This was prompted by a Meduza article published in the 25th of December, tackling the question of whether Kalinigrad could be actually ‘annexed’ back to Germany. Most is my rephrasing of their article, with some additional facts thrown into it.
Having been born in Kalinigrad, and honestly knowing only superficially the history and legacy of the region, when a friend (thanks Maksim Lenskii) sent me the Meduza article about the history of Kalinigrad and its contemporary prospects, I was intrigued beyond belief. In order to make sense of the very long article, this post will be my attempt at understanding the legacy of Kalinigrad’s formation as a “Europeanized” region of Russia, and what the future holds for this place, stuck between venturing Westward vs. disavowing its ‘German’ influences all together.
First things first: The main premise of the article centers around the hypothetical question of “Would/Can Germany retake Kaliningrad as theirs,” and through a winding path the article charts the growth of anti-Germanism within the borders of Kaliningrad, and the influence of Europeanization and Russian(ism?) upon the territory. With the impact of the Russo-Ukrainian war, the fate of Kalinigrad (previously Konigsberg) has been challenged both formally and informally (the article notes the animosity of Latvia and Lithuania against Russia vis-a-vis Kalinigrad trade routes). Meduza also notes how a farcical Czech poll about “annexing Kalinigrad” gained an eerie amount of support.
How Kaliningrad Formed
Following the first and second World Wars [1914-1945 roughly], Germany had undergone a drastic change in geographical constitution. Kalinigrad’s beginnings started, in effect, following WW1 and Poland’s bestowment of maritime access to the Baltic sea. This severed the Prussia’s eastern wing, laying the foundation for the odd territorial mass that would become Kaliningrad later on. Prussia of 1866 extended as far south as Luxemburg, and when it became the German Empire continued all the way down to Switzerland.
However, after WWI they lost LOTS of land, and from 1920-1938 Kalinigrad was all that remained of East Prussia, although by 1945 it would fall into Soviet hands. These geographical changes were accompanied by a large migration of people from what was East Prussia to Germany proper, Meduza noting the sheer amount of people totaling up to 15 million. As the USSR moved in onto the territory, more and more fled to Germany, although not all of East Prussia was given to Russia (the southwest parts given to Poland, some to Lithuania, with the upper north-east section reserved for the USSR in 1945). This map does a really wonderful job at highlighting East Prussia’s splicing:
Once under Soviet control, in July of 1946 the territory underwent its official name change, and a year later from 1947 to 48, the majority of the Germans still living there were deported under Stalin’s policy of population transference. This policy began as early as 1930, and originated as a way to quell disruptive and otherwise troublesome populations within the Soviet borders. However, following WWII and the seething anti-German worldview exemplified in the Battle of Stalingrad, and Germans residing in Kalinigrad were deported, while Russians were moved in. This likewise occurred between Poland and Soviet Ukraine, although under Khrushchev this practice was quickly condemned.
Slowly, animosity grew for the Germans and their German culture that remained in Kaliningrad after the Russian moved in, leading to art and other cultural items being destroyed en masse. However, there are unofficial (often oral-only) reports of cohabitation of Germans and Soviets in relative peace, leading to the tenuousness of historical accounts of the late 1940s to early 1950s under Stalin.
Kaliningrad becomes “Russian Europe”
From 1945 to 1989, Meduza notes the conflicted nature of the German view of Kaliningrad versus the domestic view of Soviet Russians living in the area at the time. Nicknamed the “German Atlantis,” scholarship by Bert Hoppe notes the fantastic ways in which Germans viewed the territory. Almost like a fantasy world of a cultural legacy of old, these homesick migrants dreamed of their Prussian homeland despite its contemporary disappearance. As he notes, “For German journalists, entering Kaliningrad was one of the last adventures the European continent had to offer, well into the period of perestroika,” pointing to the fact that Kaliningrad wasn’t Soviet in their mind, but instead a bastion of the Germanic old world waiting to be restored to them. However, by the late 1980s, this dreamlike view of Kaliningrad was broken as the realization of Prussia’s presence having ended sometime ago, “Confronted with the late Soviet reality of the city, all the dreams associated with Königsberg were shattered – the break between past and present was too obvious” (2015).
