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Kaliningrad: An imperial gem and a thorn in everyone’s side

Source: Meduza
A birds-eye view of Kaliningrad, Russia. August 2017.
Lars Baron / Getty Images

Story by Sergey Faldin for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Bordering Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea, the Kaliningrad region has no land links to the rest of the Russian Federation. And prior to World War II, it wasn’t part of Russia at all. The territory changed hands as a result of the Allied victory, passing from Adolf Hitler’s defeated Germany to Joseph Stalin’s USSR. The Soviet authorities stripped the region of its German population and heritage, changing the name of its capital from Königsberg to Kaliningrad and turning a centuries-old port city into a restricted military zone. Since 1991, Kaliningrad has become even more isolated, geopolitically speaking, as its neighbors joined NATO and the European Union. But local residents enjoyed the perks of proximity to E.U. countries and, in recent memory, even saw their city open its doors to the world during the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Just a few short years later, however, the fallout from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has left Kaliningrad and its residents cut off from Europe once again. Journalist Sergey Faldin reports for The Beet. 

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

In August 1944, British air attacks demolished most of the East Prussian city of Königsberg — literally “King’s Hill.” The next year, the German region became the first the Red Army entered on the Eastern Front of World War II, as it secured essential ports along the Baltic coast on its way to victory in Berlin. 

After four years of incessant fighting, starvation, and death, the Red Army saw the territory as a valuable “war trophy”; mass killings and atrocities against German civilians ensued. “The [Red Army] soldiers had all experienced the horrors of the German invasion. Nearly everyone in the Soviet Union had a family member or a friend who had died in the war,” Nicole Eaton, an Associate Professor of History at Boston College, told The Beet. “Everyone had gone hungry and had their lives torn apart by the German invaders. East Prussia, as the first German territory the Soviets entered, became a site of vengeance for them.” 

Soviet troops fighting in the Königsberg suburbs in 1945. The officer in the background is firing a German submachine gun.
Slava Katamidze Collection / Getty Images

Having occupied the region, the Red Army stayed. At the 1945 Potsdam Conference, the Allies carved up East Prussia, leaving Königsberg and much of its surrounding territory under Moscow’s control. In 1946, Königsberg became Kaliningrad, renamed after the Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin. The city would go on to become a Soviet military outpost with access to the Baltic Sea, a strategic point of control in Europe. Thus, as Eaton writes in her book German Blood, Slavic Soil, “Königsberg / Kaliningrad” became “the only city ruled by both Hitler and Stalin as their domain. Not only in wartime occupation but also as an integral part of their empires.”

More than half of Königsberg’s population of about 375,000 was either killed or displaced during the war. In its aftermath, the Soviet authorities initially prevented the region’s remaining Germans from leaving, only to deport them en masse in 1947–1948. “The region is unique in one aspect,” said historian Tomasz Kamusella, a Reader at the University of St Andrews, “which is that the history of its people dates back only to 1945.”

Indeed, by 1946, the Soviet program for “resettling” the Kaliningrad region had already started to gather speed, drawing settlers from across the Russian FSFR and, to a lesser extent, from Belarus and Ukraine. Having suffered through Nazi occupation and the destruction of their hometowns, many were ready to take the leap into new Soviet territory and rebuild their lives. By the early 1950s, roughly 400,000 people from across the Soviet Union had moved to Kaliningrad.  

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, and the neighboring Baltic countries regained independence, the territory and its residents were cut off from the rest of the newly formed Russian Federation, turning the Kaliningrad region into an exclave, which by the early 2000s would find itself wedged between E.U. and NATO members Lithuania and Poland. 

The newfound independence of former Communist states brought about an identity crisis: for the first time in 50 years, people in Kaliningrad could talk openly about what had happened to their city before and after World War II. “Suddenly, a new narrative was formed. Not just, ‘We came to build socialism on the ruins of fascism,’” said Eaton, referring to the Communist Party’s standard credo about Kaliningrad’s postwar construction. “People began thinking and talking about their German heritage in ways they hadn’t been able to before.” 

‘Gdańsk is closer than Moscow’ 

Eaton describes the 1990s and early 2000s as a period of “post-1991 Euro enthusiasm,” when Moscow granted relative freedom to the regions, enabling them to elect their governments without Kremlin interference. But by the mid-2000s, “Putin was re-envisioning Russia’s economic policy and started giving special attention to regions like Vladivostok and Kaliningrad,” Eaton explained. “Moscow poured a lot of money into these regions to make them feel more ‘Russian’ because as cosmopolitan port cities they seemed to be slipping away and forming strong local identities.” 

Pedestrians walk along a wall in Kaliningrad. March 2004.
Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images

“After 1991, we suddenly started to question, What is Kaliningrad? Kalinin’s city?  But he was a Bolshevik, and we’re not communists anymore,” said Yury, a crisis psychologist from Kaliningrad who now resides in Tbilisi. “Are we Prussians then? But we have no ties to them except the architecture.”

