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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.