‘Creeping Germanization of Kaliningrad’ Worries Moscow

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 101

The House of the Soviets (left) looms over Kaliningrad (Source: Reuters)

The Russian authorities are quite effective at responding to specific and immediate domestic challenges. However, like governments elsewhere, they are less capable of dealing with slower-moving tectonic shifts. And consequently, they often view these as even more disturbing when such developments suddenly take on public prominence. That has been the case in Kaliningrad, where Moscow has purged officials and academics suspected of harboring pro-German views (Sovsekretno.ru, July 5) but have not been able to effectively cope with what some call the “creeping Germanization” of the Russian exclave that was Germany’s Königsberg (East Prussia) until the end of World War II.

Due to both the centrality of World War II in Vladimir Putin’s vision of the world and the constant Russian talk about those who would “revise” the history of that conflict, including Moscow’s actions and border changes, even the smallest shifts in Kaliningrad spark alarmist headlines like “Kaliningrad is being transformed into Königsberg” (Segodnya, March 26). Such reports portray minor changes, such as names of streets and the airport, an influx of German tourists, the restoration of German buildings and the opening of German-themed restaurants, as suggestive of the territory somehow going back to its German roots—and possibly to German control. Two new articles, one in Segodnya and a second carried by the Political Review portal, typify such fears and the sense among some in Moscow that the Russian government is not taking a tough enough line against pro-German elements in Kaliningrad, or against Germany’s interests—economic, touristic and otherwise—in the region (Politobzor.net, July 9).

In Segodnya, a Russian nationalist paper, journalist Oleg Nazarov highlights what he calls “the latest ‘Königsberg’ scandal,” a remark by Andrey Kravchenko, a local official, who told the media there that when the city was “restored after the war, those who came were mostly marginals—exiles, marauders and criminals… They settled in buildings, created nothing, destroyed the floors and windows and then burned everything, displaying a consumerist attitude toward everything” (Segodnia.ru, March 26). Their actions left a terrible mark on the city, and now, Kravchenko continues, what they did must be reversed so that the true glory of the city can shine again.

When the Red Army came into East Prussia, it killed or drove into exile 98 percent of the prewar population, a displacement equal in the minds of some to a “genocide” but rarely discussed in those terms because of the Prussians’ involvement with the Nazis and the then–widely held view that they deserved such treatment. In their place, Moscow brought in largely peasant populations from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Belarus and Ukraine who, initially at least, were encouraged to destroy any monuments of the past. Over time, the Soviet authorities reined in such behavior, but enormous damage was done, and local patriots such as Kravchenko, who was part of this post-1945 influx, have worked to rebuild what they see as the real face of their city. Precisely because they were both diverse and deracinated, the arrivals became a distinctive community, “the people of Königsberg,” in the minds of many and, after 1991, even became believers that they could be “the fourth Baltic republic” (Window on Eurasia, July 11).

Such regionalist attitudes are unacceptable enough in Putin’s Russia (see EDM, May 31), but regionalism in Kaliningrad is viewed as something worse—not only as an anti-Moscow phenomenon, but also as the first step to Russia’s loss of control over one of its trophies from World War II and potentially the first step toward the restoration of a greater Germany in Russia’s western borderlands. However, according to writers like Nazarov, this process is not only well advanced, but it is also being promoted by some Russians who are interested only in their own profit, rather than in the fate of their country. Russian capitalists in Kaliningrad are quite prepared to promote “the ideology of ‘Königsbergization’ ” for profit. “As [Karl] Marx said,” the Segodnya journalist puts it, “for 300 percent profit, capital will take part in any crime” (Segodnia.ru, March 26).

The second article, which features comments by Vladimir Fokin, a Soviet film director most noted for his movie TASS is Authorized to State, suggests that it is not only the region’s capitalists who are enthralled with all things German, but many of the region’s officials as well (Politobzor.net, July 9). Fokin, who was recently in Kaliningrad for a film festival, says he was shocked by what he saw: the transformation of the city and region in ways that suggest the leaders and population are ready to have Kaliningrad handed back to Germany. Not only are officials redecorating relatively new Russian buildings in the Königsberg style, they are also changing the names of streets there from Russian to German and the signs from Cyrillic to Latin script.

Some of what the regional officials are doing is “beautiful,” he concedes, but he is alarmed, as it suggests that people in the region are looking more to the German past than to the Russian future—and even that some of them are thinking about a German future for the region. Such “playing with all things German,” Fokin says, is not only visible “to the unaided eye” at every point but is a threat to the Russian state and its culture (Politobzor.net, July 9). As a result of World War II, Kaliningrad became Russian, and Russian it must remain. Fokin’s comments are especially significant because of his prominence and because they are likely to lead to a new wave of repression in the Russian exclave. Those repression may derail the most obvious examples of the renewed German face of that region; but ultimately, they will do little to slow Kaliningrad’s drift back toward its Königsberg past.