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!

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