Tuesday, June 18, 2013

City K.

Frankencity: a statue montage of Kalinin, Kant, Lenin,
and Duke Albert. Can you tell what belongs to whom?

Königsberg. Kaliningrad. King's Mountain and city of Kant, renamed after a communist crony. Królewiec in Polish, Karaliaučius in Lithuanian, and Královec in Czech. Today the city is all and none of these. Kaliningrad is still written on maps and documents, but the name itself has become too narrow to fit the city. Since the end of the Soviet Union, there have been periodic discussions about renaming Kaliningrad, and the topic has become something of a local pastime, albeit a controversial one. Yet despite decades of debate, the name has not changed, and the division of opinions over what the city should be called is as varied as the people who hold them. The question is not only one of semantics, but about the very identity of the city itself, about its attitude towards its past, and towards its future.

Kaliningrad received its current name in July, 1946, shortly after the death of its namesake Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, an old friend of Stalin's and a supporter of his in the struggle for power following Lenin's death. Kalinin was a member of the Politburo for twenty years, and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet -- officially the Soviet head of state, although in practice the real power belonged to the General Secretary of the Communist Party (at that time Stalin). While Kalinin may not have been directly responsible for the repressions and atrocities committed under Stalin's leadership, he certainly didn't oppose them, and his name appears among others on the NKVD's March 5, 1940 memorandum in approval of the execution of around 22,000 Polish prisoners in the Katyn Forest.

The post-war act of renaming Königsberg as Kaliningrad came to affirm, over the following decades, not only the city's new Soviet identity, but the active destruction of and disassociation from its pre-Soviet past. Beginning with the expulsion of the Germans, and continuing with the destruction of the castle's ruins and much of the city's other pre-war architectural heritage, the reclaiming of the ruined city was a powerful symbol of Soviet triumph and strength over fascism. Churches became auto repairs, fields of rubble became towering pre-fab apartment complexes, and Hitlerplatz became Victory Square. The people who built this new city still live in those grey-paneled apartments, and they are the parents and grandparents of the current generation. The idea of Kaliningrad as a rejection of Königsberg is still very much invested in those two names, and especially for the older generation the very idea of renaming Kaliningrad is blasphemous dishonor on the memory of the Soviet soldiers who died in taking the city. For them, seventy years of Russian life here has given the name Kaliningrad a historical weight of its own.

But for others, the act of renaming is less of a problem as the question of what name should follow. Many major Russian cities have renamed themselves as part of the process of de-Sovietization, among them Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Stalingrad (now Volgograd), and Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod). Besides Königsberg, Kalinin also gave his esteemed name to two other large cities (and a double handful of villages), which today are called Tver (named Kalinin in 1931) and Korolyov (named Kaliningrad in 1938). Many of these Russian cities chose to return to their pre-Soviet names, but although this Baltic Kaliningrad might also prefer to escape the cloud of its namesake, the option to revert to its own pre-war name is problematic.

Every few years a petition goes around to rename the city Königsberg (Russified awkwardly as Кёнигсберг). It never results in much, but supporters speak of the importance of acknowledging and honoring all of the city's long and unique history, of preserving the region's original placenames, of celebrating a meaningful regional identity, and of accepting historical responsibility for the last seventy years in a symbolic effort to make the city whole again. It is fashionable among a certain younger segment of the population to refer to the city as Königsberg on social media or in publications, even while opponents cry about the soft creep of revanchism and separatism. Personally, while I deeply support the goals of embracing a full and complex understanding of the city's past and of healing the deep rift between pre- and post-war history, I do not believe that restoring the name Königsberg is the right way to do it.

