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






The dissolution of the Soviet Union - which was already underway with the independence movement in the Baltic states in 1990 - 1991, but which was made irreversible by the chain of events following the attempted coup of August, 1991 - made the Kaliningrad oblast a paradoxical space: Lithuanian independence left it surrounded by the sea and "foreign" powers, with no land connection to the Russian mainland. Where it had been a German enclave from 1919 to 1939, it is now an enclave once again, this time of the Russian Federation.

            Yet at the same time that it has been separated from the rest of Russia, it has become opened up to the rest of the world - and more exposed to the flow of commercial, human, cultural and even biological exchange than ever. After the experiences of being roped into German nationalism and Soviet socialism, Königsberg, as Kaliningrad, once again seems to have retrieved something like the cosmopolitan stature it had in the 18th century - with all the ambiguities and ironies that go with it.


I.                    Economic Crossroads


The newly independent Russia that was finding its feet in early 1992 was, amongst other concerns, worried about Lithuania's ability to block the Kaliningrad region off from the rest of Russia. One of the ways President Boris Yeltsin's government tried to mitigate this threat was by strengthening Kaliningrad's economic position as a crossroads of foreign trade. It created the "Amber" free trading zone in the region, which entitled it to various tax exemptions designed to make it an attractive place to do business. Foreign investors were actively sought out, particularly among the Poles and the Germans (who initially were responsible for nearly 40% of all investments, and many of whom were former residents). Direct roads and train lines to the west - notably to Berlin - were reopened. A ferry line to St. Petersburg was put in place.[1] Truck routes were opened heading south through Belarus and the Ukraine, as well as north to St. Petersburg.

The opening of Kaliningrad created many problems for which neither the region nor Russia were prepared. In the first place, Russia found itself vulnerable to Lithuania's whims - a humiliating position for Russia to find itself in, given its previous hegemony. In 1994, for instance, Lithuania introduced selective and prohibitive tariffs on train freight destined for Kaliningrad's port, Baltisk, in order to favor its own largest port, Klaďpeda. Russia was forced to threaten that it would send all its trade through Belarus and Poland, bypassing the Baltic lands.

Another consequence was that Kaliningrad became an important center of smuggling and crime. As an American reporter described it in 1997, Kaliningrad had become a "giant warehouse" in which everything was cheaper than elsewhere in Russia. Beer and vodka reportedly sold at one third of their Moscow prices. It was also the "best place to get smuggled cars and discount narcotics." Furthermore, some 5,000 prostitutes could be found on its streets, not including those working in clubs and casinos. [2]

Moreover, the opening of Kaliningrad to trade also opened it to the spread of disease. The syphilis rate was three times the Russian average, and over 100 times the German rate. But most importantly, Kaliningrad  became in the 1990s the epicenter of the Russian AIDS epidemic. The World Health Organization's regional AIDS director for Russia said of Kaliningrad: "All the conditions are there for a disaster. And nobody is remotely ready for it. The virus has spread so fast in Kaliningrad that even the few people who are trying to do something about it are lost. [...] What you see in Kaliningrad today is only the beginning for Russia."[3] In 1997, around 1,850 were infected with the virus, compared to a reported 28 the previous year: Kaliningrad had become perhaps the city with the highest proportion of AIDS per habitant in Europe. The main cause of the city's vulnerability was its unemployment rate of nearly 50%, which made attractive to many drugs such as Hymka, a liquid opiate available for as little as $20 for three doses. Whereas in 1996, only 5% of Kaliningrad's prostitutes had AIDS, UNICEF reported that 85% of those it had sampled were infected in 1997. City authorities were forced to respond with a poster campaign that compared the epidemic to the plague. The price of becoming an open city was thus a kind of viral cosmopolitanism.

            With the opening of borders and the influx of contraband, corruption of public authorities ensued. This is associated in particular with the rise to power of the regional governor, Leonid Gorbenko. Gorbenko rose from a job in the port to become a manager of the docks; despite widespread press reports about his alleged corruption, he succeeded in becoming elected by Kaliningraders to the position of governor in 1996. The promotion of localism in the early years of the Yeltsin period encouraged many regional governors to establish themselves as local potentates. Gorbenko seems to have done this with particularly cynicism. Not long after taking office, he issued a decree giving himself personal control over the cigarette, car and alcohol trade. He accepted a loan from a German bank to finance his chicken ranch, which he then closed. He went on a special mission to Moscow to gain support for a plan to renationalize the oil, amber, shipping, fishing, rail and air transport industries in Kaliningrad. When the local Duma opened an investigation into his abuses of power in 1999, he cut off electricity to its offices and suspended its members' salaries. Alexander Khmurchik, the editor of the Kalinigradskaja Pravda wondered at the time "whether one morning the citizens of Kaliningrad might wake up to find the name of their region changed to Gorbenkograd." Putin's accession to power seems, however, to have reined in Gorbenko: federal investigators were sent to the city, and, in 2001, a new regional governor, the former Baltic Fleet commander, Vladimir Yegorov, was elected.



