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.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.