A local border traffic agreement with Poland (which lasted from 2012 to 2016, allowing Kaliningrad residents visa-free travel to nearby Polish provinces for up to 30 days) fostered ties with Europe and helped shape the identity of the people in the region as “Russian Europeans.” Slowly, people began to acknowledge their city’s German past. “In 1995, Kaliningrad marked its 50th year as a [Russian] city; but in the early 2000s it was the 750th anniversary [of its founding],” Kamusella pointed out. “Everything that happened here is our history. Even the history of Prussia and the history of fascism,” a tour guide from Kaliningrad told The Beet. 

Kaliningrad’s status as a “special economic zone,” along with its European location and liberal tax policies, turned the region into a lucrative investment opportunity. Some predicted that it would become a “Baltic Hong Kong.” Foreign investors helped fund urban renewal and reconstruction projects, as well as the creation of local history museums, transforming the birthplace of philosopher Immanuel Kant into an emerging tourist destination. 

“They are surrounded by Europe; it would be stupid not to trade,” says Maxim Mihutsky, an IT entrepreneur from Belarus residing in the Polish city of Gdańsk, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Kaliningrad. Indeed, many Kaliningrad residents used their proximity to Europe to start small businesses selling E.U. goods, shaping the region’s reputation as entrepreneurial. “Everyone has a side hustle; that’s just who we are,” said Petya, a tourism student in Kaliningrad (whose name has been changed for safety reasons). Others relished living the cross-border dream: the largest IKEA in the region is in Gdańsk, just two hours away. “There’s this Polish shop on the border; it has some of the best pies, cheese, and sausages,” Petya recalled dreamily. 

As of 2016, a staggering 82 percent of Kaliningraders had passports for foreign travel (by comparison, just 30 percent of Russians hold a passport in 2023). “I’m proud to be European, I’m proud to be the last part of Russia celebrating the New Year, and I’m proud of my Germanic ‘flavor,’” Sasha, a political activist from Kaliningrad (whose name has also been changed), told The Beet. 

‘Not an opposition town’

In 2009–2010, Kaliningrad rattled the Kremlin with massive anti-government protests; Moscow had to dispatch a special envoy to quell the unrest. According to Sasha, who has been an active protester for the past decade, these were the region’s first and last large-scale protests. Some of The Beet’s sources speculated that the heavy military presence in Kaliningrad — the home of Russia’s Baltic Fleet — and an alleged influx of officials who purchased land for cheap could explain the increasingly depoliticized atmosphere in the region. 

A rally against corruption and abuse of power in Kaliningrad’s Yuzhny Park. October 2010.
Gl0ck / Shutterstock

Kaliningrad saw a surge in political activity during the 2011–2013 Russian protests (also known as the Bolotnaya or Snow Revolution), but the movement was ultimately suppressed. “First, they canceled the special economic zone; then they stopped trying to turn Kaliningrad into anything other than just another Russian town,” said Yury. “After Bolotnaya, Kaliningrad couldn’t be independent anymore.” 

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 escalated political repressions even further. The ensuing E.U. sanctions, together with the cancellation of the border agreement with Poland in 2016, also made it harder for Russians to travel to Europe. 

“My friends and I tried to go out with posters, but it looked pathetic,” recalled Sasha, speaking of the later demonstrations that shook Russia in 2017, after Alexey Navalny’s exposé of then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s ill-begotten wealth. “Only ten or twenty people would go out on the streets. Kaliningrad is not and never will be an opposition town.” 

After Putin appointed Anton Alikhanov to serve as head of the Kaliningrad region in 2018, the new governor claimed there was no “special Kaliningrad identity,” underscoring that half the population wasn’t even born in the region. “Having a Moscow-appointed governor does mean a greater connection to Moscow,” said Eaton, recalling her own time in Kaliningrad and how locals often spoke of the perceived benefits of a “strong” governor who supposedly had Putin’s ear. “But it’s [about] whose interests are being met – that’s always the question,” she added. When asked about his attitude towards the Moscow-appointed governor, Sasha replied, “He’s a good man, and he’s been doing many things for the region. But I’m sure he steals.”  

Sasha was among the few in Kaliningrad who protested Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He recalled some 300 people taking to the city’s streets but said “nobody paid [them] any special attention.” 

‘Nobody cares about the war’

After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, some commentators raised the question of Germany’s historical claim to Kaliningrad. In response, Moscow began sounding the alarm about so-called “Germanization” (or “Westernization”), claiming that Germany (or other NATO countries) want to take back Kaliningrad and make it their own. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated this rhetoric during a visit to Kaliningrad in 2021.

However, these concerns appear to exist solely within the minds of Kremlin politicians. “We Kaliningraders hate it when Muscovites come to our home and talk about Germanization,” said Sasha. “There was no Germanization, neither in the past nor the present. This is Russia, and everyone understands that.”  

Central Kaliningrad. June 2022.
AP / Scanpix / LETA

“Today’s Germany doesn’t harbor any projects of imperial conquest like Russia,” underscored Kamusella. “If there were any ideas today in Germany about taking back Kaliningrad they would be quickly silenced, mainly because of Germany’s War World II guilt and the utter impracticality of annexing a discontiguous territory where one million Russian citizens live,” Eaton concurred. “The potential secession from Russia, although a good story to sell by propagandists, is just not practical for anyone.” 

