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Kaliningrad: ‘purported Germanisation’ in Russia’s western enclave

An anti-intellectual and anti-globalist campaign has been picked up by the Russian state and segments of society to “defend” Kaliningrad. Fortunately some Russian voices are disagreeing, though power is this minority’s hands.

March 27, 2019 - Andreas Rossbach - Articles and Commentary

Immanuel Kant's Tomb In Kaliningrad, Russia. Photo: Felipe Tofani (cc) flickr.com

“Shame to traitors! Shame to Kant! Glory to Russia!” read the photos of leaflets on VKontakte, Russia’s alternative to Facebook. On the same day – a Tuesday morning in November 2018 – pro-government “activists” splashed pink paint on a monument to the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant and his tombstone in Kaliningrad, the former German city of Koenigsberg, where the great thinker lived between 1724 and 1804.

The monument to Kant, designed by the German sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch, was originally erected in the 19th century, then disappeared during the Second World War, and was recreated in 1992 (after the fall of the Soviet Union, note). Soon after the first incident, the director of the city’s landmark cathedral, next to which Kant is buried, posted photos of a similar attack on Kant’s tomb.

Russian liberals, including prominent local activists Anna Alimpieva and Jakov Grigoriev, criticised the attack they considered an act of vandalism. However, some contemporary artists in Kaliningrad treated it with humour as a possible act of performance art. According to Grigoriev, the action clearly shows that there is a nationalist sentiment among some of the locals who are against the internationalist cultural heritage of Kaliningrad. “I suspect that local Cossacks have been involved in the action,” Grigoriev said. Kaliningrad and sections of northern Poland were once part of East Prussia, and then Germany, until the map of Europe was redrawn following the Second World War. The Red Army captured Koenigsberg in 1945 from Nazi Germany. It became part of the Soviet Union and renamed Kaliningrad after many of the ethnic German residents fled during the war.

Joseph Stalin expelled all remaining Germans from the region – a total of 14 million people – and the bulk of East Prussia has ever since been part of Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic states and Poland joined the European Union and NATO, so the region and its roughly half-million Russian citizens became geopolitically isolated.

Kant is widely heralded as one of the great moral philosophers in human history. Many Russians in Kaliningrad are actually proud of his connection to the city. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin has praised him. “Kant can and should be a symbol not only of your university but to some extent a symbol of the entire region and beyond,” said Putin during a visit to the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in 2013. Of course, Putin praises many things, like democracy, freedom, popular sovereignty, and law, which he overwhelmingly fights against.  But the fact that he felt he had to pay rhetoric to Kant shows his importance and favourable view among many.

In the recent years, however, an anti-German campaign in the Kaliningrad Oblast has begun, as some fear what they call a purported “Germanisation”. As a symbol of the German past, Kant has become one of the main targets of the growing paranoia. It is important to note no such process is happening, this is merely paranoid xenophobia and Putin’s Russia’s integral nationalism[.

The Russian Navy vice-admiral Igor Mukhametshin, for example, was captured on a Youtube video disparaging the thinker as a “traitor” and author of “books none of us have read”. Yet, there is no historical evidence that Kant was hostile towards imperial Russia (not to mention the obvious, that a thinker centuries ago could have said nothing on a modern state).

The officer’s tirade, delivered to sailors lined up on deck, came shortly before the Russian government organised an online poll to attach the names of historical figures to regional airports. Russian Duma Deputy Andrei Kolesnik also spoke out against Kant. Eventually, it was Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great, who beat both Kant and Marshal Vasilevsky in the December 2018 vote. The empress’ Russian army captured Königsberg in 1758 but abandoned it five years later. Apparently this imperialism was seen as something to celebrate by the Russian people.

Another example of what pro-government critics see as purported Germanisation of the region is the locally made beer. In early 2016, the brewery’s well-known Dutch owner, Heineken, relaunched “Koenigsberg beer,” using the German spelling of the name instead of the former Russianised version – Königsberg. Rationally, this is not a compelling argument that the  region is under threat.

Last year, a campaign against the long-time director of Kaliningrad’s German-Russian House, Viktor Gofman, accused him of promoting Nazism and extremism. The accusations came after he allegedly engaged in popularising the Koenigsberg-born German poet Agnes Miegel, who was a member of the Nazi party. Gofman was also suspected of having ties to members of the Baltic Avantgarde of Russian Resistance (BARS), an obscure fringe organisation that calls itself “nationalist” and “monarchist” but advocates Kaliningrad’s entry into the European Union, and the return of the historic name of Koenigsberg. It should be noted that “Nazi” is a slander the Kremlin and its supporters frequently use to attack its critics – unfortunately with success. 

Local media reported that Gofman was exonerated of the charges in court, but he suffered a heart attack and resigned on his post. A local ally of President Vladimir Putin, Genrikh Martens, took over the position.

In an interview with Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) Gofman said the campaign against him was aimed at taking over the independent German-Russian House. “We were independent and conducted cultural events that brought together all nationalities,” Gofman said. “And that made a lot of people upset. How could there be something independent in Kaliningrad?”

But the belief in the supposed Germanisation of the region is not shared by everyone. “Despite the de-Germanification campaign in recent years, the majority of locals still see the remnants of the German past as world cultural heritage,” Anna Alimpieva explains.

When walking through Svetlogorsk, one of the typical old spa towns that dot northwest Kaliningrad, with its whimsical art nouveau buildings, bratwurst and pretzel cafes, and bemused Russian and German tourists, this cultural heritage seems to disturb no one.

Along the coast to the east, is the little town of Chernyakhovsk. Locals there are trying to save the remnants of the German past, from a water tower and an old Protestant church to a school and a castle. The local authorities are actively supporting them.

“Our dream is to preserve the castle that was built by Germans when our little town was still named Insterburg,” said Arina Smirnova, who works as a consultant to the mayor of the Chernyakovsky district. “We want to make it a safe cultural space for everyone.”

While it is tempting to exaggerate the distinctness of Kaliningrad’s identity – and exploit its past for political purposes, the region, in fact, is as Russian as any other. “We are just another Russian region with ordinary Russians living here,” Smirnova said. “Though we do have extraordinary circumstances of living as an enclave with German past which offers us a huge platform for discussion and dialogue.”

Andreas Rossbach is a Russian-German journalist for online, video and print, focusing on human rights, social issues and politics in Russia and the neighbouring countries. He works as a journalist and fact-checker at Correctiv – the first non-profit newsroom in the German-speaking region, conducting investigations, uncovering injustices and abuses of power and making complex interrelations understandable. Andreas studied Economics, Politics, Global Communication and Journalism and is an alumni of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom and the European Solidarity Academy in Gdansk.

This article is part of the Solidarity Academy – Borderlands 2018, an international project supported by a grant from the International Visegrad Fund.

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