Kaliningrad: the World Cup city that has twice tried to erase its past

Kaliningrad in 2011. Image: Getty.

Kaliningrad and its new $300m “Arena Baltika” stadium has been thrown into the spotlight by the football World Cup. But will the city’s latest project finally succeed in eclipsing its pre-war German history?

Nestled between Lithuania to the north and east, Poland to the south, and the Baltic Sea to the west, Kaliningrad is today an “exclave” of Russia. But the region was once at the centre of European history and culture.

Kant barely left Königsberg in his whole life. Image: Becker/Wikimedia Commons.

Founded by the Teutonic knights in 1225, Königsberg or “King’s Mountain” – as Kaliningrad was once known – first developed as a Hanseatic commercial centre, and was made rich through trade in people, goods, and ideas. Expanding as a Baltic port city, it became the capital of East Prussia, and remained the coronation city of the Prussian monarchy even after the capital was moved to Berlin.

A city of high culture, Königsberg became a capital for museums, theatre, art, and music. It was a hub in the German-speaking world for artists, musicians, philosophers and scholars of all kinds – famously serving as the lifelong home of the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Although separated from Germany proper by the Treaty of Versailles, and undoubtedly tarnished by Nazi rule, prior to World War II Königsberg had existed as a vibrant and significant centre of modernist culture at Germany’s easternmost frontier. Yet the outbreak of war in September 1939 was to have profound consequences for the region.

Kaliningrad in context: the Russian exclave is shown in dark green, separated from the rest of Russia (in light green). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Annexed by the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II, the region underwent one of the most radical erasures of history ever experienced. Due to its status as the USSR’s new westernmost frontier, the region took on a particular symbolic significance. From the outset, a clean break with the past was deemed essential for the Soviet project, and both city and region were renamed Kaliningrad, after Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin.

The indigenous German population was expelled, and the territory was almost entirely repopulated with citizens from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Kaliningrad was envisaged as functioning like a Soviet version of turn-of-the-century New York City – creating Soviet citizens from a melting pot of peoples of different backgrounds in the same way that Americans had emerged from a diverse New York.

Central to this reorientation towards the east was to replace the remaining German architecture – already heavily damaged by RAF bomber raids during the war – with gleaming examples of Soviet Modernism. Most symbolically, following direct orders from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1967, the remains of the former Königsberg Castle that had once adorned the highest point in the landscape were levelled and replaced by a new building, the House of Soviets (Dom Sovetov). Overtly futuristic in design, it was to provide the physical manifestation of the societal transformation brought about by communism – a beacon of Soviet power at its westernmost frontier.

A Soviet-era ‘world clock’ sculpture stands in front of the huge Dom Sovetov. Image: author provided.

Yet the House of Soviets was never finished. Today, it stands empty, as it has done for more than 30 years. Referred to by locals as “The Monster”, it continues to occupy the central part of the city, standing as an uncomfortable monument to a history trying to be forgotten.

In the official 2018 World Cup tourist guide, for example, the only reference to this founding pillar of Soviet Kaliningrad is as a point from which to direct visitors to the city to a plaque located on the rear wall of the castle ruins, on which is written one of Kant’s most famous quotes: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”

Soviet history purged

In fact, visitors to the city will find little mention at all of the Soviet history upon which Russian Kaliningrad is built. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, far greater focus has instead been devoted to pointing towards the region’s former German heritage, such as the 19th-century Koenig Gate, or Kant Island and its restored Königsberg Cathedral, which dates back to 1333 but was a ruin as recently as the 1990s. Even the “fishing village” gets a mention – a Disneyland-like “German” complex said to represent what the future centre of Kaliningrad will look like following its eventual reconstruction.

The ‘fishing village’ and Soviet-era tower blocks: old Kaliningrad meets fake Königsberg. Image: author provided.

In other words, the focus has been on the history not just of, literally, a foreign country, but that of a city that had ceased to exist prior to the arrival of Kaliningrad’s current inhabitants – and the very same history that the Soviets spent nearly half a century trying to erase.


