Sunday, September 30, 2012

City of Kings

Flying domestically in Russia is surprisingly easy. I took a cab at 5:30 Friday morning to Shermetyevo airport, one of Moscow's several main air hubs, and luckily the one closest to our hotel. From there, it was just a short two hour hop westwards, putting me on the ground in Kaliningrad just before nine am. I was met at the airport by Bashena, a student at Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University where I will be working, and she helped me settle into my dorm room and showed me around town.

Kaliningrad has two centers, the new and the old. The medieval Prussian city was surrounded by fortified walls, a few of which still remain, but which now is visible primarily in the large circle of streets in the center of the city. Roughly bisecting this circle is the river Pregolya (Преголя), which forms two central islands, a large one and a small one. Kaliningrad (Königsberg, as it was then) was heavily bombed by both the British RAF and the Red Army in World War II, and the original center was almost completely destroyed. The cathedral (Кафедральный собор) on the small island, where the Prussian kings were buried, has since been rebuilt with German monetary contributions and now seems to serve as a concert hall. Immanuel Kant's tomb is next to the cathedral, and the entire island is now a destination for tourist groups, weddings (I counted at least four in the half an hour I was there), and women with baby strollers.

Across from the small island is much larger one with a modern waterfront along the river. It is meant to evoke a Germanic atmosphere with Gothic lettering and peaked facades, but the fact that the buildings are all new and house fancy hotels makes the attempt come off as a bit staged. Still, the curve of the embankment leading along the river to the cathedral seems made for pictures, and there's a reason why it's Kaliningrad's most famous area. On the southern bank, just across from the cathedral, is the old stock exchange, which manged to survive the war, and an imposing backdrop of grey Soviet apartments in varying states of decay. The bizarre juxtaposition of architectural eras and styles must be one of my favorite parts of Russia, and manages to capture in a single image the plurality, confusion, and constant redefinition that lies at the heart of Russian history and identity.

Just to the north of the islands lies the original location of Königsberg Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights in the mid thirteenth century and later the coronation hall of Prussian kings. It was heavily damaged by the war, and though there were arguments for its restoration in the 1960s, Brezhnev's government ordered the destruction of its ruins in 1969. In its place, they built the enormous House of Soviets (Дом Советов), intended to be the central Party headquarters, but never finished. It is impressively ugly, to the point of becoming a caricature of Soviet style and method. I'm not sure whether I hate it, or find a grotesque enjoyment in it. Putin had it painted pastel blue in 2005, but the building itself is too dangerous to be used and too full of asbestos to be destroyed. On a less cynical note, the parking lot below the looming monstrosity was bustling with a farmers' market on the sunny Saturday that I visited, and I bought a small bag of potatoes.

Farther north from the old center but still within the ring is the new downtown, centered around Плошадь Победы (Victory Square) and extending in two directions along Улица Черняховского (Chernyachovskovo St.) and Ленинский Проспект (Lenin Prospect). Originally called Hansaplatz, and then Adolf-Hitler-Platz, the square is a somewhat ironic mixture of old and new. The city hall, built in 1923, is still the center of city government, and the 1930 Nordbahnhof train station is now a shopping center. Today it somewhat dominated by the new (2006) Orthodox Храм Христа Спасителя (Cathedral of Christ the Savior, not to be confused with the one in Moscow). All the Orthodox churches here are of recent construction, since there were certainly none before 1945, and after that the Soviet regime wasn't interested in building places of religious worship.

I also took a stroll along Литовский Вал (Litovsky Val, aptly meaning a wall, embankment, or rampart), a street forming the northeast section of the ring and running along what is left of the old brick city wall line. For most of the street this takes the form of a high bank, overgrown with trees and brush, punctuated by a few brick gatehouses and fortifications. The more intact buildings are now restaurants or stores, and the embankment itself is a bit of an eerie and forgotten presence.

Tourists stop to look at the several Prussian gates (вороты) that survived the war, and indeed they are spectacular, if awkwardly out of place in their modern Russian surroundings. But I find myself drawn more to the less known remnants of a different city: the gaping bunker holes dug into the overgrown bank, or the occasional crumbling brick factory that must predate 1945. This is a place that has been medieval, Prussian, Nazi, Soviet, and Russian -- most of that in the last century alone. Each successive regime has built (literally) on the foundations of the old ones, destroying some things, keeping others, and appropriating old structures for new uses.


  1. Wow, Kaliningrad has a bizarre history. Really enjoyed your post and the pics!

  2. Jesus Christ, this is like taking a tour of Kaliningrad with Campion as tour guide, if he were an expert on Russian history rather than British history.


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