Research by Michael Behrent for KÖNIGSBEGR IS DEAD by Max & Gilbert






I.                    The Birth of Kaliningrad as Military Zone and Closed City


Kaliningrad was founded with the Soviet victory over the German forces in Königsberg towards the end of the Second World War. Following the attempted assassination on Hitler on July 20, 1944, because of the involvement of numerous East Prussian officers, high-ranking members of the Wehrmacht came under suspicion, leading Hitler to increase the oversight power of the Nazi party in Königsberg. The British Royal Air Force bombed the city regularly from August to September, 1944. The night of August 30 was remembered as particularly devastating: approximately 2,400 people were killed, some 150,000 were left homeless, and much of the Dom was destroyed.[1]

Around the same time, the Soviet push westward had brought its troops within the vicinity. According to official Soviet history, the Red Army's aim in East Prussia was to cut off the central German army group from the remainder of Hitler's forces and to corner them next to the Baltic before dividing and destroying them.[2] Moreover, the Soviets were also aware of the historic significance of the region for Germany. The official history emphasizes this by describing how German social and military priorities were closely intertwined in the region: "Officers and N.C.O.'s of the retreating German army came to East Prussia to establish themselves. They were distributed lands with favorable conditions, but they were under the obligation to build farms in accordance with the plans of the German command. Such measures would permit setting up continuous secondary lines of defense, the piercing through of which would require gigantic efforts."[3]

The Soviet operation was conducted by the 2nd and 3rd Bielorussian Fronts, with the assistance of the Baltic Fleet. The total number of forces the Soviets placed into battle included: 1,600,000 troops, 21,500 artillery pieces and mortars, 3,800 tanks and mobile cannons,  and 3,000 fighter planes. The initial assault, launched from January 13 - 30, left German forces divided in three, between Samland, an area near the sea southwest of Königsberg, and Königsberg itself. A next assault, in mid-March, dispersed the German forces along the sea. Finally, at the beginning of April, the final assault against Königsberg itself was launched (involving the 11th, 43rd and 50th Guard Armies and the 39th Army). During the final push, Soviet aviation played a particularly important role, flying over 6,000 sorties on April 8 alone.

On April 9, the German command in Königsberg surrendered. The Soviet records estimate that the Germans lost 134,000 troops there: 42,000 dead and 92,000 made prisoner.

In the words of the Soviet history, "The fall of East Prussia further weakened the military potential of Nazi Germany. The Red Army defeated a very important enemy bridgehead, the cradle of Prussian militarism. The Soviet Union and popular Poland have forever foreclosed the threat of a German attack from this region."[4]

Several months later, the victorious Allied powers met in Potsdam to map out postwar Europe. For strategic reasons, Stalin insisted on annexing part of East Prussia, including Königsberg. This demand was recognized by the other allies in a protocol signed during the Berlin Conference, held between mid July and early August 1945 to prepare the Potsdam meeting. The protocol, in a section entitled "City of Königsberg and the Adjacent Area", stated:

"The conference examined a proposal by the Soviet Government to the effect that, pending the final determination of territorial questions at the peace settlement, the section of the western frontier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which is adjacent to the Baltic Sea should pass from a point on the eastern shore of the Bay of Danzig to the east, north of Braunsberg-Goldap, to the meeting point of the frontiers of Lithuania, the Polish Republic and East Prussia.

"The conference has agreed in principle to the proposal of the Soviet Government concerning the ultimate transfer to the Soviet Union of the City of Königsberg and the area adjacent to it as described above, subject to expert examination of the actual frontier.

"The President of the United States and the British Prime Minister have declared that they will support the proposal of the conference at the forthcoming peace settlement."[5]

In October of the same year (1945), the Soviet Union formally annexed the part of East Prussia granted to it by the Potsdam Conference as a region of the Russian Federal Socialist Republic under the name "Kenigsbergskaja oblast." Not until July of the next year were the region and city renamed Kaliningrad - in memory of the Chairmen of the Supreme Soviet, Mikhail Kalinin, who had only died in June. The decision to change the city's name was presumably taken quickly.

Not long after the remaining German population was being evacuated in 1946 - 1947, Kaliningrad, with the onset of the Cold War, underwent heavily militarization. At the same time, the city was closed off to foreigners and unauthorized Soviet citizens.

