Kaliningrad letter: Russia’s Baltic outpost grapples with ghosts of German past

Officials claim West wants to ‘Germanise’ and instil special identity in strategic region

German poet Heinrich Heine wrote that Immanuel Kant, the great Enlightenment philosopher, led a “mechanically ordered” life in the Prussian city of Konigsberg “and as he passed by at his customary hour, [locals] gave him a friendly greeting and perhaps set their clocks by him”.

Kant spent his whole life in Konigsberg, and almost 300 years after his birth he is a rare symbol of constancy and continuity in a city – now called Kaliningrad and part of Russia – that endured several waves of traumatic change in the 20th century.

British bombers reduced much of the city to ruins before the Red Army drove out Nazi German troops in 1945, and the following year it was renamed in honour of Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin.

The cathedral where Kant was buried in 1804 was badly damaged, but Soviet intellectuals averted demolition by arguing that he had influenced Friedrich Engels, co-author with Karl Marx of the Communist Manifesto.


No one saved what remained of Konigsberg Castle, founded in 1255 by the Teutonic Knights and expanded over the centuries into an imposing Gothic palace, and its skeletal walls were dynamited in 1968.

In place of what they saw as a relic of vanquished German militarism, the communists started building the brutalist House of the Soviets, to be home to the regional administration and to become a bold emblem of the new Kaliningrad.

More than 50 years after construction began, the 21-storey “robot’s head” sits unfinished and unused in the city centre, surrounded by a vast car park and patches of exposed brickwork from the partially excavated castle cellars.


The scene reveals not only layers of Kaliningrad’s painful history, but also its deep misgivings over how to live with that past, and reconcile centuries of German heritage with the region’s place in the autocratic and nationalist Russia of today.

Debates over the ruins of the Prussian castle touch a painful nerve in Kaliningrad politics: what officials call a foreign-backed plot to “Germanise” the region.

The claims have intensified since 2014, when Moscow's attack on Ukraine wrecked relations with the West and spawned a huge propaganda drive in Russia to portray it as a victim of US and European hostility.

The message is broadcast loudly in Kaliningrad, a heavily armed exclave on the Baltic Sea that is separated from the rest of Russia by EU and Nato members Poland and Lithuania.

"I know attempts are seen here to shake and destabilise the situation," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in Kaliningrad in August. "We know some of our foreign partners . . . are trying to instil a so-called Konigsberg identity,"

Four years ago the German-Russian House, a longstanding cultural centre in Kaliningrad, was declared a foreign agent and closed down after being accused of spreading extremism and promoting Nazism.

The same year, pro-Kremlin media warned of "creeping Germanisation" and of "academic separatism" at Kaliningrad's main university, and claimed that students had accused lecturer Anna Alimpieva of criticising the authorities and promoting "liberal" and LGBT lifestyles; her contract was not renewed shortly afterwards.

Not even Kant – one of the few officially approved links between Kaliningrad and Konigsberg – has been safe from attack.

During an online poll in 2018 on whose name should be given to Kaliningrad airport, three sites linked to the philosopher were daubed with paint, leaflets appeared denouncing “the German Kant” and a vice-admiral was filmed berating sailors not to vote for a man who “wrote some incomprehensible books that none of those here today have read, and won’t read!”

‘Special identity’

Earlier that year, regional governor Anton Alikhanov told Russian media: "This story about the 'special identity' of Kaliningraders was clearly not thought up in Kaliningrad . . . There is no special Kaliningrad identity! Half the population here was not born in the Kaliningrad region."

Alimpieva, a sociologist, urban researcher and activist, says Kaliningrad is still coming to terms with the violence of the last century: two wars, the post-1945 expulsion of the German population and their replacement with Soviet settlers, then the chaotic collapse of communism.

“Until the 1990s it was taboo to discuss all this . . . So it’s like we need some kind of psychotherapy to acknowledge what happened, learn how to relate to it and move forward,” she explains.

“After the war, people lived with the ruins of the castle, kids played there and it became part of people’s map of the world until the late 1960s, when that was blown up too . . . And now they’re talking about demolishing the House of the Soviets, which has stood there for 50 years,” Alimpieva says.

“It’s such a symbolic place, in the centre of the city, with emptiness all around . . . And we haven’t managed to fill it yet, as if we are still trying to find ourselves.”