I don't know what to do now that it's all around me.

I cannot go back to picking mushrooms after that. All I can see are the holes pock-marking the hillside amidst the birdsong, and I climb down inside one to see how it feels. The forest is just as light and open as before, just as full of springy moss and autumn leaves, but now there is something else woven into the woods and it prickles the back of my neck. My imagination is already digging the trenches down as they must once have been, raw and muddy gashes in the hillside, full of men to whom I cannot give their own faces. A lifetime of literature and war movies supply the acrid smell of gunpowder and the shrieks of shells in the night, splintering the trees around me and throwing clods of earth into the air. Then suddenly I am back, it is noon, and a light mist is beginning to filter through the leaves. All is silent, all is peaceful; there is no one here but us.

It is surely a strange juxtaposition of such violence and such tranquility, between looking for enemy targets and looking for mushrooms. But even the shock of finding the war on this quiet hillside is self-evident, and I try to poke a bit deeper into the landscape. I feel dislocated, like I am the ghost here, the one who doesn't belong. Is this my history? We have no battlefields like this in the west of America, nothing to which I can connect this experience. Civil War graveyards belong to the other side of the Mississippi, and the sites of Native American confrontations with the U.S. cavalry are marked more by their obscurity than their importance. The closest thing I can relate this to is the occasional World War II concrete gun mount in the rainforest along the Oregon coast, but those defensive legacies are nothing like this. These foxholes are personal -- men dug them, and men perhaps died in them. Even the serenity of the woods and the abundance of plant life seems to confirm that there is nothing industrial about this. The war looms so large in our memory, in cinematic battlefields and tanks rolling along European rivers to the swell of violins. This bears no resemblance to that. Here, the trees are close, the trench zigzags in a strangely intimate way, and it is all too easy to imagine crawling from one hole to another in the dark, they are that close.

I am afraid of sounding trite, afraid of appropriating experiences that I have no claim to, of imposing my own American conceptions of the war on this place, of fetishizing this landscape with my own desire to have a profound experience. The dead cannot speak for themselves, and I have no right to put words in their mouths, although I am doing so merely by trying to give them faces. I don't know what happened here. I don't know what the people in these holes might have thought, might have felt. I don't know what this place meant to them, or how they might wish it to be remembered. I am afraid that my very act of imagining them here bears little resemblance to who they were, and does more of a disservice than a commemorative one. I am afraid to take some meaning away from here that is artificial, a product of what I want to see, and not of what is. I am just here to pick mushrooms.

How we remember is powerful. I suppose that is the lesson I must take away. Of course there is no true meaning to this place besides what we ascribe to it. It is just a forest, filled with trees and shrubs and mushrooms. Every person who has ever walked or died here has had their own experience of it, and mine is precisely as valid as theirs. Our experiences and the stories we tell about them become history, whether or not they bear any resemblance to what may have happened in a place and time. This is not my land and this is not my war, but I am here now, in October 2012, and this is the story I am telling about it.

When we reconvene for hot tea at the car, even the experts among us have not managed to find many mushrooms of the edible variety, but we all agree that it was nice to get out of the city.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Culture Shock, or Life in the Shadow of the House of Soviets

I came to Kaliningrad because, eleven months ago when I was making these decisions, it seemed convenient. I should have known Russia has a way of turning convenience on its ass. But then I was on the cusp of graduating from college, a history student with dim employment prospects in an anti-intellectual economy, still too footloose to consider grad school an immediate option. A year abroad is an acceptable way to stall for time, and if it comes with a living stipend and the ability to slap Senator J. William Fulbright's esteemed surname on my resume, then so much the better.

I expected it to be hard. I did not expect my dorm to be under so-called renovations, more closely resembling a post-apocalyptic nine story bomb shelter than a living accommodation. Muscling my suitcase through a front door that is half off its hinges and propped up by a pile of debris, past gaping holes where entire windows are missing, letting in cold October gusts and drifts of acrid construction dust, I decide risking the lift is worth it. On the floors above, furniture is heaped in corners, along with refrigerators from the seventies and dis-installed toilets with cracked lids, lying on their sides. Amongst the mess is the occasional load of laundry, drying on a rack and presumably acquiring a fresh coat of plaster dust, mute signs of life somehow only emphasizing the desolation of their surroundings.

The babushka who guards my floor, a generic member of that class of solid, rectangular Soviet women who survived the last lord knows how many years in this place and paid a heavy price for it, tells me on arrival, "There is no shower, toilet, or kitchen that work on this floor." The bathrooms and kitchen, I later learn, are a floor above, the showers, two floors below, for men on odd numbered days, women on even ones. It takes me two days to find matches with which to light the ancient gas stove in the kitchen, and even then the trek up the cold staircase in order to heat water for dehydrated mashed potatoes is barely worth it. I subsist on a diet of cheese, bread, yogurt, tea cookies, and apples -- none of which require cooking, but which do manage to make me feel disgusting after a week without a real meal. Rumors say the construction will be finished in two weeks, but that they said the same thing a month ago. It's just like camping, I tell myself. Camping for nine months. At least I have a bed and electricity.

For the first few days, I concern myself with acquiring the basic necessities to sustain life: drinkable water, a can opener, soy sauce, toilet paper, city map, cell phone service. Each small victory feels grotesquely satisfying, to problems that would be mundane errands back home. The language and cultural barriers, combined with the unfamiliarity of the city and the constant stress of having no one to ultimately rely upon but myself make every new problem seem like one more boulder in an insurmountably high mountain. The constant pressure is exhausting, not having any idea where to find an international calling card for purchase, let alone where the right kind of store might even be located in the city.

