THE flight to Yaroslavl had been cancelled. Why? We’re still not sure, and it doesn’t look like we’ll ever get the money back.
Still, after spending a large slice of 2020 indoors, a sense of Wanderlust prevailed. We’d just have to find somewhere else to go.
‘How about Kaliningrad?’ I was asked. ‘Königsberg, you mean?’ I responded, a mere 75 years behind the times, the city having been renamed in 1946. In truth, I had long wanted to see what the Russians had done with that slice of territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.
Königsberg was for centuries a major German city. It was founded in 1255 by the Teutonic knights during the Northern Crusades – a useful base from which to wage war against a blasphemous assortment of pagan Balts, Finns and Slavs. Later, it became the capital of Prussia and the coronation site of German kings. Immanuel Kant, perhaps its most famous son, died there in 1804.
As with much of central and eastern Europe, however, the 20th century brought violent changes which irreversibly changed the city and its Prussian hinterland. Today, clues of the city’s German history are hard to find. Certainly the people aren’t German – they had either fled by the time of Red Army’s arrival or were expelled in the years following. The only Guten Tags you hear nowadays are of tourists visiting to see where Oma and Opa (grandma and grandpa)came from.
Perhaps it’s having a German Oma myself that has made me sensitive to such things. The expulsion of Germans from central and eastern Europe was an event whose magnitude – it was the largest transfer of population to take place on the European continent, involving upwards of 12million people – is matched only by the silence with which it has been treated in Europe’s historical memory.
Backed by the major powers of World War II, millions of Germans across central and eastern Europe were forced to leave places they had populated often for centuries. The explicit goal was to create ethnically homogeneous states across the region, removing the supposed threat of any ethnic fifth columnists. To say the least, this goal sits awkwardly amid modern claims about the benefits of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’.
Estimates of the number who died during the process range from 500,000 to 2.5million. A majority of those fleeing were women, the very young and the very old: vulnerable to vengeful soldiers, officials and civilian populations along the way. Rapes, robberies and sickening violence were everyday occurrences.
Oh well, they started it.
Oh well, they started it: that’s about the extent of modern-day engagement with such morally troubling acts, as we conveniently forget the hell-inducing implications of assigning collective guilt – supposedly the conflict’s central lesson.
Looking around Kaliningrad and its environs there is scant trace of its almost 700-year German history. Parts of the city centre’s Soviet-era housing was tarted up a few years ago in a vaguely Baltic style. Some German food can be found too: as ever, I found myself – like a moth drawn to a flame – in a German restaurant drinking ein großes helles Bier, as they would have said around those parts once upon a time.
Indeed, there have been some attempts to re-Königsberg-ify the city somewhat, such as the construction of a row of sterile, faux-old buildings. Convincing from afar, up close they serve only to remind one of the loss of what was once there: pale imitations, sitting unpersuasively amid decades of Soviet architecture.
Just across the river stands the cathedral. Rebuilt in the 1990s, it sits alone on the city’s central island, formerly one of Königsberg’s bustling centres. Today it is a park. The local government has erected signs throughout, showing how the island once looked: bustling streets, busy with everyday life. Nothing remains. Many of the photos used to illustrate these signs are from the 1930s. One can only dread to think what happened to all the people in those photos in the years that followed. We already know what happened to the buildings.
It wasn’t, however, the Russians which destroyed this part of the city. That was left to the Royal Air Force. Upon learning this fact, another crack in my world view appears. Another continental city, reduced to rubble by the British government, thousands of civilians perishing as a result. Maybe it was necessary, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong. Maybe having a great-aunt who was in Dresden in February 1945 taints my view.
Either way, such is war: the evil of man multiplied on a horrific scale.
Whilst the RAF softened up the target, it was ultimately the Red Army who sealed the deal on Königsberg. Those elements of the old city which survived the horrors of mechanised total war later succumbed to Soviet diktat. In 1968, Brezhnev personally ordered the destruction of what remained of the city’s castle. In its stead was built The House of the Soviets:a building dubbed ‘the buried robot’ by locals.
This Rubik’s Cube-esque building was never completed and now dominates the centre of the city, sitting empty and purposeless. Presumably that is because its raison d’etre was simply to triumph over the building that once stood on the same spot. This it certainly achieved, now a grotesque architectural relic to an extinct regime. The Prussians are, however, taking their belated revenge: the ancient tunnels once under the old castle are slowing giving way, destabilising the ground above.
Anyway, perhaps what was there wasn’t so grand in the first place. According to Murray’s A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent (1858) – part of a series of popular guide books of the day – the original castlewas ‘a large ugly building’. Still, I’d like to see the author’s opinion on what took its place.
On our last day, we drive around Kaliningrad Oblast (region) in our filthy hire car which clanks and clunks in ways I didn’t know cars could.
We find ourselves in Ushakovo – formerly Heiligenwald – the site of a church dating from 1344. In the grounds of the church is a plaque which reads:
Here rest the inhabitants of the parish of Heiligenwald, 1344-1946, and the fallen of the battles in 1945.
Those dates keep flashing back to me. 1344-1946. Six hundred and two years. All swept away in the comparative blink of an eye. It all makes so little sense. Millions of people dead or forced to flee, ancient cities smashed to bits.
But life goes on. The wounds heal and the daily rhythm re-establishes itself somehow. Kaliningrad has overcome its tragedies to become a pleasant city, whose inhabitants – as far as I could ascertain on my trip – are kind and charming. It is bestowed with stunning natural beauty (if you can, go to the Curonian Spit in winter for stunning views).
There is no sense in holding historical grudges. Eventually, as generations pass, the dates 1344-1946 will seem as distant and irrelevant as when we talk of Greek city states or reigns of Roman emperors.
Yet still I feel the sights and sounds of history crashing and ringing in my ears throughout this place.
1914-1945. A period of senseless self-inflicted destruction meted out on the world’s greatest civilisation.
Coming to Kaliningrad, it doesn’t surprise me that we still haven’t quite recovered from it.