Russian city reaches into past to find German roots

Russian city reaches into past to find German roots

12th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

For 50 years, Soviet authorities ignored and even sought to erase Kaliningrad’s German heritage but now the city, formerly known as Koenigsberg, in delving into its past.

Rising from the skyline of the Russian city of Kaliningrad, the high steeple of a reconstructed Gothic cathedral is a symbol of an erased German past.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, people of the enclave have been drawn to their home's pre-World War II identity as Koenigsberg.

"Of course, the city is no longer Koenigsberg," said Svetlana Koval, 45, an expert at the historical museum of Kaliningrad, capital of the eponymous Russian Baltic enclave. "But there are two or three generations who have never been to Russia -- mainland Russia. 'The history of the Teutonic Order is also my history,' they say," referring to the German knights who founded Koenigsberg in 1255.

A hidden past

Built in 1333, the cathedral in Koenigsberg's old town was all but destroyed in 1944 by wartime British air raids against Nazi Germany.

The debris lay unkempt for 50 years as Soviet authorities ignored and even sought to erase the city's German heritage.

But a post-Soviet reconstruction drive began in 1994, with financial help from Germany, Poland and Russia. The cathedral, which houses a concert venue and an Orthodox chapel, was inaugurated ahead of the city's 750th anniversary celebrations in 2005.

Until April 9, 1945, when the Red Army took the city from retreating Nazi troops, Koenigsberg was a Baltic hub for German commerce and culture, best known as the home of the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is buried near the cathedral.

It was the capital of the German territory of East Prussia -- locals now make jokes about living in "pRussia" -- which was split between Poland and the Soviet Union after World War II.

In 1946, Moscow renamed the city and region after the Soviet head of state Mikhail Kalinin, who had just died.

Difficult memories

Remembering the city's German roots is a sensitive issue.

By definition, Kaliningrad only became Russian because of Germany's crushing defeat in a conflict marked by a brutal Nazi offensive against the Soviet Union.

Remaining Germans were expelled and the region was repopulated with Russians, many from destroyed Soviet communities.

The enclave, which gave Moscow a new strategic toe-hold on the Baltic, also became home to a huge contingent of Red Army troops.

Koval, however, said pre-Soviet history is vital to the identity of the people of Kaliningrad, who had to start from scratch six decades ago.

Looking west

The 940,000 people -- of whom 430,000 live in the city itself -- have long been known as westward-looking.

Sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, two former East bloc members now in the European Union, they need visas to travel by road to Russia proper, accentuating a desire to feel local roots.

"I've never lived in Russia," said Kaliningrad region resident Ruslan Smolin, 25. "This is my home. We live in Europe, in the centre of Europe, we're Europeans. We are united with (mainland Russia) in name only."

Alexandra Kovaleva, 49, a first-generation Kaliningrader, has watched the wind change.
She recalled how in 1967 authorities demolished the ruins of Koenigsberg Castle -- the residence of Prussian kings and the grandmasters of the Teutonic Order -- which had been damaged during the British war time raids.

"I thought it was kind of ironic that the Soviet liberators were destroying the old Teutonic Castle," she said.

The ruins made way for the House of the Soviets, intended as the seat of the regional administration.

Begun in 1972, the building stands unfinished, surrounded by a crooked fence. It turned out to be unable to stand safely on land riddled with castle tunnels.

Attempts to do something with the eyesore have stalled -- a sign still promotes the phantom 2004 opening of a business centre -- and the surrounding square is desolate, with grass pushing up through the paving.

"The historical town centre is now basically a desert," said Koval.

But there's a silver lining: The site became a boon for archaeologists probing its German past.

Aleks Tapinsh/AFP/Expatica

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