Friday, February 22, 2013

The Third City

One can spend thousands of words discussing Königsberg's transformation into Kaliningrad, but it's easy to forget that this city has undergone another, albeit less dramatic, crisis of identity since the end of the Soviet Union. The 1945-46 schism was at least marked by a change of name, which lends a convenient way of distinguishing between between the city's pre- and post-war existence. Despite continuing debate on the issue, post-Soviet Kaliningrad has not renamed itself, nor has its population or language experienced substantial changes. The stark contrast between the old German architecture and the Soviet style is obvious to even the most casual tourist, but the modern Russian additions to the city are frequently more subtle. And yet this is not the same place that it was twenty-five years ago, and the transition from Soviet to Russian deserves its own chapter in the book of City K.

For most Westerners, the main distinction between the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia has been the transition from a socialist to capitalist economy, and despite whatever vagaries are involved in making such a distinction, the results are clearly visible in Kaliningrad's cityscape. Three large malls (Европа "Europe", Акрополь "Acropolis", and Клевер "Clover", which also includes the four-star hotel Radisson) and a smaller mall (Калининградский пассаж "Kaliningrad Passage") now crowd the main Victory Square, catering to the modern Russian's every need, from shopping to bowling to McDonalds. These shopping centers all popped up between 2004 and 2009, and now so dominate the downtown area that I can barely imagine what the square must have been like just ten years ago.

Victory Square itself underwent a substantial renovation as part of the city's 750th anniversary in 2005. The whole area was repaved with brick and raised above the street level, creating more of a plaza, complete with fountains and manicured trees. Dear old Lenin, who'd presided in statuesque solemnity over parades and amorous meetings since 1958 (when he took over this duty from an equally monumental Stalin), was removed to a less central location in front of the former October Theater and replaced by a triumphal column commemorating victory in World War II.

Площадь победы (Victory Square) in 1982. Source.
Площад победы in 2002, before renovation. Source.
Площадь победы today.
St George slays the dragon of fascism on the pillar's engraving.

The other main presence on the square is the huge Храм Христа Спасителя (Cathedral of Christ the Savior), which was completed in 2006. Its gleaming cupolas in the center of the city are a reminder that Russia today is largely an Orthodox country, in stark contrast to the anti-religious Soviet Union and Protestant Prussia before that. Most Russian cities have at least a few churches that predated and survived the Soviet era, but because of Kaliningrad's unique past, it has gone through a church-building fever in the last twenty years, along with the Orthodox revival in Russia as a whole.

Lenin in his days of glory, ca. 1976.1
Lenin in his days of lesser glory, ca. 1990s. His dignity was partially
spared by his quick removal to a less ironic location. Source.
Lenin in his days of diva glory.

Over the last two decades since it re-opened to foreigners, Kaliningrad has struggled to reconcile its broken pasts. Is it German? Is it Russian? Is it Russian appropriating German? The Königsberg Cathedral on the island was gradually restored over the 1990s with substantial donations from Germany, and is now used as a concert hall, and houses both a Lutheran and Orthodox chapel. The Friedland and King's Gates, two of the six extant city gates, were restored in 1992 and 2005 respectively, and are now museums. The other four gates remain in varying states of disrepair. And of course the pseudo-German "fishing village" was begun in 2006 and now stands in horrifying imitation of the old waterfront, although I do have to say that the simultaneous rebuilding of the Imperial Bridge (Императорский мост / Kaiserbrücke) as it stood before its destruction in the war was a good use of commercial money.

There has also been a substantial monument-building trend, which speaks to both the Kaliningrad-as-German and Kaliningrad-as-Russian identities with varying strengths. Statues of both Immanuel Kant and Albrecht von Brandenburg, the first King in Prussia, which were lost in the war and immediate post-war period, were replaced in 1992 and 2005. Мonuments to Francis Skaryna, a Baltic printer who briefly lived in Königsberg at the invitation of Duke Albrecht, and Ludwig Rhesa, a Lithuanian poet and professor at the Albertina University in Königsberg, were unveiled in 2005. On the other hand, the city has also erected statues of Pushkin (most beloved Russian poet of all time), Peter I (most beloved tsar of all time), Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov (most responsible for driving Napoleon out of Russia), Marshal Alexander Vasilevsky (most responsible for the Red Army's successful capture of Königsberg), and submarine Captain Alexander Marinesko (most responsible for sinking the Wilhelm Gustloff as it evacuated Königsberg, and killing more than 9,000 people, many of them fleeing civilians, in the single deadliest ship sinking in history).

All good philosophers have pigeon familiars.
Duke Albrecht stands next to Kant's tomb, where the old Albertina
University (named after him, incidentally) used to be.
Quick! Someone tell Brad Pitt that his face has been
stolen for a monument to a sub captain responsible
for the deaths of more people than the Titanic.

So what did exist in Kaliningrad before this wave of construction hit the city two decades ago? As far as I can tell, not much. One of my weekend hobbies is to browse the regional section of used bookstores, looking for Soviet-era travel literature or city information pamphlets with poorly printed photographs of Kaliningrad from the seventies and eighties. The main difference between thirty years ago and today is the vast open space back then, mostly along the river, where the bombing and subsequent fires completely destoryed the existing buildings, and which is today being slowly filled in by construction projects. Even in places that were not leveled by the war, open parkland is being gradually used up for lucrative projects such as the malls around the main square. I suppose this is a natural process in the development and growth of any urban area, but the explicit capitalist force behind it makes for a strong dichotomy against the city's Soviet past.

