As old Soviet hands (Jutta and I did after all first meet in Moscow 43 years ago in 1974 when we were both working there), we head out of Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg towards EU-member Lithuania today with mixed feelings.
The Russians we’ve met here since crossing on Daisy from Poland five days ago, have been unfailingly kind and generous – all of them of course either themselves immigrants or descended from those who repopulated East Prussia after it was ethnically, brutally, understandably-at-the-time perhaps, cruelly, ethnically cleansed of Germans immediately after the war.
Much is of course different from Soviet days (not that we would ever have been able to visit Kaliningrad as the closed military district it once was) – the openness of conversation, the quality of the (actually, now universally-excellent) food, the shops, the enterprise, the bright colours and fashion of ordinary street life..
Of course, Kaliningrad as a Russian territorial exclave remains as yet only sparsely visited by tourists, and is clearly struggling to find a new balanced identity between the political, cultural and geostrategic pulls of Russia, history, and of surrounding Europe.
And let’s not get too misty-eyed about outsiders imposing their ways on a part of the world that has more history than most could digest – think Sweden, Teutonic Knights, and Napoleon, Hitler’s Nazis as well as Stalin’s Soviet Union and now the new Russia.
But we have been in honesty been disappointed by how Kaliningrad and its region again illustrate a Russian truth we know so well from our time in Moscow of disconnect between the warmth and soul of ordinary Russians and a collective and continued disregard for beauty, quality and the individual.
(I think Tolstoy and Dostoevsky used to write about this, actually – it’s an old story.)
There’s a great deal more that could and perhaps should be written (maybe one day, we both will!), but to take just one example, Kaliningrad’s shiny new Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, making its unsubtle, unmistakable political point in Putin’s Russia, is so brightly, garishly illustrated within with icons and gold that visitors are advised to bring sunglasses.
But without, it’s an astonishingly sloppily-finished construction, with corners cut and gaps in the marble cladding chipboarded over in a manner reminiscent at the same time of Brezhnev’s Moscow (think the blocks on Prospekt Kalinina) and of some kind of quick-build new hotel for the new Russian rich.
All in saddening contrast with what little is left of the carefully-built quality of Koenigsberg’s German heritage, with some lovely examples of restored Prussian forts and gates but so much throughout this region that’s been either left to rot or which has been brutally torn away and replaced with vistas of Soviet concrete even more ugly than the worst we got used to in Russia nearly half a century ago.
And yet, we – at least I, Mark, perhaps because I speak the language and know Russia’s history and complex identities from my university and reporting days – love the place and its people.
So much so that we (well, Jutta reminds me more me than we at this point) are now planning (or at least discussing) a future tandem trip from Moscow to St Petersburg, perhaps next spring.
With fewer submarines (pix below repeated from yesterday’s Facebook post), and certainly less derelict German heritage.
However basic the technology, one would rather not be on the wrong end of one of these.