But the extravagance of the new 35,000 capacity Arena Baltika – in a city where the local team, FC Baltika, typically attracts just 4,000 fans – is an attempt to once again use bold architectural statements as a means of shifting the region’s focus back towards the east.

Yet it is also a reminder to the West of Vladimir Putin’s exclave in the very heart of Europe; home to the Russian Baltic Fleet base and, most recently, a permanent holder of the “Iskander-M” mobile short-range nuclear-capable ballistic missile. As one of the most militarised regions of Russia, there is undoubtedly more at play here than just football.

The ConversationJamie Freeman, Post-Graduate Researcher and Associate Tutor in Modern History, University of East Anglia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

These maps of petition signatories show which bits of the country are most enthusiastic about scrapping Brexit

The Scottish bit. Image: UK Parliament.

As anyone in the UK who has been near an internet connection today will no doubt know, there’s a petition on Parliament’s website doing the rounds. It rejects Theresa May’s claim – inevitably, and tediously, repeated again last night – that Brexit is the will of the people, and calls on the government to end the current crisis by revoking Article 50. At time of writing it’s had 1,068,554 signatures, but by the time you read this it will definitely have had quite a lot more.

It is depressingly unlikely to do what it sets out to do, of course: the Prime Minister is not in listening mode, and Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has already been seen snarking that as soon as it gets 17.4m votes, the same number that voted Leave in 2016, the government will be sure to give it due care and attention.

So let’s not worry about whether or not the petition will be successful and instead look at some maps.

This one shows the proportion of voters in each constituency who have so far signed the petition: darker colours means higher percentages. The darkest constituencies tend to be smaller, because they’re urban areas with a higher population density. (As with all the maps in this piece, they come via Unboxed, who work with the Parliament petitions team.)

And it’s clear the petition is most popular in, well, exactly the sort of constituencies that voted for Remain three years ago: Cambridge (5.1 per cent), Bristol West (5.6 per cent), Brighton Pavilion (5.7 per cent) and so on. Hilariously, Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North is also at 5.1 per cent, the highest in London, despite its MP clearly having remarkably little interest in revoking article 50.

By the same token, the sort of constituencies that aren’t signing this thing are – sit down, this may come as a shock – the sort of places that tended to vote Leave in 2016. Staying with the London area, the constituencies of the Essex fringe (Ilford South, Hornchurch & Upminster, Romford) are struggling to break 1 per cent, and some (Dagenham & Rainham) have yet to manage half that. You can see similar figures out west by Heathrow.

And you can see the same pattern in the rest of the country too: urban and university constituencies signing in droves, suburban and town ones not bothering. The only surprise here is that rural ones generally seem to be somewhere in between.

The blue bit means my mouse was hovering over that constituency when I did the screenshot, but I can’t be arsed to redo.

One odd exception to this pattern is the West Midlands, where even in the urban core nobody seems that bothered. No idea, frankly, but interesting, in its way:

Late last year another Brexit-based petition took off, this one in favour of No Deal. It’s still going, at time of writing, albeit only a third the size of the Revoke Article 50 one and growing much more slowly.

So how does that look on the map? Like this:

Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of an inversion of the new one: No Deal is most popular in suburban and rural constituencies, while urban and university seats don’t much fancy it. You can see that most clearly by zooming in on London again:

Those outer east London constituencies in which people don’t want to revoke Article 50? They are, comparatively speaking, mad for No Deal Brexit.

The word “comparatively” is important here: far fewer people have signed the No Deal one, so even in those Brexit-y Essex fringe constituencies, the actual number of people signing it is pretty similar the number saying Revoke. But nonetheless, what these two maps suggest to me is that the new political geography revealed by the referendum is still largely with us.


In the 20 minutes it’s taken me to write this, the number of signatures on the Revoke Article 50 has risen to 1,088,822, by the way. Will of the people my arse.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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