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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ella, my name is Adriana and I´m a Brazilian looking for informations about Kaliningrad which I´ll be visiting by the end of next April. I was actually searching for accommodation but some how end up finding your blog (maybe because it´s URL ends up with .br so google keeps pushing us to "local" websites as you may know).

    Forgive my English, though I´m a daughter of an English teacher I never got my proficiency diploma or anything like that...anyway, first congratulations on your blog. Its really nice to read something other than travel guides. Gives me a good perspective of what I might encounter on my travel. Second I´d like to, if you have some free time of course, learn a bit more of what would you recommend to do/see in Kaliningrad in 2 days.

    Please, feel free to refuse this "job" as I know you are there working and might not even be interested in becoming a travel advisor. The main point of this message is to say how much I enjoyed finding this blog and I wish you keep writing whenever you can.

    Best Regards
    Adriana

    Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
    adrianatramos[at]gmail[dot]com

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