Kaliningrad: Becoming ‘European as well as Russian’ at Russia’s westernmost frontier
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Nestled between Lithuania to the north and east, Poland to the south and the Baltic Sea to the west, this 5,350-square mile region once stood at the centre of European history and culture; first as the capital of East Prussia and then as the easternmost large city of Germany. Founded by the Teutonic Knights in 1255, Königsberg or ‘King’s Mountain’ originally developed as a Hanseatic commercial centre and was made rich through the commerce of people, goods and ideas. A city of high culture, Königsberg became a capital for museums, theatre, art and music. It was a hub for artists, musicians, philosophers and scholars of all kinds – famously serving as the life-long home of Immanuel Kant. Although tarnished by Nazi rule in the interwar period, prior to World War Two Königsberg had existed as a vibrant and significant centre of modernist culture. Yet the outbreak of war in September 1939 was to have profound consequences for the region.
Annexed by the Soviet Union in the wake of World War Two, Kaliningrad underwent one of the most radical erasures of past history ever experienced. Due to its status as the USSR’s new westernmost frontier, the region took on particular symbolic significance. From the outset, a clean break with the past was deemed essential for the Soviet project. Both city and region were renamed Kaliningrad in July 1946 (in honour of the nominal head of state of the USSR, Mikhail Kalinin), the indigenous German populous expelled and the territory almost entirely repopulated with citizens from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Kaliningrad was envisaged by the Bolsheviks as functioning like a Soviet version of turn-of-the-century New York City – creating Soviet citizens from a melting pot of peoples of different backgrounds in the same way that Americans had emerged from a diverse New York.
Yet, such visions were ultimately never realised. Instead, following the disintegration of the USSR’s hegemony, Kaliningrad emerged as an exclave of the Russian Federation – the complexities of which have become increasingly intricate since the accession of its Polish and Lithuanian neighbours to the EU and NATO in 2004. Indeed, how Moscow has responded to the increasing geopolitical importance of this peripheral region encapsulates perfectly the wider difficulties of holding together an enormous federal country.
Initially, Moscow went to great lengths to assert Kaliningrad’s post-Soviet Russian integrity. Both the 300th anniversary of the Russian navy and the anniversary of Tsar Peter the Great’s ‘Grand Embassy’ to Western Europe were marked throughout the region to great fanfare, with international festivals and memorials erected in the oblast to mark the events. Such measures were also accompanied by efforts to restrict Kaliningrad’s exposure to foreign influence. In 1994, for instance, the regional Duma ‘banned the use of foreign languages in the names of official institutions and in advertisements, as well as any return to old (German) names, in order to protect the Russian language. No German consulate was allowed, but Lithuanian and Polish consulates were’. Even the Republican party leader, Sergei Pasko, ‘felt obliged to declare that he would take to arms in case of a German take-over’.
Despite Moscow’s strong-arm approach, however, local energies instead came to focus on stressing the western academic heritage of the region. For example, efforts were made to emphasise the vast numbers of German intellectual figures who had been amongst the alumni of Königsberg’s famous Albertina University, including: Johan Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, Hermann Helmholtz and David Hilbert. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, an embrace of the pre-Soviet past had come to reshape almost every academic department of the Kaliningrad State University. Reflecting broader cultural changes taking place in the region, subjects such as architecture, urban planning, law, politics and history began to take on an increasingly regional focus, with ‘courses with such titles as Immanuel Kant’s Philosophy and Modernity or European Union Law [occupying] as prominent a role as Russian-oriented subject matter’.
Significantly, the promotion of the region’s pre-Soviet past served to quickly place Kaliningrad’s universities in a favourable position with regard to research grants and support funding from western academic institutions, particularly in Germany and Poland. Indeed:
… in a context where educational institutions were being starved of funding by a financially strapped Russian state, focusing on links with German and Polish universities and funding bodies that could provide crucial training and grants was of existential importance for local higher education institutions that were coming under heavy pressure.
By 1999, the promotion of a specific regional identity - encompassing Kaliningrad’s peripheral exclave status and pre-war German heritage - had become well refined, serving both to enable closer engagement with and access to German and EU cultural institutions that remained less feasible in Russia proper. Certainly, Kaliningrad’s universities continue to maintain a number of bilateral contacts with universities in Germany, far more, in fact, than with any other country.
But the promotion of Kaliningrad’s unique geopolitical and historical position has had wider consequences as well. Not least, it has provided a model for ‘… those elements within the elite and parts of the population that came to see themselves as part of a culturally distinct part of Russia, as well as the European cultural worlds’. Indeed, this notion has been further cultivated through a broader engagement with the region’s German past by other cultural, economic and political institutions. Most notably, Dmitrii Medvedev’s accession to the presidency in 2008 prompted a dramatic change in Moscow’s approach towards Kaliningrad, as the government saw it as a potential tool capable of demonstrating to Europe ‘the emergence of a truly modern Russia’. To this end, Medvedev gave his full support to negotiations with the EU to ease visa restrictions for the region’s residents, and, by 2010, Kaliningraders had gained access to a special visa regime. This allowed them free day-access to neighbouring Polish regions and eased the processes and procedures necessary for Kaliningraders to gain work and tourist visas across the Schengen area.
In this context, it has become increasingly possible for Kaliningraders to assert a sense of being ‘European as well as Russian’ without provoking fears of Kaliningrad separatism in Moscow. As Kaliningrad State University articulated in its 2005 mission statement:
The main symbols of the University, shown in its logo, are a sea wave and a bridge. The Kaliningrad region is developing as one of Russia’s zones of integration into the European socio-cultural space. The region bridges the economy, politics, culture, education and science of Russia and the European Union. The rising sea wave symbolises the coastal location of the University, its progress and sustainable development.
The waves create the image of university life as a vast space of knowledge and a constant striving for socio-cultural understanding in the Baltic Sea region - one of the most successful macro-regions in the world, which brings together countries with the highest global competitiveness ranking. A symbol of connection and integration, the bridge represents increasing academic mobility and promotion of Russian higher education and innovative technologies abroad, offering the benefits of both European and Russian academic traditions. The bridge also shows a historical tie between the once-famous Albertina University and the University of today.
In October 2010, this notion was further reinforced through the renaming of the university as the ‘Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University’(IKBFU), encapsulating perfectly the intricacies of the region’s complex history. Indeed, Kaliningrad is a city not yet seventy-five years old, but which has already come to outlive its Soviet creators. At the local level, this juxtaposition has necessitated reconciling simultaneously with both the region’s pre-Soviet German past and its post-Soviet Russian present. For Moscow, too, Russia’s westernmost periphery continues to provide both unique challenges and new opportunities for its geopolitical imagination.
Jamie Freeman is a Teaching Fellow in Russian/ Soviet History at QMUL. A graduate of the School of History at UEA, his main research interests relate to post-war reconstruction and settlement and the importance of place, memory and the role of urban construction in facilitating and promoting Soviet socialism. His book, From German Königsberg to Soviet Kaliningrad: Appropriating Place and Constructing Identity, is forthcoming as part of the BASEES/ Routledge series on Russian and East European Studies later this year.
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