Kaliningrad Region. Man-Made Environment

In places with such a complicated history and identity as Kaliningrad Region, little details are really important to absord and process. While traveling, you don’t normally expect wherever you are staying to be of any great significance to the place’s or region’s character unless you are specifically on the lookout for something quaint. We weren’t looking for that, but as given the current popularity of Zelenogradsk, there were few options available, so we had to book a room in a guest house called Fischer Haus (how German indeed!). This accommodation was meant to play a huge part in how I came to see the man-made landscape of this resort city. 

You can find quite a few old German houses in the former Cranz. To try to meet the growing demand for real estate in the area, a few modern apartment complexes have been built which are typically a bit far off the coast. Fischer Haus is one of those quaint German houses a few blocks away from the main pedestrian street (Kurortniy Avenue) and a short walk from the Baltic Sea. ”It felt as if I came to visit a granny, but a German one”, said one of the reviews on the booking website. ”What is the major difference between a Russian and a German granny?”, I asked myself. Were we in for a little taste of ‘Europeanness’ and will this place transport us back in time to the German Cranz? 

On our arrival we found the yard in front of our guest house looking like one in remote Russian villages. On the outside the house looked like a place with a potential for transporting us back in time indeed. What we found when we went up to our room had nothing to do with Europeanness. There turned out not to even be a proper bathroom (at least not the one a civilized Russian is used to). I am not a fussy traveler and ‘Europeanness’ for me is just basic comfort and safety. At least we could see the Water Tower, which is now home to Cat Museum, from our window. That is the major attraction in the town and can be used to navigate the space easily. 

The facade of the guest house (in this picture from the booking website it looks tidier than in real life)

At night as I was trying to sleep in our super uncomfortable bed, I did indeed remember my Russian granny who spent her whole life speaking a mix of Russian and Ukrainian. I was taken back in time — but only about 20 years back to when I was spending a summer in her village house in Voronezh region. Back then I had no way of doing something about that special smell you got in a very old place and buying a more comfortable bed. Growing up through the war, Russian grannies had no habit of complaining much and my granny chose never to leave (despite having a chance to). Anyway, what probably seemed a nice place to live for an average resident of the former Cranz didn’t seem any good for a Russian in the 21st century. I don’t think we would be likely to find a modern German granny living in a place like this one… 

So, now let’s get out of the ‘quaint’ Fischer Haus where Germanness is simply explored to make a profit and explore Zelenogradsk’s streets. Here you are literally haunted by feline creatures — either in ‘person’ or at least in countless graffitis. Cats aren’t known to have played any particular role in the town or region’s history. According to our tour guide, they were a part of a pretty successful campaign to promote Zelenogradsk on the national level. How can you not pause an extra moment either to pat another fluffy cutie strutting along the main avenue or stare at a larger-than-life painting? There is even a Cat Museum housed in that same Water Tower next to that ‘quaint’ guest house. It was opened by a wealthy couple (of course, from the capital) who had funded the renovation of this old structure. We even found a piece from our home city which is known to have one of the few monuments to a cat (a cartoon character) in the country. You can even find a fake pedestrian light featuring cats- isn’t that a bit too much..? Having vending machines selling cat’s food is a great and a very ‘European’ idea. But it stops seeming so good once on a few occasions you find it has run out of supplies and hear from locals about gangs of hungry cats simply walking the streets. Stray animals are a major issue all across the nation, and we have hardly been keeping up with the civilized world there.

Kurortniy Avenue and its cats
A rainy day in Zelenogradsk and a cat
A very unusual pedestrian light
A vending machine selling cat food
A local feline
A few exhibits from the Cat Museum of Zelenogradsk
Exhibits from my city
Some more exhibits (there are really all sorts of cat-related things you can think of)
The museum keeper Semyon

Some segments of Kurortniy Avenue, the former Königsbergstrasse, (especially when lit up after dark) transported me to that nostalgic Europe I’ve been craving for and am always amazed at finding in Russia. After a moment of daydreaming I was jerked back into (our Russian) reality and remembered that I was in the central street of a town in pursuit of tourists’ money and attention. Yes, we are literally being sold this image of Europe here as we get lost in little details of those restored houses. For example, that house at N.25 dating back to the 19th century that used to belong to the Schutz sisters – me and my sister laughed about how great it would be to own a property like this to share. Those human faces at the top of it seem to be looking far into the Baltic Sea which is not visible to the human eye from the street. Unfortunately, literally across the road you find a former shopping centre building in a dilapidated state. You don’t want to remember something like that, but again it is all about little details… 

Kurortniy Avenue
The Schutz sisters’ house
Right across you see this building as well…

