Kaliningrad Region. People

Given the massive historic transformations over the last century, we can expect people living in Kaliningrad Region to have complex identities. When Königsberg was renamed into Kaliningrad, this region had already been German for about 700 years. At some point in its history, it was cut off from the mainland Germany and there were a few attempts at invasion. But of course, what followed after the World War II was unprecedented. As part of the ‘Russification’ of the region, around 2 years following the end of the war Germans were expelled from the region with only about a thousand managing to stay due to having Russian relatives. After leaving Königsberg, most Germans settled in East Germany (GDR), a satellite state of the USSR. Poles left for Poland and a small remaining group of Lithuanians assimilated into the local population. There are mixed reports as to how Germans and Soviets coexisted in that tumultuous era of transition. Some scholars choose to refer to the expulsion of Germans as ‘ethnic cleansing’ implying that violence was involved. It is hard to imagine how it felt to be German in a place which was soon to lose its Germanness and being Russian in a place which hadn’t gained any distinct Russianness yet. 

As a Russian, I’ve always grappled with the idea of accepting that this nation has perpetrated its share of violence. Doing my research for this story, I came across a few English-language podcasts where detailed accounts of the Soviet atrocities in Königsberg following its invasion were given. I would have had less complex feelings had it been about any other nation. The rational part of me comprehends this, but on the emotional level I start questioning everything I was taught back at school. Having lost dozens of millions in the bloodiest war in history, we aren’t supposed to have any reservations when it comes to Nazism and its devastating effect on the country. But if I did share my feelings with fellow Russians, I’m afraid I would have to do with a great deal of hostility. Since I am writing in my second language, I guess I can allow myself to explore my national identity and admit that it is fluid just as any other part of me. 

In 1948 around half a million Soviets from all over the USSR came to Kaliningrad Region. Some compare this with the discovery of America when diverse groups of people came to one place to work together towards creating a collective identity in a place none of them had any previous connections to. These people were here to build socialism and Kaliningrad was supposed to set an example for the rest of the country. It certainly wasn’t the first time in human history that individuals were either lured to a place on false promises or weren’t left any other options. So, being cut off from the mainland Russia, it’s not surprising Kaliningraders have always struggled with fashioning a local identity for themselves. It might have been an issue for a lot us in modern Russia as we are still feeling the force of unification our leaders have been striving for over the centuries. Coming from the world’s largest country, you feel part of something huge rather than tied to your particular region. Even from the way a fellow Russian speaks, more often than not we can’t identify where in the country they come from… Add being geographically isolated to that and you might develop a sort of ‘island psychology’… 

The authorities decided to capitalize on the military value of the region. That resulted in it being mostly populated with military personnel and their families. Due to security concerns, the Russian exclave was closed to foreigners until the 1990s. The economic situation in the region was rather dire and the authorities seemed to have failed in their promise of building Kaliningrad into a vibrant socialist city. There wasn’t sufficient funding nor enough consistency and agreement as to how exactly to deal with the German past as well as the Soviet present. 

Things might have changed since the region opened for foreigners and more investments followed. But what has remained pretty stable, though is continuous ‘soul-searching’ of the region. Would it be better off independent, semi-autonomous or what some foreign scholars call ‘second-class’ to Moscow? It’s no wonder that Kaliningraders might have felt somewhat inferior to the rest of the country — at least economically. Being surrounded by two EU nations, they also feel more vulnerable to possible volatile scenarios caused by any tensions between Russia and the EU. 

In the rest of the country we might be thinking Kaliningraders are closer to Europe (i.e., civilization) as it is literally in their doorstep. But that doesn’t change the fact that they also have to get visas to cross the EU border, which is a lot more accessible from here in terms of a distance than the mainland Russia. That explains why around 70 percent of local residents have never crossed a couple of other states to get there. Some local residents have been taking advantage of the geographical position of their home region and have tried to build connections with their neighbors from the EU states regardless of the tensions widely reported in the media. But given how much the region is still struggling economically, we can imagine that an average wealthy Moscow resident is more likely to be a frequent visitor to the EU than a Kaliningrader who can only find a decent job in the region’s capital. Money indeed offers more benefits than pure geography. 