II.                  Hybrid Identities


Post-1871 Königsberg was German, post-1945 Kaliningrad was Soviet and socialist: but what was a Kaliningrad separate from a now-independent Russia, no longer a closed city but more and more open to a globalized world?

One thing is certain: many Germans returned, raising the old question of whether it is ever possible to "go home". Statistics in 1989 put Kaliningrad region's Russian population at 78%, with Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Bielorussians making up another 15% - and only 1000 or so Germans. By the early 90s, official figures recognized the presence of 4,000 Germans, but unofficial reports put the number at 20,000 and growing.[4]

In addition to the physical presence of Germans, economic ties reinforced the emerging hybrid identity of the city: the early 90s saw a threefold rise in exports towards Germany, a fivefold rise in imports, and the creation of over 200 new joint ventures (in 1993). To make these ties official, Germany recognized Raimer Neufeldt - who himself had been born in the city, and the director there of the Russian-German house - to serve as Germany's representative until a consulate opened. 

A particularly interesting figure in this exchange is Friedrich Wilhelm Christians. Christians was a young panzer commander when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and found himself stationed at end of war in Königsberg, from which he narrowly managed to escape across the Baltic. He later became the chairman of Deutsches Bank. In 1988, he visited Moscow, where, in meetings with top government officials, including Eduard Shevardnadze, the foreign minister, he floated the idea that Kaliningrad be transformed into free trade zone, linking the old Soviet republics to Scandinavia, Poland and Western Europe. With his German friends, he founded a  "Königsberg initiative."[5]

It is interesting that many are reluctant to characterize this influx of Germans into Kaliningrad in the post-91 era as a "Germanization" of the city. Many Germans who have returned are former residents, some of whom have expressed distress at the elimination of the remnants of German culture there. Yet top Russian officials, like the erstwhile mayor of the city, Vitaly Shipov, have declared: "There is no Germanization of Kaliningrad, it has not happening and it will not happen. It is a made-up issue."[6] Germans like Christians have been pragmatic on this issue, or at least sensitive to Russian concerns; he once said: "My proposal was: no re-Germanization, but a Europeanization. Königsberg should be restored as a great port, an exchange for people, ideas, capital and goods." He also recognized that the willingness to accept a German presence is linked to generation: "The younger they are, especially those 30 and 40 who were born in Kaliningrad, the more open they are. Recently I had a visit from a young artist and his student friend. They were proud of the city's historical past. But with the older generation it is different. Shevardnadze once said that for them, Kaliningrad remains a trophy of the war."[7]

            In any case, the situation of post-Soviet Kaliningrad is novel, at least in that there is no self-evident identity for the town: the establishment of the city as a free trade zone, its status as an enclave, the need for investment and German memory-tourism have made its identity multiple and hybrid - or at least allowed these differences to once again surface, to be contested openly rather than subversively.


III.                Cultural Bricolage


Kaliningrad's culture has ceased to be dictated from above, as part of a nation-building project. Its citizens no longer have merely to assimilate into the ambient national identity, or to accept a cultural identity foisted on them by political authorities. Kaliningrad's peculiar status in the post-91 period has made its own identity the outcome of its residents' experiments, mixing-and-matching and bricolage - an idiosyncratic sewing together of bits and pieces of fabric from the town's complex past.

In terms of the politics of memory and commemoration, some of the tendencies that began during the 1960s have continued to develop. Kaliningraders still find ways to appropriate the Königsberg past, though since 1991, these projects have lost some of their subversive quality. Moreover, at least some Kaliningraders have sought to include Germans in their projects to celebrate the town's past.

In the early 1990s, for instance, Maja Ellerman-Mollenhauer, the daughter of a Königsberg artist, undertook a project to have a plaque put up in Kaliningrad commemorating the 17th Königsberg poet, Simon Dach: though city authorities denied her the right to have it installed at the Dom, Leonard Kalinnikow, the Kant scholar, arranged to have it placed at a university building at the former Paradeplatz (which suggests that Kalinnikow both new the layout of the German town, and grasped its relevance to a former resident). In September 1994, Kaliningrad celebrated the 450th anniversary of the founding of Albertina University - an interesting project, in that the University known by this name was effectively closed at the war's end, and the Kaliningrad State University, created over 20 years later, had no direct connection with it (It seems that the newer university has since renamed itself after the earlier one. See the website at ) The event welcomed as speakers both German scholars as well as local ones, notably Vladimir Gilmanov, a German studies graduate of Kaliningrad University and Hamann specialist. Finally, in September 1993, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, a bronze plaque was inaugurated near the former southern tower of the Schloss. In imitation of Lahrs' memorial from 1924, erected in honor of the 200 anniversary of Kant's birth, the plaque presented the concluding lines of the second critique: "Two things the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within." But whereas the original plaque - which was subsequently taken to Duisberg, the German town that became the cultural center of exiled Königsbergers - was entirely in German, the new one is in both German and Russian. The presentation of the text in both languages symbolizes that way in which some Kaliningraders have tried to negotiate their problematic identity.