Resulting from this rude awakening, Germany would begin to align itself with reclaiming (or at least in words alone) the culture of Kaliningrad. Airing on the side of revanchism, restoring Germany’s 1937 borders became the political objective of many political parties in Germany. In 1990, the “Two Plus Four Contract” would be created (allowing German unity under the pretext they join NATO, Gorbachev later agreeing under the pretext NATO doesn’t move Eastward…spoilers they did). For a while, German politicians just wouldn’t accept that Kaliningrad was no longer theirs, exemplified by Erica Steinbach’s war for the territory, irritating the Poles in the process. By the 90s, Kaliningrad had turned into a tourist destination for homesick emigrated Germans and instead of their childhood home they were greeted with something completely different (apparently this was a bad thing?). However, it ended around the mid-90s as those who had lived there as children were now old and dying off, replaced with children with no connection.
By the 2000s, and Kaliningrad’s identity would undergo another change. This time, Russians who felt themselves part of the European landscape more than the Russian one began using Kaliningrad as their base, traveling into EU countries for holiday and cultural activities rather than Russia. This muddied the waters, as the constitution of Kaliningrad became ever more connected with Europe. Further, many elements of Kalinigrad’s public and cultural infrastructure is paid for by EU funding, leading to the question, “Does Kaliningrad really belong to Russia anymore?” Kaliningrad has become a place of Russian tourism as well, people coming from as far as Ulan-Ude for tourist activities, as you get the benefit of staying in Russia but the advantages of European closeness. However, resurgence of cultural connection within the German/Soviet German communities have also disrupted easy associations of Kaliningrad as a “Russian” cultural territory as well.
Kaliningrad’s Issue with “Germanization”
This point cannot be stressed enough, as currently this is one of the most pressing issues of Kaliningrad’s contemporary history. As Meduza notes, German “agents of influence” are populating Kaliningrad and drastically changing the landscape leading to one publication to state that in a few decades Kaliningrad will perhaps secede from Russia completely, having their cultural differences spark the division. However, Russian politicians won’t have it and are noticing the surreptitious influence of German actors upon the cultural landscape. Meduza goes into many of the specific cases of said anti-Germanization of the Russian government, but two phrases ring as paralleling the 19th century divide of the Slavophiles vs. Westerners. Namely, “mourners for Koenigsberg” and the “creeping Germanization,” two phrases that signal neo-Soviet ideations of cultural individualism and national ownership, although it could be argued the Russians have as much claim on Kaliningrad as the Germans do.
In the mid-2010s, “Germanization” reached Russian public media, and once that happened hysteria began to grow about the threat of cultural erasure and the national demon that was “Germanization” upon the sacred grounds of the Russian homeland. Not excusing German cultural actors from immorally attempting to change cultural opinion, but as the polemic grew in Russian world, more and more focus was placed on destabilizing Germany’s hold on Kaliningrad. Cultural institutions were closed of German orientation, and arrests of pro-German underground militia groups were carried out. As recent as 2021, statements from Sergei Lavrov point to the feelings of ownership Russia has over Kaliningrad’s historical and cultural ties to the Russian nation, going so far as to downplay (or erase completely) the Germanic past of the territory.
Meduza gives a potential answer to the questions, “Could Kaliningrad turn German again?” through a quotation of one German politician, Bernd Fabricius:
In Germany, Russian discussions about the “Germanization” of Kaliningrad cause, according to the head of the “Union of the Exiles” Bernd Fabricius, bewilderment and indignation in half. According to him, just as the Russian Federation has no rights to the regions belonging to Ukraine, so Germany has no right to doubt the structure of the borders, according to which Kaliningrad has been part of Russia since 1946. “Otherwise it would be political barbarism and robbery,” he said.Bernd Fabricius
Others note the “Germanization” threat was pretext for the invasion of Ukraine, i.e., restoration and protection of cultural and historical (national) unity. However, Moscow has little control over what happens in Kaliningrad, and is mostly run by local officials who take orders from Moscow. This caused a divide in opinion over how much in control Putin really is over the events and decision within the territory. In any case, Meduza notes Kaliningrad’s cut in funding in 2023, as well as the drop of Kaliningrad’s ties to the EU thanks to COVID and the war’s ostracization of Russia from the European landscape. This may have cemented Kalinigrad’s future, both a part of the EU by geography but always nationally part of Russia.
What do you think? Must Kaliningrad be returned to Germany? Is it the same as returning Ukraine to Russia? Are there parallels or are these cases different?