Friday, March 29, 2013

Repurposed Religion

When Lenin's statue was removed from the center of Ploshad Pobedi, it was replaced with a giant triumphal column to victory in World War II, and with the gleaming onion domes of the new Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The symbolism is clear: in exchange for one founding narrative of Kaliningrad, a re-branding into two, both tied in some degree to religion. Königsberg's religious community, along with the rest of the city's population, evacuated or were expelled in the city's transfer of power, leaving behind their churches in varying states of ruin for a surprisingly varying list of fates. The few of these buildings that still exist in some form tell a convoluted tale that encompasses several hundred years of the city's history and identity, from the Teutonic Knights to Russia today.

In the aftermath of 1945, the Soviet deportation of East Prussia's German residents in order to import a new population from war-torn Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus was the first step towards developing the freshly-christened Kaliningrad's new identity as a mainstay of Soviet strength in the west. This process was reinforced by the closing of the territory and its quick transformation into the top-secret cold war headquarters of the Baltic Fleet. For the new citizens of Kaliningrad, who had little in common except the experience of the war and their new home, and who were usually connected to the military in some way, it's unsurprising that the new identity was primarily Soviet, perhaps to a greater extent than many other areas in the Soviet Union. Kaliningrad was a proving ground for the new Soviet Man.1

Now, of course, Kaliningrad is no longer Soviet, no longer closed, and also no longer geographically contiguous to Russia, and the region's founding myths have shifted accordingly. The wartime military seizure of the territory remains a central tenet of the city's narrative, but the focus has shifted from emphasizing Kaliningrad as a model military and ideological Soviet bastion against the forces of fascism and capitalism, to subtly reinforcing the legitimacy of the Russian presence in the territory, as well as the primacy of Kaliningrad-as-Russia. Instead of Lenin, now St. George eternally slays the dragon under a banner memorializing victory, while the Orthodox church, in which St. George is one of the most venerated figures (as well as one with long and complex national military connotations), gleams in the square's immediate background. The message is not hard to read: Russia's triumph over and possession of the territory is parallel to St. George's victory (and perhaps as divinely mandated?), and Kaliningrad, though geographically separated, is fundamentally part of Russia and the Russian Orthodox tradition.

"Dedicated to the Great Victory, 1941-1945."

Economically, Kaliningrad's interests don't always align with Moscow's, but the Orthodox Church is a universal institution uniquely situated to reinforce a uniform set of ideals and experiences that are increasingly associated with Russian-ness. It is a gross oversimplification to equate Russian identity with Russian Orthodoxy, but nonetheless the Church has experienced a truly stunning popular resurgence in the last twenty years, and wields a great deal of power, both socially and de facto politically. While the country of Russia incorporates quite a large number of religions, including a substantial Muslim population, ethnic Russians are overwhelmingly Russian Orthodox, even if nonpracticing, and considering oneself part of the Orthodox Church is arguably more an element of national identity than of religion. The prominent and ubiquitous presence of the Church in Kaliningrad, then, takes on substantial importance in tying the exclave to Russian national identity.

The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church came to a crisis in Kaliningrad three years ago, following the introduction of a bill in the State Duma (Russian federal congress) to transfer all religious properties that had been appropriated by the state in 1917 back to their original owners. In Russia proper, the Russian Orthodox Church of course stood to gain an enormous amount of property that had been secularized following the revolution. However, Kaliningrad's situation was unique, since religious properties here had been either Protestant or Roman Catholic before the war.

The federal bill was set to take effect on January 1, 2011, and at the end of 2010 the Kaliningrad Regional Duma passed a hasty couple of resolutions transferring a large number of state-owned former churches and religious property to the Russian Orthodox Church, without meaningful public discussion. These properties included not just extant churches, but Teutonic castles, buildings that were part of educational institutions, museums, and many other properties, regardless of their current use. The rhetoric in defense of the hurried property transfers focused on the need to put these sites of historical and cultural value under a Russian protector before they could be seized by their old foreign masters and used to promote foreign influence in the region. A large group of local citizens petitioned the transfers, which included the Kaliningrad Cathedral (until a personal petition from Angela Merkel removed it from the list), the museum of the Lithuanian writer Kristijonas Donelaitis (until an appeal from the President of Lithuania), the regional philharmonic, the puppet theater, various castles, and many other buildings, but were largely unsuccessful at stopping the transfers to the Church.2

