Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin was not one of Russian history’s shining stars. An unpleasant figure, he found favor with dictator Josef Stalin and rose to become Soviet president before dying in 1946. Nonetheless, in the fashion of those times, his surname was given to two major Russian cities and their accompanying regions. One, Kalinin, reverted with alacrity to Tver, its ancient name, upon the demise of the Soviet Union. The other, Kaliningrad, has proved more resilient. One has to wonder why. And, oddly enough, although a 13-meter high statue of a smiling Kalinin greets travelers near the city’s central train station, he never once visited either the city or the region.

A statue of Soviet-era President Mikhail Kalinin welcomes visitors to the city he never set foot in.

The answer lies in geography and politics. For centuries, Kaliningrad was Konigsberg, first a stronghold of the Teutonic Knights, then a Hanseatic port, and eventually the capital of East Prussia. The first Prussian king, Frederick I, was crowned in its castle in 1701. Konigsberg’s status as a German cultural center was cemented by the renown of its most famous sons, the philosopher Immanuel Kant and the playwright Friedrich Schiller. Less meritoriously, it was also a center for the Junkers, a landowning caste whose Prussian conservatism came to exemplify German militarism.

World War II ended all this. British bombing raids destroyed much of Konigsberg in 1944. Soviet armies then captured the city and East Prussia in April 1945 after a bitter fight. Thousands of Germans were killed, and even more fled before the city fell. Stalin demanded East Prussia as compensation for Russian losses, and at Potsdam, Britain and the United States agreed. The dictator subsequently awarded chunks of East Prussia to Russian-dominated Poland and to Soviet Lithuania. The remaining land and city were renamed Kaliningrad. In 1946, it became Russia’s newest — and at 15,100 sq. km, its smallest — oblast, or region.

In the late 1940s, the Germans left in Kaliningrad were expelled en masse. Settlers from elsewhere in the Soviet Union replaced them, and today the population of the Kaliningrad Oblast, at roughly 1 million, is 80 percent Russian. Ukrainian, Belarussian and other minorities make up the rest. Ludmila Putin, the wife of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is from Kaliningrad.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kaliningrad was left stranded on the Baltic Sea coast. Its neighbors, Poland and the newly free Lithuania, no longer took orders from Moscow. Kaliningraders now have to travel some 400 km across independent states to reach other Russian territory.

Despite occasional suggestions that the Kaliningrad enclave (or, technically, exclave) be made a fourth Baltic state, Russia remains adamant that the territory will stay Russian. The reasons are both psychological and strategic.

Spoils of war

The last decade has been a humiliating one for the former superpower, although a selective nostalgia has provided some comfort. Thus, while Soviet icons have fallen from grace, the shared memories of World War II struggles are still accorded special reverence. Leaving aside readjustments of the Finnish border, there are just two remaining territories, at the periphery of the old empire, that Russians see as theirs by right of conquest and as partial compensation for their terrible losses. Those spoils of war are Kaliningrad in the west and the Kuril Islands in the east.

Kaliningrad’s main eyesore is the empty House of Soviets.

There is a significant difference between the two. The Japanese government has repeatedly, and at the highest levels, insisted upon the return of the Kurils, which are by any stretch of the imagination of marginal historical importance to Japan. The German government, however, has not requested the return of Kaliningrad, a region of far greater cultural and historical significance. To do so would enrage Russia and alarm both Poland and Lithuania. Neither of the latter two has dared to stake any official claims, despite some local sentiment favoring annexation. No one wants to plunge Europe into crisis by reawakening the specter of irredentism. Therefore, even attempts to change the name — either reverting to Konigsberg or adopting a new name (Kantgrad and Amber City have been suggested) — are regarded with suspicion. Kaliningrad remains Kaliningrad.

Russia has logical strategic reasons for retaining the territory as well. Its Baltic fleet is based there at the town of Baltiysk. With the loss of access to ports in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the Russian Navy’s only other Baltic outlet is St. Petersburg. Additionally, as Poland is now a member of NATO and Lithuania very much wants to join, Russia sees its military presence in Kaliningrad as vital to maintaining an interest in the region and minimizing any perceived threats from the West.

