With wide avenues lined with propaganda posters, plenty of military uniforms in sight and its Stalinist-era name, Kaliningrad at first comes across as unmistakably Russian, or rather – Soviet. But its Gothic cathedral, cobbled streets and remains of Jugendstil architecture lurking behind communist-period concrete slabs tell a different story.
One of the newer political oddities on the map of Europe, Kaliningrad emerged as a little chunk of Russia inside the EU as a result of the Soviet victory in WWII and the collapse of the USSR 45 years later. For many centuries before that, it was the German province of East Prussia, colonised in the 12th century by Teutonic Knights; they built the city they named Königsberg (King’s Rock), after Bohemian King Ottokar II who sponsored the conquest. The indigenous Baltic inhabitants – the Old Prussians – were Germanised over centuries, leaving few traces apart from the region’s now obsolete name. It was renamed after one of Stalin’s henchmen, Mikhail Kalinin, in 1946.
If it’s fascination with political history that brings you here, visit Kaliningrad on 9 May, when – together with the rest of Russia – it celebrates the WWII victory with a massive parade along Leninsky avenue. Kaliningrad is Russia’s main military base in the Baltics and the home of the Baltic Fleet, and many locals hail from military families. The captivating scene, best watched from the podium of the Mother Russia statue (which commemorates the inclusion of East Prussia into Russian Federation in 1946), would have been hard to imagine in 1933 when Hitler was welcomed by the city authorities with a pompous celebration held in the very same place where Russia displays its military might these days. Two local communists attempted to blow him up on that day, but they were betrayed.
Until the Nazis precipitated its demise, Königsberg arguably rivalled only Prague in its Gothic and Art Nouveau beauty, most of which was lost as a result of British air raids and the city’s last stand against the advancing Soviet troops in 1944. The entire German population of the region was subsequently deported to Germany proper and replaced with Russian-speakers, who rebuilt the city anew in bland, utilitarian Soviet style.
But century-old German legacy shines through outward Sovietness. As you enter the old residential suburbs of Amalienau and Maraunenhof, asphalt gives way to cobblestones, houses become quainter and even trees look better groomed than in the city centre. Spared by the war, these areas remain largely the same as they were at the beginning of the 20th century, albeit with different residents. If you’ve spent some time in Germany, you can easily imagine German trams, shops and beer gardens populating the scene around you.
Elsewhere in the city, the partially restored old forts are reminiscent of the time when it was run by knights who formed the monastic state of the Teutonic order and imposed Christianity and German language on local Baltic tribes with sword and fire.
At both the personal and government level, the locals are no longer shy about their region’s non-Russian past. The city’s 12th-century cathedral, which lay in ruins for 50 years, underwent a careful German-funded reconstruction. The original tomb of the city’s most famous resident, philosopher Immanuel Kant, can be found at the outer northeastern corner of the cathedral.
Kant is a cult figure in Kaliningrad – the local university bears the philosopher’s name and ‘Kantgrad’ was actually a serious suggestion when, back in the 1990s, the authorities pondered getting rid of the city’s communist name. The local cultural and propaganda narrative is so saturated with Kant that he has become an object of counter-culture ridicule: somebody keeps leaving a sign saying ‘Kant – lokh’ (meaning ‘Kant is a jerk’) on the ruins of the eminent gentleman’s ancestral home.
Another feature that gives the city a Berlinesque feel is the network of canals and footbridge locks near the cathedral. Facing the latter is a recent addition – a collection of vaguely Hanseatic-looking buildings collectively known as Fish Village. This is where some of the city’s best restaurants and hotels are located. A recommended coffee shop is Magiya Kofe (ul Oktyabrskaya 4), which makes some of the best brew and desserts this side of the Baltic Sea.
In the city centre, Tyotka Fischer (ul Shevchenko 11а) churns out all the German classics – a variety of sausages and the old local delicacy, Königsberger Klopse (meatballs in creamy sauce with anchovy). Portions are honestly German – that is, sufficient to feed a family of three – and there is cheapish trademark Fischer beer on tap.
Make it happen
Kaliningrad is easier to visit than the rest of Russia, since 72-hour visas are issued at Khrabrovo (kgd.aero) international airport as well as at two checkpoints at the border with Poland. The provision is currently valid until the end of 2015, but it’s likely to be prolonged as the city is preparing to become a venue for the Football World Cup hosted by Russia in 2018. However, the construction of a new stadium had not started yet at the time of writing.