It would appear that during the height of the Cold War, the town's significance to the Soviets was almost exclusively military and strategic. Some plans to began reconstruction were considered in the 1950s, but with little result. Photographs from as late as the 1960s show a city in which the dust seemed only just to be clearing from the British bombardments of 1944. Even its status in the Soviet Union seemed provisional, as perhaps nothing more than a potential bargaining chip in a superpower game. In 1957, General Secretary Nikita Krushchev had to confirm publicly that Kaliningrad had a "permanent" status in the union, in order to quell fears to the contrary.

Although specifics on the militarization of Königsberg are, by the nature of the game, hard to come by, it seems to have served at least 4 major strategic goals:

1.      It was the main port of the Baltic Fleet, which, according to western intelligence reports from 1992, consisted of 85,000 men, 20 submarines, 3 cruisers, 5 destroyers, 29 frigates and other craft and amphibious units.

2.      It stationed the 11th Guards Army (symbolically, the same unit that had "liberated" Königsberg), which consisted of  a major assemblage of armored vehicle, motorized rifle and naval strike aviation and artillery divisions;  missile and self-propelled artillery and tank regiments; naval infantry brigades, engineer-sapper battalions, as well as "more esoteric units"; in short, some 620 tanks, 940 armored vehicles, 695 artillery guns, 155 combat planes and 95 helicopters.

3.      It was an important command and control station for naval, air, ground forces in Eastern Europe, designed to play a key coordinating role in the event of the outbreak of hostilities between the Warsaw Pact and NATO.

4.      It hosted an element of the Soviet nuclear deterrent, notably tactical nuclear missiles with range of 400 kilometer, as well as torpedo-launched warheads. [6]


II.                  The Soviet Building and Rebuilding of Kaliningrad


The story of the Soviet conquest of Königsberg from the Germans and its subsequent transformation into a militarized western outpost had profound consequences in shaping the options for the rebuilding of the city in the post-war era. The fact that the former city had been, according to Soviet propaganda, the seat of Prussian militarism and a fascist nest delegitimized its pre-1945 past.  The architectural remnants of old Königsberg, or what remained of them, were consequently problematic for the new Soviet authorities. The Soviet fantasy was that Kaliningrad should be a tabula rasa -  a clean slate, in which all traces of the recent German past were erased, making possible the transposition onto it of an altogether new Soviet identity and experience.

The rebuilding of Kaliningrad was clearly a problem for the Soviet authorities. Though Moscow architects had already made plans for the reconstruction of cities liberated from German occupiers, Kaliningrad, as a former German city proved more intractable. Rebuilding the city first required an official interpretation of the meaning of Königsberg in German history. Shortly after the city's surrender to the Red Army, Pravda, on April 13, 1945, wrote: "Königsberg - this is the history of Germany's crime.. Through the many centuries of its history the city lived with struggles and invasions; another life was not granted to it. Here, palaces are silent and gloomy. In its quiet cabinets, war archives and libraries, behind the thick walls of the war school and Auditorien, the way for war and assaults was paved decade after decade. Around the city arose the massive structures of the fortification walls. In the center of the capital stood a citadel rising to a stony point and of enormous dimensions, into which corridors, barracks and galleries were embedded, chiseled and struck. They extended deep under the earth."[7] Bert Hoppe argues that this delegitimation of the German past by the Soviets and the myth of Königsberg as an "evil city" parallels the spawning of the equally idealized, though positive myth of Königsberg developed by the East Prussian exiles in the years 1948 - 1949: "The German history of Königsberg solidified into an image which required little connection to the real past of the city."[8]

The urban planning of postwar Kaliningrad was thoroughly underwritten by an historical interpretation. According to the Soviet view, Kaliningrad was an originally Slavic land, that had illegitimately been occupied by the Teutonic Order in the 13th century. The Soviet conquest of the region in April 1945 was, literally, a liberation. In November 1947, Kaliningrad's regional party chief, Vladimir Ščerbakov, in a brochure entitled "The Stalin Program for the Economic and Cultural Building of the Kaliningrad region", wrote: "The Soviet Army has forever annihilated and extinguished the homestead of war and reaction and given the Slavs back their very own soil."[9] Consequently, the strategy used by Soviet architects and urban planners to delegitimate the German remains of old Königsberg was to cast it as having been nothing more than a temporary, soulless, instrumentalized military outpost. In many ways, the Soviet vision of German Königsberg dovetails with the German vision of Soviet Kaliningrad: each sees the other's town as not even properly a city, but nothing more than a barren, temporary fortress town. Dmitri Tjan, the official then in charge of reconstruction, wrote that it was "impossible [...] in determining the course of the streets, to find geometrical principles. Architectonically, it is difficult, in the cities of the region, to find completed ensembles, squares or groups of buildings, with the exception of a few neighborhoods which arose at the end of the 19th century or in the 20s and 30s. The architecture of the buildings is of low quality. The predominant styles are Gothic, modernized Gothic [Neugotik] and constructivist Gothic [Expressionismus]. The most characteristic feature of all the cities is that they are not architectonically planned, but are created according to technical principles. Organic, architectonic flaws are covered up through the order and technical quality of the buildings' structure and characteristics."[10] In an article for the Kaliningraskaja Pravda in 1947, Tjan concluded: "The predominant style [of Königsberg] was a simplified Gothic, or, more rightly, a Gothic disguise. The abundant green of the summer months hides the ugliness of these buildings."

