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New Europe

Day Ninety-four: Nida to Kaliningrad

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At Rybachiy, a freshly ringed bird, carrying a phone number in Moscow, is unceremoniously up-ended whilst they take its details.
Michael Palin - New EuropeWe drive on south, to the end of the Spit and onto the mainland. In what was once Prussia, house-proud and efficient, a bumpy two-lane road runs falteringly through run-down villages. A war memorial to the Soviet troops who defeated Germany has storks nesting on top. We ask a local if anyone has tried to move them. He looks up, shielding his eyes and shakes his head. They've been there for the last ten years.

A long stretch of the road is tidily lined with rowan trees, which our Russian driver says were planted by the Germans to prevent their troop movements being seen from the air.

'The last soldiers of Hitler,' he calls them.

Old posters flank the road, put up by the communist administration to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the city of Königsberg/Kaliningrad in 2005. Or more accurately, to celebrate 691 years of Königsberg and 59 of Kaliningrad.

Why rename a city like Königsberg, which had such a long and distinguished reputation for scholarship and enlightenment, the home of Kant and the renowned and respected Albertina University?

Because it was German, basically, and the advancing Soviet army, having lost millions of men at the hands of the Nazis, was hell-bent on wiping out any trace of the hated enemy. The British had bombed much of the old city in 1944 but the Russian troops completed the destruction slowly and methodically. Houses and churches were torched, the population raped, robbed and murdered.

When the rage had burnt itself out the city began slowly to pull itself together, with the Russian settlers and the remaining Germans working remarkably well together to restore the services and clear the rubble.

All went well until, in 1946, the devastated city was renamed after Mikhail Kalinin, a President of the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the whole Kaliningrad oblast was declared a military zone. On Stalin's orders the border was surrounded with barbed wire and the remaining Germans were forcibly removed on special trains.

For over forty years the world lost sight of Kaliningrad. No visas were issued and even supervised foreign groups were discouraged. As my Bradt guide observes, 'Lhasa, Pyongyang and Tirana appeared cosmopolitan in comparison'.

The main street is still called Leninskiy Prospekt and our hotel is called the Moskva. Tomorrow we're promised the festivities of National Day, marking sixty years of communist rule. What will there be to celebrate?
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-four: Nida to Kaliningrad
  • Country/sea: Russia
  • Place: Kaliningrad
  • Book page no: 222

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