An unlikely time capsule
Russia’s little-known Kaliningrad is a lesson in history
Entering Kaliningrad feels like returning to the days of the Cold War. Guards clutch batons and watch deadeyed as we inch forward in a queue of cars to a row of nondescript immigration booths. An icy wind sweeps across the forecourt, whistling through the dense pine forest that surrounds us.
We’re at an isolated outpost on Kaliningrad’s Polish border. We smile at the guards. They don’t smile back. We step out of our car and wait at the booth as our passports are slowly checked. Finally, our documents are pushed through. We are in.
Kaliningrad is an oddity, a part of Russia that’s tucked between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, 320km from “mainland” Russia proper. This unusual enclave is the result of the 1945 Potsdam agreement, during which Stalin cannily negotiated to incorporate 222sq km of land by the Baltic coast into the Soviet Union.
It was a cunning move because at a stroke Kaliningrad — as the main city and territory was soon renamed after a Russian official — became the former Soviet Union’s only year-round ice-free Baltic port. The former name of Konigsberg was cast aside, and local German connections dating back centuries were largely forgotten. A process of rapid Russification began in the immediate postwar period. So as we bump along a narrow potholed road surrounded by pines, we’re wondering what to expect.
We’re in a region Western travellers discovered long ago, visiting cities such as Gdansk in Poland (where we flew in, just a couple of hours’ drive away), Vilnius (not so far north in Lithuania) and Tallinn (in Estonia).
Yet we’re in virtually uncharted tourist territory, tucked away in the middle.
Our base is the Hotel Mockba, a short walk from Peace Square, where a statue of Lenin held pride of place before the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse.
We’ve had our first night out, starting with eye-watering nastoyka vodkas (a homemade concoction comprising vegetables, berries and herbs that tastes strangely like horseradish) at the Mockba’s narrow bar, followed by bowls of solyanka (rich, spicy-sour beef soup) and various solid sausage, potato and cabbage dishes, all washed down with fizzy local beer.
Now we’re on Peace Square with our guide, Olga Danilova, who was Michael Palin’s guide when he visited in the mid-2000s; it really helps to have a tour escort given that so little has been written about Kaliningrad and that most signs and much tourist material is in Cyrillic.
“Some people look at Kaliningrad when they are shown the map of Europe and say: ‘ Surely some mistake’,” Olga says as she leads up the steps of Christ the Saviour, an imposing Russian Orthodox cathedral with onion-shaped domes that was completed in 2006. Beyond a heavy wooden door, the inside smells of candle wax and there’s a soft murmur of incantations as worshippers queue to place foreheads on icons.
German philosopher Immanuel Kant was born and lived almost all his life in what was Konigsberg. His tomb is next to the restored Konigsberg Cathedral, our next stop, a distinguished red-brick structure dating from the 14th century with a witch’s hat spire and a gold clock face.
The building was repaired after many years of being left as a ruin following a British air strike in 1944. It’s a splendid place and it’s also intriguing to learn about Kant’s peculiar life, as described in the museum housed in one part of the cathedral.
The great thinker, considered one of the founders of modern philosophy, had many peculiar characteristics. “He stuck rigidly to his daily habits, so much so that people could check their watches by where he had reached on his daily walks ... he wouldn’t want to stop to talk to anyone as it would spoil his routine, and he preferred to breathe through his mouth rather than his nose as he believed that protected him from bad air,” says Olga.
How much is based on Chinese whispers is unsure: a much-told tale that Kant was such a home bird he never once left Konigsberg has been found to be spurious as he definitely ventured at least as far as Berlin.
Later, we try something completely different, and go to the Primorsky amber mine, about half an hour’s drive away. More than 80 per cent of the world’s amber comes from Kaliningrad and the biggest mine is on the edge of the city. Huge cranes hang over a scarred landscape that is protected by guards.
We’re offered a shot of vodka flavoured with crushed amber. It tastes of honey and pine, with an after-burn of strong alcohol. Then we’re taken to a little museum with many shelves of amber sculptures worth millions of roubles, before we sample a meal in the miners’ canteen: chicken soup with cabbage and onion, buckwheat with beef, and jelly for pudding. It’s all very tasty and unusual.
There are other interesting excursions, including forts built by the Prussians between the 17th and 19th centuries, which were used by the Nazis as defensive positions. These are free to enter and consist of a series of high brick walls with labyrinthine tunnels and cannon and gun slits.
We head half an hour north to explore the giant sand dunes of the Curonian Spit, a thin stretch of land that in the middle becomes Lithuania. The dunes are some of the biggest in Europe and for a while it feels as though we’re lost somewhere in the Namibian desert (not something that happens that often in northeastern Europe).
Then it’s off to see the bunker where General Otto Lasch ran Nazi operations in the city in World War II. The bunker is in a nondescript neighbourhood of Sovietera apartments close to the port, and is 15m deep and 42m long. The April, 1945 attack by the Red Army led to Lasch’s capitulation.
So while you might not expect to find a whole lot to do in an obost (province) of Russia that few have heard of and far fewer have visited, somehow there’s plenty to keep your interest. There’s also a time-capsule quality to Kaliningrad that rewards the inquisitive.
As we drive back to the Polish border for another encounter with the cheery guards, we pass an enormous reminder of the failed USSR. This is the now-derelict House of Soviets, a concrete monstrosity shaped like a robot, the facade of which gives the impression of it having eyes and a mouth. It was left half-complete when funding ran out in the 1980s.
What was to be the HQ of communist affairs in Kaliningrad is next to the long-empty site of the former Konisberg Castle, which was blown up by the Soviets in the late 1960s, despite being of huge historic importance and dating back to the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century.
So much history in such a small obost. Smile at the border guards, enjoy a nastoyka or two, and go see one of the most peculiar places in Europe, if not the world.
Kaliningrad waterfront, top; Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, above; the derelict House of Soviets and rubble from the Konisberg Castle ruins, left; and a statue of German philosopher Immanuel Kant