Dimitri Navalichin, who was Kaliningrad's chief architect from 1948 to 1955 (and who was later, until 1957, the head of the regional architectural administration), brought in a Marxist element to the critique. He believed that the military character of the city  was particularly evident in the workers neighborhoods of former Königsberg. Workers' homes looked like "hopeless, cheerless barracks"; indeed, all civilian buildings in such a city had no more than a "subordinate meaning."[11]

This conception of Königsberg also found its way into contemporary Soviet cinema. In the movie Altenberg, Königsberg was denied the right to its name: the Soviet image of a destroyed German city was created by mixing scenes from the former East Prussian capital and Riga. The greatest symbolic violence was achieved in the 1959 film, Human Destiny (Sudba čeloveka): the neogothic gates of old Königsberg's fortifications appeared, amongst others, as representations of the Auschwitz extermination camp.[12]

The task of the rebuilding would thus be to oppose to the small, windy streets of German "medieval" architecture the massive, rectilinear conception of modern socialist man. Leading architects and planners were afraid that the presence of German remains could have a negative effect on Soviet citizens, placing them in contact with foreign and capitalist influences. The process of eradicating these influences was, however, a slow one: in 1952, the regional party committee called attention to the fact that not only German inscriptions and signs, but even anti-Soviet graffiti dating from the war, still covered the city.

The main work of the rebuilding of Kaliningrad was not fully undertaken until the early 1960s. A grandiose, rectilinear urban grid was built around the new North-South axis, Lenin Prospekt.  Many constructions were entirely new, such as those of the Kaliningrad State University, which opened in 1967. In other cases, buildings of old Königsberg were integrated into the new socialist city: the former Stadthaus, on what had been Hansaplatz, was reopened as a seat of local government in the late 1960s, while the old Bourse on the island became an a cultural center for the town's seamen. Others were destroyed: the old Schloss, which for centuries had symbolized the Prussian town, was dynamited around 1968 - meaning that it did in fact remain, albeit in the ruined condition in which the British wartime raids had left it, as part of Soviet Kaliningrad for nearly half its history. Where it had stood, a massive "Central Square" was laid out.


III.                Kaliningrad Remembers Königsberg


The founding myth of Soviet Kaliningrad was that the Red Army had liberated the city from "fascists", who themselves were integrally linked to "Prussian militarism" (a connection that has some truth, but which it is risky to exaggerate). Reconstruction would both symbolize and promote the advent of the new Soviet human being in a former citadel of social backwardness.

Yet the history of Kaliningrad is not simply about the hubris of erecting a new, functional city on the clean slate left by the war, but rather one of the dialectic between the suppression and the reemergence of the past. Despite the efforts of Soviet authorities to extricate Kaliningrad from Königsberg and to incorporate the new city into the socialist world, many of the new inhabitants turned to and cultivated the Prussian past in an effort to forge their own identity.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period, dubbed since Gorbachev's time the "era of stagnation", which saw the birth of a parallel oppositional culture, most notably marked by the samizdat movement. In Kaliningrad, one form which this culture took was the renewed interest in local history. As some recent research has shown, Kaliningraders could subtly affirm themselves by investigating the repressed past of the city, thus undermining the foundational myth that the former inhabitants were only fascists and militarists, while at the same time asserting that the city was unique and different. In a command-economy like that of the Soviet Union, affirming local needs (notably through hoarding) was in and of itself subversive; similarly, discovering local history, in the context of "building socialism", presented a political challenge. This tendency seems to have been present in the Kaliningrad writers' association that brought together such local intellectuals as Valentin Erasov, (1927 - ?), Yuri Ivanov, (1928 - ), Sergei Snegov, (1910 - ?) and Petr Vorob'ev (1900 - 1975). It also appears that Soviet authorities attempted to coopt this spirit: in 1972, the Dom, one of the last remnants of medieval Königsberg, was recognized by the Soviet Ministry of Culture as an official landmark.