Königsberg is gone. The war and the Soviet Union were too thorough in their mission to scrub all traces of East Prussia from maps, memories, and minds. Of course some remnants of the architecture remain, and a few old coins and ceramics in museums, but the people, the culture, and the language are long gone. This city is Russian now -- which is not a value statement, but a simple statement of fact. The name Königsberg describes a specific civilization that existed in this place at a specific time, and while the place is still the same, the time and civilization have changed. To say that this city is still Königsberg is an appropriation of a history that cannot speak for itself, a simplification of an incredibly complicated past, and in some sense a dishonor to the city that was wholly razed by the war and to the people who died here or were expelled to live the rest of their lives in places far from home. Their city was not just ruined by the war; it ceased to exist except in memory. This is not Königsberg.

However, critics are also right to say that this city is no longer Kaliningrad either. That name is the legacy of a man and era that must be remembered, but is dangerous to idolize. Just because the Soviet Union won the war does not justify the crimes of Stalin, Kalinin, and many others, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Red Army's atrocities in its advance into Prussia. That reason alone is enough to change the city's name, but the issue is not only one of commemoration, but of current identity.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad is still part of Russia but no longer contiguous, and is forced to confront the implications of being surrounded by the European Union. It has developed its own regional identity, shaped by a deep consciousness of and pride for its unique balance between Russia and Europe. It is inherently part of both. This is no longer the closed and top-secret city of Kalinin, the essence of Cold War Soviet identity, but an open and increasingly international place that is shaped by both East and West. If Prussian Königsberg and Soviet Kaliningrad are two separate cities that happen to share a plot of land, then today there is a third Russian city to join them, and that is the one that needs a name of its own.

There are many suggestions for what this name could be, but unfortunately none of them have risen as a clear favorite. Suggestions include variations on Kantgrad (Кантград), obviously in honor of the philosopher, and Kalinagrad (Калинаград), a modification of the current name in homage to the Kalina Rose (Guelder Rose, in English), which has Slavic mythological meaning. My personal favorite is Korolevets (Королевец, or some variant thereof), which has the value of actual historical and linguistic roots, as well the evident necessity of starting with the letter K.

The original Teutonic fortress, which later became the royal castle, was supposedly named "King's Mountain" (perhaps referring to the Pregel's steep banks) in honor of the Bohemian King Ottokar II, who was a leader of the Teutonic crusades against the native Prussians. In Slavic languages this name survives variously as Královec (Czech), Królewiec (Polish), and Karaliaučius (Lithuanian, not actually Slavic), and was translated more or less literally into German as Königsberg. The Russian version of this Slavic name was Korolevets, or perhaps Krolevets, which was used on old maps instead of or next to the German form Königsberg. This is the name I advocate returning, as it encompasses the area's entire history but is still of Russian origin and acknowledges the city's current language and culture. For now, however, the majority of residents is still in favor of keeping the name Kaliningrad, for better or for worse.

The historical schism that so tortures this city today was created (and is maintained) by the attempt of one city to deny the existence and legitimacy of another. If this rift is to be closed, then the current city cannot afford to disavow either its Prussian or its Soviet past, and it must find some way of making peace with the war and the oblast's current position in Europe. If I were in charge, this would include enacting real protections for historic buildings and fortresses, including Soviet ones. The House of Soviets, that hulking monster, should be cleaned of asbestos and finally finished and given a real use. It would be repeating the crimes of the past to allow such a powerful symbol of the city to collapse, let alone to destroy it. A monument to the victims of the war should be erected on the island, which should remain open parkland as the most fitting memorial to the vibrant city which used to stand there. And for the love of Kant, let there be no more Potemkin reconstructions of Disneyland Prussia, like the new Fishing Village. But these are just my suggestions, and in three days I will no longer live here.

Fortunately this is a real debate that is happening now. There are strong advocates for all sides, and no one claims to know what this city will look like in twenty years. That is true for all of Russia, but especially for Kaliningrad Oblast. Globalization and the clash of generations both play a role, as the first group of young people come of age who were not born in the Soviet Union. The first generation that is not from either Königsberg or Kaliningrad might finally find a way to live both in Europe and in Russia, in three cities and in one.

They are City K.