Kaliningrad isn’t quite like any other city in Russia. That’s because it isn’t in Russia at all. Until 1945, Kaliningrad was the Prussian port of Konigsberg.
Stalin won the territory in all that crude border shuffling that went on after WW2. Poland was pushed to the left and Konigsberg became the western boundary of the Soviet Empire. But today, the independence of the Baltic States and the expansion of the EU has left Kaliningrad as an ‘exclave’ – a dislocated Russian oblast wedged between Poland and Lithuania. The real Russian border and St. Petersburg is 1000 kilometers up the road.
To say Kaliningrad gets a bad press is an understatement. Being a closed town for 30 years probably aroused suspicions. In fact, Like St Petersburg, Kaliningrad had a complete face-lift recently, while celebrating its 750th anniversary. (No mean achievement for a town which dates from 1945.)
Little remains of the former majesty of Konigsberg, except in old picture postcards.
There’s a good collection on the site, Castles of Poland. This is the old Konigsberg Castle, once a seat of Teutonic knights and lavishly enlarged with Gothic spires and great halls in the 18th Century.
Along with the magnificent schloss, Konigsberg boasted landscaped parks and ornate villas in chestnut-lined streets. So when you visit the landscape of Soviet poured concrete that is now Kaliningrad, there is a tendency to assume that it was pretty well vandalised by Russians. These two postcards show a nice contrast between pre and post-war Konigsberg.
Konigsberg – Prussian Town
Kaliningrad – Russian Town
In truth, Konigsberg was already destroyed before the Red Army arrived. The RAF technique of firebombing German cities was perfected over Konigsberg in 1944. What we refer to as ‘carpet bombing’ was then called ‘fan bombing’. The lead plane would drop marker flares and the following bombers would fan out at set degrees from the marker, dropping incendiary bombs at timed intervals. The result was an inextinguishable fire that the city itself would fuel and feed for days.
It wasn’t until 1968 that the Russians decided to do something creative with the ruins of the old castle. Which is how Kaliningrad acquired what is probably the world’s ugliest building: the House Of Soviets.
For some reason, the Russian architect of ‘Dom Sovietov’ overlooked the underground passages of the old castle. The world’s ugliest building cracked, was declared unsafe and has never once been occupied, even though it still dominates the Kaliningrad skyline. Despite numerous surveys, no one is quite sure how to demolish Dom Sovietov, how much it would cost or even where to start.
Although still largely a concrete-lovers paradise, Kaliningrad is seeing a lot of urban renewal. Wealthy Muscovites (read: scary mobsters) are transforming the old villas into private castles, a towering orthodox church adorns the old main parking lot and the cosmonaut monument – a masterpiece of iconography – has been given fresh flower beds. A lot of people miss this. It’s opposite the Zoo, cross the road, turn right and a couple of minutes walk.
The first man who walked in space came from Kaliningrad