200 miles from the main Russian border, there’s a small enclave of land next to the Baltic Sea, sandwiched in between Poland and Lithuania, which is part of Russia too. Kaliningrad Oblast is the name of the territory, and the capital city there is, not surprisingly, called Kalinigrad, after a leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Kalinin. You may ask yourself how this piece of land, covering less than 6,000 square kilometres, has come to stay part of the Russian Federation, the world’s largest country at over 17 million square kilometres. There are good reasons why it has stayed part of Mother Russia, but first let’s look back a little further.
The short history of Kaliningrad
Before Kaliningrad was Kalinigrad, the city was actually called Konigsberg, a German name given to the town that was founded in 1255, on the same site of the current city. The town was ruled by the Teutonic knights, a group of German origin who had ambitions to spread Christianity through their conquests. Konigsberg prospered and became a seaport city, expanding into a centre for culture and science, and was the hometown of philosopher Immanuel Kant. It was also the original capital of the historical state of Prussia, before it was changed to Berlin. Konigsberg developed into a wealthy and culturally pluralistic city over the almost seven hundred years before it became part of Russia. So why did Konigsberg become Kaliningrad? It was all down to the Second World War.
After a heavy aerial bombardment by the British Royal Air Force, the Red Army laid the siege to the city, and eventually the German Army surrendered. Konigsberg was occupied by Russian troops, annexed by the Russian government, and renamed Kaliningrad in 1946. From then on the historic old city became a highly militarized zone, with the Russian Baltic fleet stationed at the seaport. At the height of the Cold War up to half a million Soviet soldiers were stationed there, but now this has all changed. Before it was closed off to tourists and foreigners and only in the last 20 years has Kaliningrad opened its doors to visitors once again.
What to do and see
Since the end of the USSR era, Kaliningrad has had its ups and downs. Industry and commerce were almost abandoned, and there was a time when health services were dire, and even getting common kidney disorders treated was difficult. In 2001 the writer A.A. Gill visited the city, and wrote about it in his article titled, ‘The Town that Russia Forgot.’ Now it seems to be on the up, and with the help of tax advantages the region’s economy is on the up. It may not be a tourism hotspot, but there is much to see and do in modern day Kaliningrad.
One of the main attractions here is the Konigsberg Cathedral, which was originally built back in 1333. During the Second World War it was almost completely destroyed by bombing raids, and it was left in ruins until the 1990s. Reconstruction of the cathedral was completed in 1998, and now it has been restored to its former glory. Here you can see the tomb of philosopher Immanuel Kant at a mausoleum on the corner of the cathedral.
Another attraction, although you cannot wander around inside this one, is the ‘House of Soviets’, often called ‘The Monster’ by residents of Kaliningrad. Another post-war construction, the typical Soviet architecture employed for this building has made it into an anti-attraction. It was built on the former site of the Konigsberg Castle, also severely damaged by Allied bombs, but has never been used. It was supposed to be an administration centre for the region, but was left as a concrete shell for over twenty years, until it was painted and windows were put in. The underground tunnels and dungeons of the former castle have rendered the building unstable, but it still has not been torn down.
To get a glimpse of the past try to visit the Bunker Museum, the real-life headquarters of the German command during the war, complete with many interesting artefacts. The Museum of World Ocean is also worth a visit, with old Russian ships and a submarine as its exhibits.
One of a kind
Kalinigrad is a city that was stuck in the past, and now it is speeding to catch up. There is no denying that the city is Russian through and through, but it still retains some of its older Prussian history if you look hard enough. It’s a city of contrast that has been born out of turmoil, unique but also regimented. There isn’t another city on earth quite like it.