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Between Kant and Kalinin. The identity of Kaliningrad

Are inhabitants of the Kaliningrad Oblast “European Russians”? Is the region a different Russia, being influenced more by Polish food, German highways and Spanish beaches than by Russian empty spaces, traditional boots and cuisine? How has the identity of almost a million people living in the westernmost part of Russia been shaped since the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast is a region that usually appears in the media in the context of Russia’s tense relations with the European Union and the NATO. It is presented as an “aircraft carrier”, as well as “a great military base of Russia”. Rarely can one hear or read about the everyday life in the region, the developmental challenges it faces and the values ​​and symbols which are important to ordinary Kaliningraders. In particular, the question of identity changes among the region’s populations remains widely unknown both in Poland and in wider Europe.

May 5, 2017 - Miłosz Zieliński - Articles and Commentary


A research project carried out in 2015-2017 was designed to, at least partially, fill this gap. It concludes that a number of factors influence the identity processes in the Kaliningrad region. The project’s activities attempted to grasp the complexities and, among others, answer the question of how the complicated and multi-faceted history of the region influences contemporary life of Kaliningraders. Hence, the study focused on both the Soviet times (1945-1991) and East Prussian times (from the Middle Ages through the Second World War with an emphasis on the 1870-1945 period). Understanding the pre-war past and its influence on the present would not have been possible without taking into consideration such elements as the internal situation in Russia, the impact of the Kaliningrad Oblast’s neighbourhood with EU and NATO countries, the current international situation and the information space.

During the implementation of the project:

– Over 40 sociological interviews were carried out with the inhabitants of the Kaliningrad Oblast, as well as with the inhabitants of the Pomorskie and Warmińsko-Mazurskie Voivodships (in Poland), including academicians, think tankers, local government officials and NGO employees;

– Two field trips to the Kaliningrad Oblast were conducted (with total duration of four weeks), as well as trips to Elbląg, Gdańsk and Olsztyn;

– Activity on web portals in which the topic of identity was tracked, including content appearing in thematic groups on social networking sites;

– Extensive Polish, Russian, English and German literature on the past and present of the Kaliningrad Oblast and other issues raised in the project was collected;

– A 300-page-long manuscript was prepared; it will serve as the basis for a future PhD thesis, as well as publication on the identity of Kaliningrad Oblast’s inhabitants.

The research has made it possible to say that at least since the 2000s, the Kaliningrad Oblast has been experiencing an intense debate on its past, present and future identity. The debate pertains mostly to the city of Kaliningrad and it has focused on the appearance of public space and the symbols of the city and the region.

One of the main dilemmas present in the debate has been the relationship between the Soviet and the East Prussian (German) past. An ever-growing interest in the legacy of the pre-war period transposes into East Prussian Königsberg becoming a reference point for many urban projects. A similar phenomenon, albeit not of the same scale, has been observed in other cities of the region. At the same time, there is a considerable group of people who are strongly in favour of cultivating Soviet and Russian culture and tradition. They argue that too much attention on the foreign civilisational legacy can pose a serious threat to the region’s present and future Russianness.

As time passes, another factor strengthening the importance of the above-mentioned discussion has been the 2018 FIFA World Championships in Russia with Kaliningrad being one of the host cities.

The project has led to the conclusions that the primary level of identity of the Kaliningrad Oblast inhabitants is a national one. They feel that they are Russian nationals (citizens of the Russian Federation) and that they have noticeable ties with inhabitants of other parts of Russia. This does not mean that they do not differ from one another. Regional differences can be significant, primarily for geographic and historical reasons. Nevertheless, the regional level of identity should not be seen as contradictory to the national and state one, even though it is becoming increasingly important.

The research indicates that the development of the Polish-Russian cross-border co-operation has played a role in the identity processes taking place in the Kaliningrad Oblast. The launching of the Polish-Russian Local Border Traffic in mid-2012 (suspended by the Polish authorities in mid-2016) helped considerably to overcome problems which have roots in the Cold War period. It has been so despite tensions on the interstate level.

According to the research project, there is a genuine, considerable interest among Kaliningraders in the situation in Poland and in the everyday life of Poles. It is therefore important to continue following the identity-related processes on both sides of the border, as well as the state of cross-border co-operation and the impact of the broad political and cultural context on the Kaliningrad Oblast. Its social reality remains one of the least known among all neighbouring regions of Poland and the EU.

Miłosz J. Zieliński is a PhD student at the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and at the SWPS University in Warsaw. He is also a career diplomat, currently serving at the Permanent Representation of Poland to the European Union in Brussels. Until July 2017, he has been seconded to the Maltese ministry of foreign affairs to assist the Maltese Presidency of the EU Council.

The project titled “Identity of the Kaliningrad Oblast since 1991 to present day: constitutive factors and direction of ongoing changes” was financed by the National Centre of Science of Poland under the auspices of the PRELUDIUM programme (2014/13/N/HS6/04214). It was carried between 2015 and 2017. The opinions expressed in any publication related to the project and written by the author are the author’s own and reflect the view of no institution that the author is affiliated with.


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