Most of all, the relentless need for self-reliance is grinding at best, and cause for blind panic in the darker hours of the night. Although I have friends here if I really need help, for the day-to-day challenges of buying groceries or negotiating the city, I am on my own. There is no one to hold my hand and speak Russian for me in the market or at the university. And when I return to the dorm at night, tired and irritable, ready to give up and do something easy, the babushka is still speaking Russian to me, the toilets are still not working, and I still have to find a calling card tomorrow or the next day. I can never give up and let someone else take over because there is no one else, and when I wake up in the morning to the sound of what is either a jackhammer or an elephantine dentist's drill on the wall above my head, I am still in Russia and nothing is easier. Earplugs turn out to be the best thing I brought with me.

When the beige walls of my room get too oppressive, I take long walks around the city listening to hard rock because I need to feel a little rebellious, but the urban landscape brings a bleak vocabulary of its own. Identical Soviet tenement blocks from the sixties crumble mutely into the streets below, forming concrete mazes with muddy sidewalks running between them, an abandoned tricycle standing in the weeds beneath a windowed balcony. Grey presides, relieved by newer brown or yellow buildings in better repair, or by the even rarer red brick survivor of the Second World War. Those German buildings look even more lost here than I do. Above it all presides the hulking House of Soviets, that gap-toothed broken-windowed behemoth, an ironically unintentional monument to the lavish inefficiency, empty aesthetic, and heavy-handed autocracy that defined the worst aspects of the Soviet regime.

My friends here are the other foreigners with whom I live under the babushka's iron gaze: international students on the floor below, international teachers on my floor. I don't know what Baltic tide washed us all up in this place, but it has been churning for a long time. Königsberg was once a Hanseatic trading hub and the capital of mighty Prussia; Kaliningrad is Europe's forgotten shore, where the flotsam and jetsam accumulates. Even the Russians are recent arrivals to this city, although almost seventy years have long since blurred those lines. Whatever currents brought us all here, I am glad I am not alone.

In the evening, we have a party to celebrate the arrival of two Italian visitors, friends of a Lithuanian colleague across the hall. I slice tomatoes and sneak pieces of bread with pesto while guests arrive, Russian students of Lithuanian, mostly. In the unfinished bathroom we are using for counter space, others chop onions and garlic, while the Italians are upstairs cooking three pots of pasta on the rickety stove. Although construction debris is piled in the corners and we have to brush plaster off the extra chairs, the room is comfortable and lively, and I realize how much I've missed this easy companionship. The weight of my surroundings lifts under the wholesome sincerity of the people who have welcomed me into their lives with an open candor and kindness that we lack in America. I have spent the last two weeks remembering how grey and difficult Eastern Europe is, and forgotten to remember how warm and generous it is behind metal doors.

The Italians return bearing exquisite pasta, and for a while all I can hear is the sound of forks on plates amid murmurs of awed appreciation. When we have gorged ourselves on starch and there is no more wine to pour in our tiny plastic cups, Fanni produces a guitar and we spend several minutes trying to think of a song that everyone might know. Frère Jacques seems like a possibility, and we manage to pool our knowledge of its English, French, German, Hungarian, and Polish versions, although none of us know the Russian words despite it being the only language we all have in common. There are about six different languages going on in different corners of the room, and yet somehow we all manage to communicate. It is an unfamiliar polyglot experience for me, and I feel self-conscious knowing just two languages, one of them only passably. Eventually, the Italians take control of the guitar, and we spend several hours singing and dancing until the babushka tells us to be quiet sometime before two in the morning.

I came here expecting to see ghosts. A side effect, I thought, of research before arrival, was knowing too much about a city's past, and not enough about its present. Since 1255, this place has been many things to many people: crusader castle, feudal farmland, Junker capital, center of liberal Enlightenment, Nazi bastion, firebombed ruins, secret Soviet naval base, Special Economic Zone, and today, window or black hole to Europe, depending on who you talk to. The old foundations of Königsberg, a city long since buried under meters of reinforced concrete, are still down there somewhere. I see the brick walls of Prussian basements in the muddy-bottomed construction ditches where they are laying in new pipe.

My inner historian is fascinated, but the rest of me is more ambivalent. The House of Soviets stands more or less where the Prussian castle used to be before its ruins were dynamited in the sixties. I don't particularly enjoy looking at the current concrete leviathan, nor do I approve of what it represents, but aesthetics and preservationist instincts aside, I wouldn't argue that the castle stood for much better. Königsberg was the capital of the conservative Junkers, a reactionary and despotic class of its own. There is a reason why the National Socialists had such strong support in this city, and surely if ghosts wave flags, then black swastikas are flying beside red stars from rooftops that no longer exist.

Walking home in the evening between my Croatian friend and his Hungarian wife, we pass the Soviet tank mounted in the square outside our dorm, a war memorial that children climb on today. I say that when I first arrived and saw the tank, I just laughed. They say that when they first saw it, they almost cried. I don't know how to express the feeling that here, the two can be the same.

For the most part, the ghosts keep to themselves; Kaliningrad's streets are too full of the living for them to come down from their graves. New Russian buildings made of glass are rising downtown, and modern cars park on the sidewalks. I have no idea what the hell I'm doing here, but I am doing it. I am, after all, a denizen of today, and not of the past. Although one day I may wave a pale flag of my own, for now, I know I will be okay. Because if this city has one presiding theme over the centuries, it is that, despite obstacles far more serious than any I will likely face, life goes on.