Actually, if you want to find the region’s European past, you have to go beyond the capital. Knowing that, you have to make an extra effort walking the streets of the region’s smaller towns like Zelenogradsk in the attempt to put puzzles of Europe as well as Soviet and modern Russian together. I hope that years of translating for an architectural journal allowed me to see some consistencies in the shape of some roofs- that must be Jugendstyle popular in Germany and Baltic states in the 19th century. A border pillar just a bit off the main avenue reminds you of the region’s ‘border’ identity. The building of the former St.Adalbert’s Lutheran church with the sounds of religious chants coming out of it takes you back to those seemingly more ‘visitor-friendly’ European churches. It also reminded me of my last pre-pandemic trip to Belarus and its own complex ‘border’ identity. Right here in the area you can see a fairytale-like House of Angels, a little museum where you can ride cute swings seated next to a metal-made angel. Embracing your inner child seems somewhat European to me – Russians sometimes take themselves way too seriously. If you walk a bit away from the main ‘drag’, you will start seeing more of those German houses inviting you to wonder who, when and how lived here back when it was Germany… A few hardly visible signs in German left on their facades excite your imagination – at least if you are a linguist … 

A border pillar
St.Adalbert’s Lutheran Church
A quaint house

Svetlogorsk, the former Rauschen, has a huge selection of German houses as well. But there seems to be less left to imagination here, because a lot of them sitting in lush expansive areas look as if a wealthy German is about to go out of one for a leisurely stroll. Our taxi dropped us right in front one of those. If you (dare to) walk inside, you will find an upscale restaurant nestled in there. This is the same Jugendstyle — but on a somewhat larger scale. It is easy to embrace Jugend (youth) owning one of these villas. Their massive red tile roofs look amazing against the green lush of the surrounding trees. 

A villa in Svetlogorsk (Rauschen)
Another old house in lush greenery

I don’t know if that had to do with the fact that we only spent a few hours (at least one of them hiding from a downpour at a cafe) in Svetlogorsk, but to me it seemed to have more of that old European charm people come to the region in search of. We also had a quick moment (just before the rain) to relax in a large park doing what mindful tourists do — just looking around us and remembering to breathe in the pine-filled air. Even restaurants (we went to an Armenian one) seemed to be more customer-friendly here. There is also its own Water Tower and a central street with countless amber shops as in Zelenogradsk. 

The Water Tower
The central street of Svetlogorsk

Honestly, I didn’t have my expectations up very high arriving in Kaliningrad (the former Königsberg) for the final leg of the trip. From the very first glance, König (as it is informally called by locals) struck me as a place with quite a complex shape, the city you can’t easily explore on foot. The reason why I was the least likely to find enough ‘Europeanness’ here was that the region’s capital had been heavily bombed by the end of the World War II with around 80% of it destroyed. Anyway, I was still hoping to detect something other than pure „Russianness“ which was so clear to the eye on the way to the city center. Actually, I didn’t have to wait for too long – I got a little ‘taste’ of something more ‘European’ while having my first meal at a restaurant right around the corner from our hotel located in Steindamm (the oldest quarter of the former Königsberg). I literally had to look down at this cobbled pavement under my feet to let my imagination take over and transport me to the time when those impersonal Soviet apartment buildings dotted around me weren’t there yet…

A old image of Steindamm

A walk to the city center through the Pregolya River took us to the Museum of the World Ocean. Here around 50 km away from the Baltic Sea you have to remind yourself of the region’s strategic military importance to this country. Unfortunately, against the dull grey sky the area looked rather depressing. Our main goal was Kant Island (the former Kneiphof) featuring the city’s main attractions such as the rebuilt Königsberg Cathedral and Immanuel Kant’s tomb. The former cathedral dating back to the 14th century was largely destroyed. It was only in the 1990s that it got its current image. It is a little piece of Europe I genuinely wanted and made an effort but sadly failed to enjoy. The fact that no one bothered to restore those ruins for almost 50 years seemingly denying the city’s ‘European’ past just to do it after the fall of the Soviet Union is hypocritical to me. At least, you can have your ‘European’ moment and sit on the grass listening to some musicians play or having some mulled wine in the area around the cathedral.

The rebuilt Königsberg Cathedral

Actually we did have a European ‘moment’ when we went inside the Königsberg Cathedral for an organ concert one evening. This is Russia’s biggest organ concert hall. I think one thing I miss about churches in Europe is that you don’t have to be religious to feel an urge to enter and spend a while contemplating whatever is on your mind. There is something „unwordly“ about how churches are designed to transport you somewhere inside your own boundaries. I was happy that even though the interior didn’t breathe a stale breath of old times forever gone, the feeling of serenity was there. 