Kaliningrad today is very different from the city it was before the war, let alone the graceful 18th-century port whose streets Kant once walked. It is not pretty. Since the postwar city was first opened to foreigners in 1991, many elderly ex-residents from Germany have visited in search of vistas to stir faded memories. They have found few catalysts.

In some cities — Gdansk and Warsaw, for example — architects made major attempts in the course of postwar rebuilding to retain or re-create elements of the past. In Kaliningrad City, the past was to be denied, so a Stalinist-barracks style of architecture prevailed. In one notorious case in 1969 — thus well after the war — the remains of the old fortress in the city center were blown up rather than rehabilitated. In their place, a massive concrete atrocity, the “House of Soviets,” was constructed. It was never occupied, due to subsidence and flooding in the basement levels. Observers refer to this building variously as “the monster” or “the ugliest building on Russian soil.”

There are exceptions. The city’s main cathedral wasn’t completely destroyed in the war, and is even being renovated. This is probably because Kant’s tomb is located on the precincts; today, newlyweds place flowers at his grave, hoping for a lifetime of happiness. Of the few other buildings to survive, perhaps the most notable is the old Konigsberg Stock Exchange. Ironically, perhaps, it is now a casino.

A mixed picture

There is another, competing vision of Kaliningrad’s future that is favored by locals and outsiders whose interests are more economic than military or geopolitical. That view, which has made some headway, is that the enclave should serve Russia in much the way that Hong Kong does China, as a more advanced capitalist laboratory and profitable conduit for trade. This would take advantage of Kaliningrad’s location in a region of accelerated development.

Attempts to revitalize the local economy have met with limited success. Kaliningrad was declared a “free economic zone” in 1992 with much fanfare and no tangible results. In 1996, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a law making the enclave a “special economic zone,” transforming it, at least on paper, into a customs-tax-free area. As with many such endeavors, the devil is in the details. Economic life has improved somewhat, but Moscow and Kaliningrad quibble over the degree of autonomy local authorities should enjoy, and there are problems with the costs and political restrictions associated with transiting goods across third countries.

Corruption, crime and a high unemployment rate take their toll. The black market is not hard to find, as currency traders gather outside banks and in the main markets. These are mostly young men who carry cellular phones and wear shoulder bags to conceal bank notes. They use easily removable clothespins clipped to their shirts to hold bits of cardboard inscribed with the symbols of available foreign currencies.

More serious is the trade in smuggled synthetic liquor. Some 4 million liters, or 60 percent of the total liquor trade, is bootlegged into Europe via the enclave. Large quantities of alcohol and other drugs are also used by Kaliningraders, with concomitant social costs. And the enclave has the highest rate of AIDS in Russia.

There is some foreign investment, particularly from Poland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, but investors have to deal with both crime and corruption, often at a very personal level. For example, a few days before I arrived, a Norwegian consulting engineer staying at a major hotel in the city center was grabbed outside the lobby one night by two men, bundled into a car and taken to a locked room somewhere in the city. Under threat of injury, he was compelled by his new “mafiya” acquaintances to surrender his passport, visa, credit card and PIN number. After they left to cash in, he was able attract attention and escape, but immediately concluded his business and returned to Norway.

Reasons for optimism

To reiterate, the picture is not entirely bleak. Economically, Kaliningrad does compare favorably with many other regions in Russia. Port facilities are being upgraded, and joint ventures with foreign businesses are being formed. In addition, local authorities see strong possibilities in tourism. The oblast capital may be unattractive, but only 28 km away is the beach resort of Svetlogorsk, on the Baltic Sea. Once called Rauschen, and until 1991 reserved for members of the military and Communist Party elites, this is one of the few towns in the enclave to have remained intact after World War II. Venerable, but well-maintained German-style houses blend perfectly with the majestic pine trees that line the streets. Business is clearly booming, with health spas, hotels and restaurants proliferating.

The most upbeat assessment of Kaliningrad’s future I heard came from Roman Bartoszewicz, a Polish consulting-firm owner, marine surveyor and frequent business visitor to Kaliningrad. He said, “There are, of course, very big problems now, but there will be changes. These are happening now. If you come back in 10 years, you won’t recognize Kaliningrad as it is today. It will be much different and much better.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.