Of the multitude of various religious buildings that existed in Königsberg‎, few survived the war (although the city's three synagogues never made it past 1938), and even fewer survived the Soviet post-war iconoclasm of all things both German and religious. As with much of the city, many churches were partially destroyed in the war but could have been rebuilt, however their ruins were torn down in the 1960s instead. The Soviet Union was also famous for re-purposing church buildings to secular (sometimes ironically irrelevant) uses, and Kaliningrad was no exception. The list of extant pre-war churches is so short that I was curious to see what had become of them all today, and able to do so in the span of a couple weekends. As far as I am aware, the following list contains all of Königsberg‎'s churches that still substantially exist today (but please correct me if I've missed one).

Pre-war churches of Königsberg that still exist in some form today.
Numbers refer to descriptions as follow.

1: Königsberg Cathedral (Königsberger Dom), Kant Island, abutting the no-longer extant Albertina University. The cathedral is probably the most photographed and written-about building in Kaliningrad, except perhaps possibly for the House of Soviets. Construction originally began in the mid-fourteenth century, and the cathedral became Protestant following the Reformation. Largely destroyed in the August, 1944 RAF bombings, the ruined shell remained thus until restoration in the mid-1990s, and now is used primarily for organ concerts. Immanuel Kant's tomb is adjacent.

Ruins of the cathedral, 1988. Source.
Cathedral today. Sorry for the grey sky of death.

2: Holy Cross Cathedral (Kreuzkirche), ул. Генерала Павлова, 2. Built between 1930 and 1933 for the Prussian Evangelical Church (Protestant) and barely damaged in the war, it later became an auto repair shop and fishing equipment factory before structural problems forced its abandonment in the eighties. In 1986 it was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, which later repaired and consecrated it. Today, it is still a functioning Orthodox church, and looks extremely out of place as a lone brick survivor completely surrounded by a towering maze of crumbling Soviet apartments, with a new bridge highway directly behind it.

Holy Cross from the side. It's an interesting building architecturally.
Holy Cross from the front. The inside has been
completely renovated into an Orthodox church.
Standing in front of the Holy Cross and looking out at its immediate
neighborhood. Swanky.

3: Church of the Holy Family (Kirche zur Heiligen Familie), ул. Богдана Хмельницкого, 61а. Originally a Catholic church built between 1904 and 1907, it survived the war well and was used by the Red Army as a hospital, and then as a fertilizer depot. In the 1980s, it was repaired and became the concert hall of the Kaliningrad Philharmonic, and received a new pipe organ as well as the clock that had been on the outside of the Holy Cross Cathedral. Today it is still the Philharmonic's concert hall, and is located in a neighborhood in the southern half of the city with several surviving pre-war buildings, which makes for a nice atmosphere.

Church of the Holy Family. Source.
The Kaliningrad Philharmonic today.

4: Queen Louise Church (Königin-Luise-Gedächtniskirche), Победы проспект, 1а. Located just inside Central Park, this white and green church used to have exposed brick, and was built 1899-1901 for the Protestant communities, and named in honor of the Prussian Queen Louise (1776–1810). It was heavily damaged and scheduled for demolition in the 1960s, but spared by the intervention of a civil engineer, who repaired the building for use as the city puppet theater. The outside was built to look similar to its original form, but the inside was completely renovated for its new theatrical purpose. Today, it is still a very popular destination for Kaliningrad's children.

Queen Louise Church. Source.
Sorry about the trees. Those weren't there
seventy years ago.
The Puppet Theater.

5: St. Adalbert's Church (Adalberts-Kirche), Победы проспект, 41. Built 1902-1904 as a Roman Catholic church, St. Adalbert's (named after the patron saint of Prussia) survived the war and was briefly used for manufacturing before being acquired in 1975 by the Nikolay Pushkov Institute of Earth Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radiowaves Propagation (or IZMIRAN, whatever any of that actually means). It's still used for those mysterious purposes today.

St. Adalbert's Church, ca. 1908. Source.
This one was impossible to get a good angle of, sorry.
Note the peaked spire on the tower is gone.
IZMIRAN in all its glory, from the back.

