Russia’s most westerly — and most Western — territory is in the spotlight this week, facing new sanctions as the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine continues.
Kaliningrad is an exclave: part of Russia, but physically separated from the rest of the country, and surrounded by Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea.
“It’s better to live here than one would generally assume,” said an official at the German Consulate General in Kaliningrad, one of the few Western diplomats still assigned there.
Until World War II, Kaliningrad was part of Germany and known as Köningsburg, which explains a lot of the old architecture which wouldn’t look out of place in other Baltic cities.
These days it’s the home port for Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet, with tens of thousands of military personnel and the site of Iskander missiles which are capable of carrying a nuclear payload.
It’s this duality which makes Kaliningrad such a fascinating place: on one hand, it is considered a desirable area to live by many Russians, with an influx of new residents in the last decade enjoying the green spaces and the city’s entrepreneurial spirit.
On the other hand, it’s a strategically important military location just 300km from the Swedish island of Gotland which is the defensive key to control over the Baltic Sea — a place where everyone will have some connection to the military through a relative or friend.
“Baltic Russians are a hope for their country’s future,” said Polish MEP Radek Sikorski this week, calling for measures to allow the people of Kaliningrad, who he described as “the most Putin-sceptic in Russia,” to travel.
Before the Russian invasion, Kaliningrad residents could get a special permit to go into Poland without a visa, and shopping trips into the EU were a popular excursion.
In general, says the German consulate spokesperson, people who decide to live in Kaliningrad tend to lean more towards the West, like to reach out to Europe and go to Poland to shop.
Moscow is 1,200 kilometres from Kaliningrad, Berlin only half that distance.
How do local residents feel about sanctions?
When Lithuania this week announced a ban on the transit of some goods through its territory from Russia to Kaliningrad, it sparked a swift and angry response from the Kremlin.
Moscow said the move was “unprecedented” and “unlawful”, and threatened to respond to the transit ban which includes coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology.
The ban accounts for around 50% of all goods that Kaliningrad imports, but doesn’t include food or medicine.
Local residents, however, don’t seem too concerned yet, despite Kremlin’s rhetoric.
“Perhaps there will be some problems with goods delivery but for now we can’t feel it. We haven’t been affected yet,” said Konstantin Savv, a student in Kaliningrad.
“Of course, the sanctions – as the previous ones – will leave a mark on our region… scarce goods will probably not disappear but it will be for a short time and I think the government will find a solution to this situation very quickly and everything will be resolved in the near future. We aren’t panicking,” says Olga Klimova, who works for the local municipality.
Sailor Semen Shchegolyatov said that “I am not worried because everyone was already prepared for it. I don’t know why the government is talking about it only now and why they are so shocked.”
Kaliningrad’s decades-long rebirth
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kaliningraders of all generations have been uncovering the buried traces of history. Today, there is a kind of East Prussian renaissance, a new interest in the history of the region where one lives.
“Of course, there is still the street with deep holes in the city, the dilapidated buildings. Kaliningrad has always been treated a bit step-motherly by Moscow,” the German consulate spokesperson told Euronews.
“But a lot has been invested in infrastructure, not only for the (2018) World Cup. During the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism picked up, Russians from other parts of the country increasingly holidayed on the Baltic beaches of Kaliningrad. There has been investment in tourism infrastructure.”
“Particularly in the villages towards the Baltic Sea resorts, Russification has not been so rampant — there are still many old dilapidated churches here,” the spokesperson said.
“Kaliningrad with its East Prussian cultural heritage is something special for Russian tourists. They are consciously making use of this heritage by not only preserving old buildings but also by orienting building regulations to the old style so that even new buildings pick up on the East Prussian charm.”
But that costs a lot and businesses are on the lookout for investors, says the German consul.
There are progressive initiatives, and activists working to preserve the cultural heritage, the consulate spokesperson added.
But another faction also exists, they told Euronews, of people who turn more towards Moscow and whip up fears of an impending Germanisation.