In fact, against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Kaliningrad has only grown more isolated from Europe. Ever since Lithuania banned the transportation of E.U.-sanctioned goods to Kaliningrad in mid-2022 (a move Russian officials decried as an “illegal blockade”), Sasha’s father, a long-distance trucker, has been unable to find work. Many E.U. products that were once common in the region are no longer available on store shelves. “[There’s] odd juice boxes and Russian groceries I’ve never heard of instead of Lithuanian ones,” Sasha lamented. 

Others, like Petya, do not connect these developments to the ongoing war. “When the special military operation [sic] began, my friends called me, worried,” he told The Beet, using the Kremlin’s official term for the 2022 invasion. “I was surprised: for us, nothing changed. We were, and still are, Russia. The war is in Ukraine.” 

Nevertheless, the Russian exclave hasn’t been spared the war’s chilling effects. Last March, Russia’s Interior Ministry added two Kaliningrad journalists to its federal wanted list. Local activist Igor Baryshnikov, who criticized the war on social media, faces two criminal charges of spreading “false information” about the Russian military (the 64-year-old’s trial was postponed indefinitely after he was hospitalized in February). One of The Beet’s contacts from Kaliningrad declined to give an interview, citing concerns about being blacklisted as a “foreign agent.”

Last March, Alexey Milovanov, a Kaliningrad journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Novy Kaliningrad, found a sign taped to his apartment building’s front door that read “Zдесь жиVёт предатель — “A traitor lives here” (with the capitalized Latin letters “Z” and “V” that have become key symbols in the Kremlin’s war propaganda). Milovanov posted a photo of the sign on his Telegram channel, commenting, “Ordinary fascism. Surprised it took them so long.” 

Journalists at Mediazona report that some 180 killed soldiers from the Kaliningrad region are among the 18,000 independently confirmed Russian casualties in Ukraine. Recent viral videos showing mobilized troops from Kaliningrad and other regions refusing to fight and being called “cannon fodder” highlight the grim realities Russian draftees face. “We used to have a tradition in Kaliningrad,” Yury, the psychologist, explained, “that anyone who serves in the military [only] serves within the region. Seems that this tradition has been neglected.” 

A pro-war “Z” adorns the facade of Kaliningrad’s Yunost Sports Palace. August 2022.
Igor Ivanko / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Vida Press

Besides the initial sporadic protests and random arrests, Sasha says the atmosphere in Kaliningrad hasn’t changed much since February 24, 2022. “It’s as if nothing is happening,” he told The Beet. “Nobody cares about the war. Even the [lack of] transit [to the E.U.] isn’t affecting the mood. It’s demoralizing.” 

Russia’s mobilization drive last September also provoked little backlash in the region. Sasha knows only one person who has been killed in action — “but he was a contract soldier” — and has another colleague who was called up last month and is now in Ukraine. “That one is still alive and texts me occasionally,” he said. 

A great asset to an empire

In late 2022, Warsaw announced plans to construct a temporary “wall” along Poland’s border with Kaliningrad, citing concerns about Moscow potentially turning the exclave into an illegal migration route (along the lines of the 2021 E.U. border crisis with Belarus). “It took so long to tear down those walls from a historical perspective,” Kamusella told The Beet. “Of course, we know why it’s being built, but as a historian, I also know that if erected, those walls will stand.” 

“The wall has significant repercussions,” said Eaton. “In many ways, it’s a continuation of a repeating tragedy from the past century. The region, once a polyglot and multiethnic community of German, Polish, and Lithuanian speakers, became Germanized by the Nazis, and then was Russianized by the Soviets. It’s tragic because Kalinigrad’s residents after the Soviet collapse could engage in these great cross-border exchanges and cultural dialogues once again, but now no longer.”

Despite these developments, the consensus appears to be that Kaliningrad remains more of an asset than a liability to the Kremlin. 

In 2018, a Russian official confirmed that Moscow had equipped the region with Iskander missiles — nuclear-capable rockets that could potentially reach not only the Baltic countries but also parts of Poland and, in certain circumstances, even Berlin. Experts debate if Kaliningrad is actually capable of launching nuclear attacks or if it’s just another Kremlin bluff. “I would say with 70-percent certainty there are nuclear missiles over there,” Kamusella said. “We all remember the Warsaw Pact and how that turned out.” (During the Cold War, the Soviet Union denied stockpiling nuclear weapons in Communist Poland, only to have their storage sites discovered after the Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1991.) 

“As long as Russia and NATO exist, Kaliningrad will be a thorn in NATO’s side and vice versa. I find it difficult to imagine Kaliningrad changing hands unless this war catastrophically escalates globally,” Eaton speculated. “From an imperial perspective, Kaliningrad is a great asset,” added Kamusella. “An exclave surrounded by the enemy? It justifies whatever military measures Russia takes in that region.”

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Story by Sergey Faldin for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart.

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