Kaliningraders want old name Koenigsberg back

  • 2002-07-18
  • Vladimir Zhukov

Russia and the European Union may be battling over Kaliningrad's impending isolation, but the Baltic enclave's residents are at odds over a more immediate issue - its name.

Split from the rest of Russia by Poland and Lithuania, the issue of Russians moving freely to and from Kaliningrad - about half the size of Belgium - is gaining urgency as Warsaw and Vilnius eye European Union membership and the tough travel visa regime that goes with it.

Russia fears losing its grip on an enclave which already has something of a split personality, having been an historic cultural center in East Prussia before World War II.

And in a worrying signal for Russia, a group of Kaliningrad residents are demanding that Kaliningrad city resume going by its former German name, Koeningsberg.

"We are living in Europe and, if we want to be accepted as equals in the European cultural sphere, we have to give back its historic name to our city," said Sergei Pasko, leader of the Baltic Republican Party which supports the initiative.

Kaliningrad took its Soviet-era name from politician Mikhail Kalinin, who was the Soviet Union's honorific head of state from 1938 to 1946, the year the city was renamed.

But until then, Kaliningrad was known as Koenigsberg, capital of the then-German region of East Prussia.

As such, it was mostly identified as the native city of Emmanuel Kant, who revolutionized Western philosophy in the 18th century. Its university, where Kant taught, was viewed as a landmark of European culture.

Advocates of the Koenigsberg initiative say giving the city back its old name would acknowledge its European heritage.

Others argue that the name Koenigsberg, or at least its diminutive form Koenig, never fell out of fashion completely and is still used by some Russians today.

"Young people often call Kaliningrad (Koenig), and I think it is about time to give it back its old name," said Andrei, 24.

Although Koenigsberg advocates are still a minority in the territory, the initiator of the Koenigsberg movement thinks the idea is gaining momentum fast.

"Our goal is to draw the attention of city authorities to the fact that a substantial part of the population thinks it is essential to give back Kaliningrad its historic name," Yury Nushtayev said.

This month, Nushtayev launched a two-year petition on the Internet in support of going back to the Prussian name. Volunteers will also hit the economically-devastated regions to collect signatures.

His ultimate goal is to have the city renamed in time for the 750th anniversary of its foundation, in 2005.

But not everyone here is ready to part with the city's Soviet identity.

"I was born in Kaliningrad, and I cannot not see why we should change its name," said a man who identified himself only as Valentin Semyonovich, 47.

Others say the city's German identity was wiped out by the Soviet occupation.

"Most of my German friends whose families used to live here and were deported to Germany after the end of World War II say that Koenigsberg does not exist any more," said Konstantin, 29. "Kaliningrad is a different city built on an old location."

Kaliningrad Mayor Yury Savenko agreed.

"Kaliningrad has its own history, and we were all born in a city that already had this name. Why should we go back to Koenigs-berg?" he asked.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, numerous cities have been restored to their pre-communist names.

The memory of Mikhail Kalinin has already been a casualty of this drive. A city of 450,000 some 160 kilometers northwest of Moscow that once bore his name went back to its historic name, Tver, following the Soviet collapse.