To my modern eye, old photos of Kaliningrad also look empty because of the lack of billboards, signs, ads, and graffiti that now cover every available surface. The same roads today appear astoundingly cluttered with kiosks, shavarma stands, construction work, haphazardly parked cars, and all sorts of unregulated additions to existing structures, especially when compared to the almost unbelievably sterile streets in these old pictures. Also, the sparsity of cars and crazy marshrutkas on the roads in the USSR, while understandable, is startling compared to the constant traffic jams Kaliningrad experiences today.

Kaliningrad, ca. 1981.2
Today, this same view past the stock exchange
and across the island is blocked by trees and
many new buildings. Ca. 1981.2
More or less the same view as above, just farther over
the bridge. Malls and hotels now fill much of that empty space.
The south bank of the Pregolya, and the then-grassy
lawns of the island -- now a park with trees, sculpture
garden, and paved pathways. Ca. 1981.2
This view towards the "Sports Palace" has barely
changed at all. Ca. 1981.2
Blame the poor quality of this print on the Soviet Union, but you get an
idea of how much of  Königsberg was completely destroyed. All of this
used to be dense narrow streets.3
Kalinin Square, just outside the main train station -- the first thing to greet
any new visitor to the city. The sign on the building reads "Kaliningrad
welcomes you." Ca. 1981.2
Kalinin Square today. Note the flower kiosks.
Intersection of Leninsky and Moskovsky Prospects, the two largest streets
in the city. Today, it is much more congested, and a mall/theater exists
just to the right of that building in the foreground.3

Moskovsky Prospect, ca. 1981.2
Moskovsky Prospect today.
Leninsky Prospect, ca. 1975. It's so clean! Where are the shaverma stands?1
Leninsky Prospect today, looking up it the other direction. Chaos! 
"Traditional relay for the prize of the oblast newspaper
'Kaliningradskaya Pravda.'" Ca. 1981.2
Teatralnaya Street, ca. 1975.1
Roughly the same view today, with the far new building
standing where there were just trees in the above image.
A student group visits Kant's tomb, near the cathedral's ruins, ca. 1973.4
If you look carefully, you can see the line where the
original cathedral stops and the restoration begins.
Monument to Mother Russia, ca. 1971. The city
government building is still partially visible in
the background.2
Today, Mother Russia's backdrop is decidedly more mall-ish.

Kaliningrad today can also be contrasted to Soviet Kaliningrad just as much in terms of things that haven't happened. The city still bears the name of one of Stalin's closest cronies, and Kalinin's statue still stands outside the main train station in the large square that also bears his name. The continued existence of Leninsky and Sovietsky Prospects is almost too mundane to even mention. The House of Soviets, rather than being torn down, was finally given a paint job and had windows installed, despite the fact that it will never be used for anything. The fifteen-plus forts around the city, the gates, and the myriad surviving buildings of architectural, aesthetic, and historical value have generally not been placed under much meaningful protection, let alone restored or proudly displayed. The foundations of Königsberg Castle, partially excavated about ten years ago by initial funding from the magazine Der Spiegel, were abandoned and left open to the weather instead of expanded and preserved. Hell, when bombed-out ruins still stand on major streets, what's the point of excavating the past?

Prussian Königsberg and Soviet Kaliningrad are relatively easy to separate into discrete cities because the latter defined itself in opposition to the former. Modern Kaliningrad has a foot in both boats, and is trying to balance between them while the pressures of time push them farther apart. Is Kaliningrad today more commercial than in its Soviet days? Certainly. Is it more in touch with its pre-war past? In some ways, perhaps -- today at least people can talk freely about and do research on Königsberg -- but in the ways that matter, arguably not. The city's mixed record over the past two decades seems at once to extol the uniqueness of its past, but also to celebrate the Russian military triumph over it. Rebuilding the cathedral is something of a hollow gesture when forts and gates and bridges are left to crumble, be renovated as restaurants and night clubs, or are occasionally actively destroyed. What constitutes legitimate use of these buildings, and which are designated as important enough to be preserved in a meaningful way? The Soviet Union at least had a coherent and consistent, if iconoclastic, attitude toward these questions. For Kaliningrad today, the answer is closer to "we don't know," but more disturbingly, it is also "we don't care."

Mikhail Kalinin himself, ca. 1975.1
The man has aged well.

1. "С чем связаны память и жизнь: о памяниках и памятных местах Калининградской области," Kaliningrad: Калининградское книжное издательство, 1975.
2. Котов, Олег Иванович, "Калининград,"Kaliningrad: Калининградское книжное издательство, 1981.
3. А.И. Петрикин and В.Н. Строкин, "Имена в названиях улиц," Kaliningrad: Калининградское книжное издательство, 1988.
4. "Янтарный берег," Moscow: Издательство 'Прогресс', 1973.

1 comment:

  1. Ella,
    Thank you for your interesting perspective of the development of today's Kaliningrad from the Soviet era city it was, as well as it's transformation from Koenigsberg to Kaliningrad in post WW2. It's an interesting mix to population transfer, economics and culture.
    You are fortunate to have an opportunity to experience Kaliningrad. Best regards, Tom


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