            The commemoration of old Königsberg has created some tensions amongst Russian Kaliningraders as well. This is particularly evident in the restoration of the Dom (as Olga Sezneva's very interesting work has shown). Soviet authorities did virtually nothing to restore the Dom following the war, despite the heavy damage it sustained during the RAF bombing. For decades, it would appear that the ruins of the Dom were nonetheless a place for Kaliningraders to wander, explore and play. In the mid-70s, authorities began some conservation work on it; by 1992, the Dom had been registered as a state enterprise, and the regional cultural authorities began to plan a full-scale restoration of the work. One official declared that the Dom would "become a center of spiritual and cultural life [in] the city, its main historic site, a place attracting tourism, a monument of sacral architecture, a symbol of a rich historic heritage of the territory [,] filled with [a] museum, [a] memorial and antique rarities preserving in themselves the spirit of the centuries passed."[8] Yet whereas it would seem that this tardy official recognition of an old monument was a concession to popular interest in local history, the conservation plan nonetheless met with considerable protest, by those who worried that the government was doing a botched job that would harm the pristine ruins. In April 1992, a group of local intellectuals, including historians, architects and journalists attacked the restoration, brandishing slogans like "Stop the barbarism" and "Condemn the stupidity of the government." Fliers attacked a restoration project with no master plan, while others accused the firm in charge of the restoration of taking advantage of popular enthusiasm for local history and of a collective sense of guilt about the damages, as well as of cutting costs, using inexpensive materials, and paying their workers with vodka.[9]

            The restored Dom has become postmodern despite itself. Rather than an imitation of the original (or, to be precise, an imitation of building as it was restored in the early 1900s), it has become an architectural collage, blending together the different needs determining how post-91 Kaliningrad might represent itself: the old cathedral contains a Russian orthodox chapel on the first floor of the northern tower, an evangelic church on the northern side, a Historic Museum, the Kant museum, and the 17th century Wallenrodt library collection. According to Sezneva, the effect of the restoration has been, for some, not so much to establish a new civic identity for Kaliningrad as to deprive its citizens of the role to which they had been accustomed in forging their own imagined collective identity. According to one local tour guide interviewed by Sezneva, "they took away my Königsberg by doing the restoration." This leads Sezneva to suggest: "An imaginary trip to Königsberg was for Kaliningraders a passage through a foreign land into a foreign culture available for everyone's desires. It did not require visas, passports, background checks or hard currency."[10]


IV.               European Future


A final aspect of Kaliningrad's new identity lies in the thorny problem it creates in an age of Europe-building. The current negotiations between the European Union and 10 countries applying for entrance, including Poland and Lithuania, make it possible to imagine a Kaliningrad as a lone Russian island within the sea of an enlarged Europe.

            Kaliningrad is a major issue on the agenda for the Danish presidency of the EU Council of Ministers, which began on July 1, 2002.  Among the other complex questions that must be dealt with over the next six months - the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Irish referendum, European defense - the Kaliningrad question has recently been deemed somewhat secondary by Europeans. EU officials favor the idea of requiring Russians travelling to the enclave to obtain a visa, a position vehemently opposed by Moscow; Russians have called for a corridor connecting Russia and Kaliningrad, a proposal which the Europeans have refused. Negotiations on this matter ended in mid-July when the Lithuanian government unilaterally decided to impose  visas on Russian citizens transiting through its borders. The decision was denounced by Lithuania's president, Algirdas Brazauskas, on July 18: he stated that though his country had participated in negotiations on the question, "there is nothing left to discuss." But shortly afterwards, the European position on the issue was disavowed by French President Jacques Chirac during a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin (whose wife apparently grew up in Kaliningrad...) on July 19 - 20. After having supposedly discussed the issue at length with his Russian colleague, Chirac declared that "[t]he solution cannot be found by humiliating Russia", and added: "I consider that a system of visas, to go from one place in Russia to another place in Russia, is not acceptable." Danish officials have said that they would like to see the matter settled by late October.[11]



Michael Behrent


Copyright © 2002, TABULA RAZA





[1] Jean Radvanyi, La Nouvelle Russie: L'aprčs 1991: Un nouveau 'temps des troubles'. (Paris: Masson/Armand Colin, 1996).

[2] Michael Specter, "At a Western Outpost of Russia, AIDS Spreads 'Like a Forest Fire.'" New York Times, November 4, 1997.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Celestine Bohlen, "Kaliningrad Journal: Is the City, Eerily, Acquiring a German Accent?" The New York Times, April 22, 1994.

[5] John Tagliabue, "Dusseldorf  Journal: A Would-Be Conqueror is Now Russia's Booster." The New York Times, Feb. 15, 1992.

[6] quoted in Bohlen.

[7] Tagliabue.

[8] Quoted in 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

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 22.

[11] Articles in Le Monde from July 2, July 20 and July 21-22, 2002.