Kaliningrad Region is a Russian exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. Where do these two EU members stand in the heterogeneous unit? Before Lithuania joined the EU, it had been part of the USSR. Can this European state sitting ‘on the front line between Russia and the West’ fully embrace its Europeanness? Among the other two states with the Soviet history (Estonia and Latvia) Lithuania has the smallest Russian population (only around 4.5%) who started residing here as early as in the 18th century . In the Russian media there have been reports about discrimination against Russian speakers and tough language policies in the Baltic states. Some commentators argue its level has been blown out of proportion. Anyway, it is obvious there is a lot of controversy and ambiguity in Russia-Lithuania relations.
Average Russians mostly seem to acknowledge the complex identity of the Baltic region and regard it as a space between Europe and us — European enough to be considered more civilized but not too much engaged in promoting the values some Russians resent. For instance, when our Mum heard we were going to Kaliningrad Region, she referred to it as Pribaltika (meaning ‘by the Baltic Sea’), the name used to refer to this piece of ‘nearby Europe’. Back in the USSR only a privileged few could access these countries and purchase goods not available in what is now Russia without any linguistic barriers.
The state bordering the region in the South is Poland. Even though it was never part of the USSR, it used to be a „satellite“ state. For around 200 years together Poland and Lithuania formed Commonwealth. Poland was then made part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century. The eastern part of it was annexed in 1939 before the start of World War II, just 20 years after it had regained independence. It was only after communism had been abolished that Poland became an independent state and an EU member. The major object of dispute between Russia and Poland has been the issue of World War II which seems central to the national identities of Russians and Poles meaning that these disagreements might linger for much longer.
Poland was the first foreign country I set my foot on back in 2013 – except for Belarus where we had the passport control. If for us Belarus doesn’t qualify as ‘foreign’ at all, just like the Baltic states, Poland is seen as ‘nearby Europe’, a gateway to the more sophisticated nations that we normally mean by the real ‘Europe’. Anyway, that didn’t stop me from saying to myself, ”Finally I’m in Europe” during those first minutes in Poland. Given that I had just crossed the EU border, I couldn’t have been more right! It felt like a big deal for someone having to get a visa to be allowed inside it. While in Poland, I didn’t feel any hostility on a personal level, but there was certainly an air of melancholy in the country which I also experienced during my second European voyage a year later. Poland seemed to tick all the boxes on the list of things we expect to experience in Europe (at least on a visual level), but it is still an entry point to those genuinely ‘European’ places we can access with no hassle once we are there.
Adding to the complexity of Kaliningrad Region is the fact that it used to be part of East Prussia which constituted what is now Germany, the state which indeed qualifies as a genuinely ‘European’ one. Königsberg (or what is now Kaliningrad) founded by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century used to be the capital of a wealthy and cosmopolitan area. Being the eastern border of Germany, this region was vulnerable to foreign interventions, which caused it to be referred to as a ‘bleeding border’ at different points in its history. That explains why an extra effort had to be made to preserve and enhance its Germanness. After the end of World War II the region was annexed and made part of the USSR. That was how the former Königsberg was renamed into Kaliningrad (after the Soviet leader Kalinin). By the way, from the age of 2 to 17 I lived in a street named after this man as well.
In 1949 East Germany (GDR) became another ‘satellite’ state of the USSR. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 there was Germany reunification causing GDR to stop existing. There haven’t been open confrontations between Russian and Germany since then. Some attempts at reconciliation and putting the past behind have been made. It is hard for the nation which lost dozens of millions in what we call Great Patriotic War to stop associating this European country with the brutal and bloody regime it was home of. So, I admit having felt some resentment having to do German as a second foreign language at university as well. Our professors had to reassure us that Germans felt nothing but guilt and remorse for what their ancestors had done to ours. As much as I tried to believe that, I couldn’t help experiencing somewhat mixed feelings visiting Berlin and Dresden (right after Poland) during my two trips to Europe a few years later. I couldn’t let go of them completely during our first moments in Kaliningrad Region as well — especially after hearing a fellow traveler say to someone over the phone, ”I have landed in the Nazi land”…
Considering the complex history of the area, I knew this was going to be an exciting place to explore for someone interested in the topic of identity like myself. But was it a sensible idea to look for my ‘temporary’ version of Europe there? Will this region bring back memories of those unforgettable European trips? Will I feel inspired to start remembering German after I return? Let’s see what König (as it is often informally referred to by locals) and the region had to offer me.