There has been an ongoing interest in the region’s complex identity which has sparked a few research studies conducted by foreign scholars. Semi-structured interviews of different groups of locals (mixed ages or those born after 1991) were carried out to look at how Kaliningraders see themselves and even how the surrounding architecture (‘place identity’) affects their self-image. ”I’m proud to be from Kaliningrad. I can be Russian when I want to be, and European when I want to be’’, said one of the respondents in her 20s. ”In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s it was all about that Kaliningrad is Russian. Only in the 90’s, when we got a lot of information about the history before 1945, I think this influenced our generation’’ , said one of the older participants. The idea of ‘third space’, something in the gap between real and imaginary is also mentioned in these studies. ”The day will come that you just bump into this German, bumping into a house wondering: what was there before the war? And this is what I think makes Kaliningrad different from other parts of Russia because we are inquisitive, we are rediscovering the German past of the city’’. These words by a local sum up what it must feel to call a place like this home. Probably in the rest of the country we will never be able to completely fathom this…

The main conclusion of these studies is on the fluidity of identity and a multitude of ways of experiencing and examining it. One might argue that an outsider might struggle understanding and interpreting this kind of narratives, but after reading these papers, I came to realize there is something only discernible to a non-Russian in such studies. At least on this trip I could imagine for a while I was attempting an ethnographic study of Kaliningrad and elements of Europe in it. 

But I admit that traveling around Russia (even to its westernmost part), what I expected the least was that locals would be any different from all other fellow Russians I have been encountering for over 30 years in this country. Given the current restrictions, I didn’t expect to hear any foreign languages here either. But deep down inside I was hoping to be inspired to brush up on my German after this trip… Currently around 80 percent of locals are Russians, eight percent Belarusians, seven percent Ukranians, two percent Lithuanians, less than one percent German, and one-half percent Polish. So, chances of encountering anyone distinctly foreign would be scarce. 

Actually, a taxi driver was adamant that a lot of foreigners (particularly Germans) had been visiting the region. He came across as somewhat arrogant when he said, ”We weren’t quite ready for this influx of Russians this year. We would normally have Europeans coming”. Honestly, I was a bit offended hearing this as if the service levels were too high to be made available to a non-European like myself. So far my overall impression had been that anyone (either a Russian or a European) wouldn’t be pleased with what they got here. I instantly remembered our guest house and dreaded the thought of returning there for one more night. I doubt it was ready to host any Germans… There are occasional accounts of Germans who weren’t expelled from the region and managed to live in totally different eras and states (Germany, USSR, Russia). Those Germans who came to visit their ancestors’ homeland were reported to experience ambivalent feelings during their trips. 

We would never find out how the famous Kant who was known to have spent his entire life never leaving the city would feel about having this resting place in Russia. There were proposals to name the local airport after him. One of the city’s officials was quoted as saying that the Enlightment philosopher ‘wrote some incomprehensible books that none of those here today have read, and won’t read!’ The local university (named after the famous German) actually faced allegations of ‘academic separatism’, while the former German-Russian House was shut down due to the accusations of being a ‘foreign agent’ and promoting ‘Germanisation’. On the surface as a tourist you might find how the region is rediscovering its ‘Germanness’ and Kant (whose face is featured in countless souvenirs) has a ‘celebrity’ status, while there is still a clear divide between locals as how to process the past and act in the present. 

Having experienced a bit of the region and encountered a few locals, it is hard to agree with the regional governor who said, “There is no special Kaliningrad identity! Half the population here was not born in the Kaliningrad region.” I mean, the first part of this statement is definitely hard to accept. It is true though that this identity is hard to grasp and articulate, but it doesn’t deny the fact it is there. I liked how our tour guide in Kaliningrad referred to her region as ‘our little kingdom’. At least the term allows for multiple interpretations which might also give rise to new studies of identities of people calling this complex place home. So maybe both Russian and overseas scholars could join hands in conducting such studies in the future. Now let’s finally talk about a (seemingly) less controversial part of this trip — food. 

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