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.