Moscow Fears ‘De-Russianization’ of Kaliningrad and Steps Up to Block It

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 117

(Source: RFE/RL)

Since 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and Kaliningrad became an exclave separated from the Russian Federation by Poland and Lithuania, Moscow has been worried about two aspects: transportation links between Kaliningrad and Russia proper and changes in the Kaliningrad population’s attitudes because of their neighbors’ actions—which are leaving the populace less like their nominally Russian ethnic counterparts and potentially less loyal. The first has almost always attracted more attention, most recently when Lithuania imposed, and then lifted, a ban on the movement of EU sanctioned goods between Russia and Kaliningrad and when a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) exercise suggested that the West might seize Kaliningrad in a time of war (see EDM, October 12, 2021, March 10). The second angle is at least as worrisome as the first, if less obvious, because it may represent a more serious long-term challenge to the Kremlin’s control in Kaliningrad and its ability to maintain the Russian nation’s unity more generally against regionalist sentiments.

Soviet forces killed or drove out almost all the ethnic Germans in East Prussia before Joseph Stalin annexed it at the end of World War II, renamed it Kaliningrad and brought in ethnic Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians to live there. Yet, even in Soviet times, the exclave’s residents saw themselves as distinctive and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, often identified as a unique “people of Koenigsberg,” rather than as ethnic Russians or some other nationality. Some have even talked about becoming “the fourth Baltic republic” and formed a political party to promote that outcome (see EDM, February 7, 2017 and August 2, 2017). Such feelings are further intensified by the Kaliningrad population’s far more frequent visits to Lithuania and Poland, both EU and NATO members, than to Russia proper, as well as by earlier efforts on the part of Kaliningrad officials to promote tourism, playing up German, Lithuanian and Polish links in the past and present. As a result, Moscow cracked down hard, first and foremost, on any manifestation of separatism and especially against the unwanted German influence (see EDM, July 16, 2019, November 2, 2021).

Now, Lithuanian influence has become the target. Due to the impact of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine on Kaliningrad (see EDM, June 16) and Lithuania’s recent moves to restrict the flow of goods to the exclave, the Kremlin’s actions have been both harsh and possibly dangerous given the reactions of Kaliningrad residents, who had been loyal to Moscow up to now—even if these moves are still flying under the radar in the West. Over the last several weeks, Russian officials have launched a broad attack on Lithuanian cultural institutions in Kaliningrad. To begin with, this is an act of revenge against Vilnius’ failed attempt to impose a partial blockade on the region and to limit Lithuanian influence on Kaliningrad, which many Lithuanians still refer to as “Lithuania Minor” (Sever.Realii, July 24).

In late July 2022, at the insistence of the Russian Ministry of Justice, officials closed the Association of Teachers of the Lithuanian Language in Kaliningrad, the most prominent Lithuanian group in the region, which includes over 20,000 ethnic Lithuanians (, July 18).  The ostensible reasons the ministry cited involved problems with documentation and the group’s failure to relocate after being ordered in January 2022 to do so, but the political motivation was obvious. The association has been active since its founding in 1995 and has served as a base for teachers as well as Lithuanian activists and others interested in “strengthening good-neighborly relations between the peoples of Russia and Lithuania.” Its members are appalled because they care about their nation and about Kaliningrad and believe that the association has served both equally well (, accessed August 1).

Russian nationalists in Kaliningrad, however, are delighted with this step. Maksim Makarov, who heads the Russian community in Kaliningrad Oblast and earlier garnered attention for his fight against “Germanization,” said the closing of the association was absolutely correct, if belated, because the group has been funded by Vilnius and has tried to organize opposition within Kaliningrad to Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. In Telegram posts, Makarov also called the association “an LGBT organization” and “the chief structure of the special services of Lithuania on the territory of Kaliningrad Oblast” (, July 16, 24). None of his charges are true, but they are the sort of statements that, because they appear to reflect official thinking, encourage others to take matters into their own hands, often without being directed to do so from above and thus handing senior officials plausible deniability.

Several cases of this have happened in recent weeks. A Lithuanian children’s ensemble was blocked from traveling to a festival in the Russian Federation supposedly because it had not made arrangements early enough and because such travel under current conditions was risky. Russian education officials relayed these reasons, even though, earlier, these same officials had encouraged the group to perform and travel (, December 11, 2019). Acts of vandalism have also been committed against Lithuanian statues and busts in various parts of the oblast simply because they represent “the wrong nationality”  (, June 28;, July 12).

It is unclear what the oblast authorities and their allies may do next in this campaign to defend the “Russianness” of Kaliningrad. On the one hand, numerous Lithuanian-related sites and organizations in Kaliningrad could easily become targets; but on the other, as Lithuania has dropped its restrictions on cargo coming by rail from Russia proper to Kaliningrad, officials in the oblast and in Moscow may decide to end these attacks. But in the current environment, the latter appears to be the less likely alternative. Instead, more attacks, both official and unofficial, on Lithuanian groups in Kaliningrad are probable in the coming days, a reflection of Kremlin fears that even folkloric groups can undermine the population’s Russian identity and its loyalty to Moscow.