From Koenigsberg to Kaliningrad

  • 2001-03-01
  • Memo Merlino
With the British R.A.F. bombing in 1944 and the Red Army assault April 6-9, 1945, the prosperous city of Koenigsberg lay in ruins, never to see its splendor again. The German residents were dispersed by Stalin to Siberia and 25,000 people were deported to Germany in 1947 and 1948.

Koenigsberg, whose area the Prussians inhabited for many centuries, was officially founded in 1252 by the Teutonic Order, and saw the beginnings of a very rich history. The Hanseatic League brought wealth to Koenigsberg and the Baltic region.

Though the following centuries the ravages of wars brought destruction from Russia, Sweden and Poland, Koenigsberg continued to grow. The city, birthplace of Immanuel Kant, reached in the 18th century the highest level of cultural life. The city died in 1945 and Stalin replaced it with a Soviet-style architectural abomination, which continues to exist today.

The historic link to the past between Koenigsberg and Kaliningrad has vanished, and this is the only European city to have experienced such a tragic fate. But this could be changed if a new vision for the city could come to life.

Present-day Kaliningrad is politically, if not strategically, important to Russia as it allows it to have a second port on the Baltic Sea besides St. Petersburg. But Kaliningrad is to Russia what Danzig was to Germany after WW1, an "oblast" in exile. This situation forces Russia to have agreements with Lithuania for transit of goods, the oil pipeline and rail transportation. Lithuania on the other hand will be dependent on Russia for energy when the nuclear plant Ignalina closes in a few years. This of course creates an unhealthy situation for Lithuania that aspires to join the European Union and NATO.

When Lithuania finally joins the EU and NATO, Kaliningrad will be, from the point of view of Russia, behind enemy lines - not a healthy situation for Russia.

President Vladimir Putin would like to see Kaliningrad become the Hong Kong on the Baltic Sea, which is obviously an unrealistic dream. Russia, always fearful of being landlocked, needs to have a new radical approach to the future of Kaliningrad. A new realistic vision.

The name of the city could be changed to Koenigsgrad, a compromise between German and Slavic. Kalinin, a crony of Stalin, does not need to be remembered. The region of Koenigsgrad would have to become an independent state, but part of the CIS. Its constitution would prohibit joining both the EU and NATO. Russia would remove all troops and military facilities from Koenigsgrad.

This small country, where a number of former German communities, now Russian, such as Svetlogorsk, Baltiysk, Kurshskaya Kosa, still have some remnants of old Prussia, could in time become wealthy if the right policies are put in place. The new state would adopt a transparent legal, banking and financial system.

Anti-corruption laws would be strictly enforced. The new state would eliminate visa requirements for the EU and the West and promote relocation of German families, who came from this area, if they so wished. Immigrants from Russia would be welcome.

Reconnecting Koenigsgrad to its glorious past would take a lot of investments, but it could be worth giving back to this region its 750-year history. The few remaining relics of the past, such as the cathedral would be restored. The Old Town around the cathedral, now an empty space, would be rebuilt with a blend of old architectural styles and modern infrastructure.

High-tech industries would be encouraged to move in under the tax heaven conditions. Tourism with proper infrastructure is always helpful. The environment would be cleaned up from the present dismal conditions. The national language would be Russian, but other future minorities would be allowed to conduct business in whatever language they wished, effectively creating a multi-language society.

What does Russia get out of all this? Strategically, Kaliningrad has very limited benefit. But politically it gives Russia a foothold in the southern Baltic Sea. This political benefit comes at a price, as Kaliningrad is dependent on Russia for its survival. And survival is all Kaliningrad gets. The oil transit and the military presence are not the base for a good economy. So the political benefit is more in line with keeping the "imperial" attitude alive, not unlike the situation between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Of the 750 years of history that Koenigsberg and Kaliningrad have shared, only 57 years belong to Kaliningrad. One can easily see what the Soviet system has produced in these 57 years regardless of the obliteration of the previous 700-odd years of German contribution to the region. This region and its inhabitants deserve better.