6: Ratshof Church (Ratshöfer Kirche/Christuskirche), ул. Станочная, 10-12. The last church constructed in Königsberg, built between 1936 and '37, in the Protestant working-class district of Ratshof. Not a particularly beautiful example of Bauhaus architecture to begin with, it suffered serious damage (especially the bell tower), and managed to become shockingly ugly after some inspired Soviet renovation, which involved expanding the building and covering the whole thing with geometric concrete panels. Perhaps this is why, when it became a "the westernmost nightclub in Russia" in 1978, it was (and is still today) named Вагонка, which roughly translates to "siding." At any rate, the interior is as grotty as one might extrapolate from the exterior, complete with velvet walls, red pleather couches, and heavy gilt frames. The property was among those transferred to the Orthodox Church, although apparently there are plans for the nightclub to continue operating for at least a few more years. Kaliningrad never ceases to amaze me.

Ratshof Church, 1940. Source.
Вагонка Club today. Beautiful, ain't she?
The extension to the left, which now houses some sort of chapel,
I think.
Here you can see the fantastic siding, as well as
what's become of the bell-tower.

7: Juditten Church (Kirche von Juditten), Тенистая Аллея, 39Б. Generally believed to have been built in the mid-thirteenth century, the church is claimed to be the oldest building in Kaliningrad, although considering how much of it has been restored, I'm not sure it can claim that title without significant caveats. Originally Catholic (as were the Teutonic Knights who built it), it was later converted to Lutheranism, along with the state religion of East Prussia. Tragically (but all too common of a story), it was almost completely undamaged in the war, but was plundered and destroyed by occupying forces in the immediate post-war period, and remained in an increasing state of ruin over the next several decades. In the '80s it was given to the Orthodox Church, which rebuilt it (well, they rebuilt the walls and put the roof back on), although I'm not sure how faithful they were to the original design. Today, it is still a functioning church, and part of the St. Nicholas Convent.

Illustration of Juditten Church, 1898. Source.
More or less what remains of the oldest building
in Kaliningrad. I was unimpressed with the
quality of the restoration.
I'm pretty sure that icon wasn't been pasted on
seven hundred years ago.

8: Rosenau Church (Rosenauer Kirche), ул. Клавы Назаровой, 24. Construction began on the suburb of Rosenau's new Protestant church just a week before World War I broke out in 1914, and completion was delayed until 1926. The entire immediate neighborhood survived the Second World War relatively unscathed, and today it's possible to walk down a few long streets of row-houses and imagine yourself in a different era. The building was a warehouse for much of the Soviet period, and given to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990, which repaired and converted it into the functioning church it is today.

Rosenau from the front. 
From the back.
What remains of the district of Rosenau.

9: Ponarth Church (Ponarther Kirche), ул. Киевская, 75. Located in Königsberg's southern district of Ponarth (today part of Балтрайон), the Lutheran church was built from 1896-97, and suffered only minor damage in the war. During the Soviet period, it was a warehouse and then a gym (my Russian tutor grew up in Балтрайон and used to have PE classes there), before becoming an Orthodox church in the early '90s. Many of the outlying districts, including what was Ponarth, were apparently far enough away from the city center and escaped heavy bombing, so that today the neighborhood still has many (albeit crumbling) old buildings lining the main street and courtyards. If I thought the center of Kaliningrad was a strange mish-mash of time, then the outlying districts are even more so, and it's hard to tell whether you feel like you're one hundred years ago, fifty years ago, or now (or all at the same time).

Ponarth Church. Source.
Brandenburger Straße in Ponarth. Source.
Ponarth Church today, on Kievskaya Street. 
The view down Kievskaya.
"In case of fire, call 01."

1. See Alexander Diener and Joshua Hagen, Borderlines and Borderlands: Political Oddities at the Edge of the Nation-State (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 130, and Richard Krickus, The Kaliningrad Question (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 42.
2. This event is discussed in many online articles from the time, but two astute (and English) sources are  Vasilijus Safronovas, translated by Kristina Aurylaite, "Rewriting History in Kaliningrad: Facts on the Ground," 20 June, 2011,, and Anna Karpenko, translated by Kristina Aurylaite, "The Debate Over Kaliningrad's Architectural Heritage: An Insider's Perspective," 15 June, 2011,

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