One of the main vectors for the cultivation of Kaliningraders' memory of Königsberg was the unofficial civic cult of Immanuel Kant. The cult received recognition from Soviet authorities in 1974, on the occasion of a series of events commemorating the 250th anniversary of the philosopher's birth. For Leonard Kalinnikov, a local Kant specialist (and, presumably, a participant in the "dissident" local history milieus), 1974 was a turning point in his town's history "[s]imply because until this significant year - Kant's 250th birthday - Königsberg with its culture had not existed for Kaliningraders, at least officially."[13] Recognizing Kant as a local heritage was not only a way of finding an aspect of the local past that the Soviet Union could tolerate, but it also helped replace the image of the former residents as "fascists" with that of the "Aufklärer.”[14]

The interest in Kant made it possible reject - or at least qualify - the "tabula rasa" view of Kaliningrad's history, in a way not unlike Kant's own philosophical effort to reject epistemology based on viewing the mind as a clean slate: just as, in Kant's view, experience would be empty without the organizing functions of a priori space and time, so identity is similarly vapid without the historical a priori of a shared past. But it is nonetheless the experience of the present that shapes how the past is seen; Kaliningraders appropriated Kant not as a Prussian, but as a link between Germany and Russia. Kalinnikow writes that "Kant is the most Russian of German thinkers", and that his significance lies in the fact that "he became the symbol of the opened historical depths, the symbol of a new spiritual atmosphere, a comfortable bridge over the abyss between the past and the present."[15]




One could argue that it is with the building of Kaliningrad that Königsberg's history really becomes interesting. The city's parallel each other in interesting and ironic ways: Königsberg was Prussia and Germany's eastern outpost, Kaliningrad the Soviet Union's eastern outpost. Soviet authorities denigrated the German city as a soulless military encampment, a critique of Kaliningrad which exiled Königsbergers later echoed. "Both" cities were entangled in political projects that sought to deny the city's complex history and identity by the - dogmatic - assertion of its timeless belonging to a national space.

Yet Kaliningrad never fully transcended Königsberg. Its rebuilding was a deliberate rejection of the earlier architecture and past, even though some buildings were left over, either to be renamed or to stand as ruins. At the same time, many residents were obsessed with the suppressed recent past of the old town. Far from homogenizing the city into Soviet uniformity, the Kaliningrad episode played an important role in sowing the seeds of the hybrid identity that would burst forth in the post-91 era.



Michael Behrent


Copyright © 2002, TABULA RAZA



[1] Vivianne du Castel, De Königsberg à Kaliningrad: L'Europe face à un  nouveau "département d'outre-terre" russe sur la Baltique. (Paris, Montreal: L'Harmattan, 1996).

[2] La Grande Guerre Nationale de l'Union Soviétique, 1941 - 1945, Aperçu Historique,  (Moscou: Editions du Progrès, 1974. Trad. sous direction de Louis Perroud).

[3] Ibid., p. 379.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quoted in Herbert Feis, Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960),  p.347.

[6] Henry Kamm, "With 'No Enemies', Russia's Baltic Fleet Rusts", New York Times, November 27, 1995.

[7] quoted in Bert Hoppe, Auf den Trümmern von Königsberg: Kaliningrad, 1946 - 1970. (München: R. Oldenberg Verlag, 2000), p. 43. This is my tenuous translation from the German. I have the original were it to be needed.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 45.

[10] Ibid., p. 48.

[11] Ibid., p. 49.

[12] Ibid., p. 50.

[13] Leonard A. Kalinnikow, "Kant and the Königsberg Culture in Kaliningrad after 1974", in Königsberg-Studien. Beiträge zu einem besonderen Kapitel der deutschen Geistesgeschichte des 18. und angehenden 19. Jahrhunderts, ed. by Joseph Kohnen. (Frankfurt a.M., Berlin, 1998), p. 310.

[14] On this point, see Olga Sezneva's unpublished manuscript (not to be cited), "Converting History into "Cultural Treasure" in Post-1991 Kaliningrad: Social Transitions and the Meaning of the Past", available online at

[15] Kalinnikow, pp. 312, 314.