Inside the cathedral

You can cross the Pregolya River a bit further and find yourself in the Fishing Village offering postcard views of König. The area was reconstructed into an ethnographic complex in 2006. I had been imagining having a typically German meal here in one of the restaurants overlooking the river. In fact, all of it looked a lot more beautiful in pictures. Just as the area around the Cathedral, the lighthouse (which was never there) and a synagogue built in place of the New Synagogue destroyed before the WWII looked like an inconsistent attempt at finally acknowledging the past that was slipping away fast, on the point of disappearing forever. You can also find a few members of the ‘Homlin Family’ here in this island — probably those cute gnomes scattered across the city add a touch of easy-going ‘Europeanness’ while playing no special function. After seeing all of this you might want to return to the Cathedral area and stroll along the (rather dirty) Pregolya River bank surrounded by trees and looking at the building of State Art Gallery and imagine being in Museuminsel in Berlin. But this effort proves to be futile as it is hard to stop thinking you are plunged into a sort of a Disney park selling you a false promise of Europe. The area doesn’t magically acquire any more ‘real’ Europeanness or specific Germanness even when lit up and you just give up on it… At least you don’t get this feeling at Kant’s Tomb — luckily, despite communists’ attempts to demolish it, it is still there inviting you to contemplate philosophical issues… 

The Fishing Village on the right, the cathedral in the center and a Soviet-style apartment building along the Pergola River bank
A member of the Homlin family
The cathedral area lit up
The Immanuel Kant tomb

During our tour of the city, we were told about the German past of some of the buildings in Leninskiy Avenue, the city’s major artery. In the run up to the 2018 World Cup around a dozen of buildings were restored to look more the way they would have in Königsberg. Indeed, those ones looked like they weren’t part of the Russian Kaliningrad originally. Even though you don’t get that ‘Disneyland’ feeling here, knowing the history behind the effort you can’t stop comparing it to a quick cleaning you have before guests arrive — the facade might be made to look more presentable but essentially remains the same inside…

Leninskiy Avenue

One morning I climbed a few stairs of a shopping centre to get an obstructed view of central König. The Hotel Kaliningrad was on my left, the Königsberg Cathedral was partly seen at a distance on my right and the House of Soviets having the reputation of being the city’s ugliest building standing in place of Königsberg Castle right in the middle. Its ruins were blown to make room for this ‘buried robot’. ”How ugly!”, I thought to myself realizing my city which I never grew to love after around 17 years of living there was actually more pleasant. I am not a kind of traveler expecting a place to entertain or please me. I am aware of my role as a mere observer and probably somewhat an ethnographer on my trips. But on that particular instance I couldn’t help this ‘arrogant’ thought. 

House of Soviets

In slightly more remote parts of the city you might think there has been an extra effort to make those habitual Soviet-style apartment buildings, which are so much part of a traditional Russian landscape, look a bit uglier here in Kaliningrad. Was that an extra push to get rid of ‘Germanness’ and the memory of its atrocious regime? With a few old-fashioned market stalls in central streets, you got the feeling it was 1990-something… 

But walking further to what used to be western Königsberg, one finds some ‘Germanness’ waiting to be discovered. Amalienau was a suburb with lots of villas which can be seen almost intact these days as unlike most of the city, this area wasn’t affected by the bombings too much. There are a few segments of Amalienau which are popular with visitors but after spending a while, the sense of privacy becomes more pronounced. Even though there are also offices here these days, you might feel like a nosy trespasser trying to get a bite of someone’s lives by observing little details of their houses. It is almost the same feeling you get in American suburbs. Instead of rejoicing at succeeding in finding this little oasis of Europe here in Kaliningrad, you realize it is just used as a magnet to attract those in search of old Europe. Despite a few remaining typical churches (Kirche), there is no denying the lack of public space which is supposed to be there for visitors to slow down and take a moment to delight at this ‘Europeanness’. Amalienau seems to be telling you ‘Just take a quick look and leave, please’. We were polite guests and did just that and returned to the city center… 

Amalienau
Trying to sneak through a fence to see architectural details
The privacy of Amalienau
A church in Amalienau

The man-made environment of Kaliningrad and the region is incredibly complex. It is true that you get a more distinct feel of ‘Europe’ outside the capital. We could have stayed a bit longer to explore more towns for the remaining vague ‘Europeanness’. But instead of that, it seems more reasonable to explore them in those ‘then-now’ pictures that have been widely circulating online. Architecture has a major role to play in shaping a place’s identity, but exploring it in Kaliningrad Region you end up asking yourself — did we try to get rid of „Europeanness“ just to suddenly start promoting what is now left of it? Let’s now examine living identities- those who make cities, towns and villages more than a mix of natural and made-made elements, i.e., people. 

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