Eastern Promises: Journey to a Homeland Lost in the War

By Christian Neef in Sovetsk, Russia

The Russian city of Sovetsk tried for decades to repress its past as the East Prussian town of Tilsit. But now it is embracing its history and has made its most famous son, popular German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, an honorary citizen. For Mueller-Stahl, returning to his birthplace after 73 years was an emotional journey into his own past.

The situation probably wouldn't have been very different in the Middle Ages if you had wanted to enter a town in the evening through one of the city gates. A grumpy man, in this case wearing the uniform of a Russian border guard, casts one last glance at the passport, grabs a large bunch of keys, shuffles off the bridge that spans the Neman River between Lithuania and Russia, and walks down to an iron gate, where he inserts a key into the lock and pushes both sides wide open.

Suddenly the newcomer finds himself in the center of what must be the ugliest square in all of Russia, even though it was once the finest square in the East Prussian town of Tilsit, now known as Sovetsk.

The splendid Church of the Teutonic Order once stood at this very spot, its spire resting on eight orbs, so beautiful that Napoleon wanted to take it back to Paris. Right behind there is Deutsche Strasse (literally: German Street) -- now called Gagarin Street -- where Czar Alexander stayed in 1807 when he visited Tilsit, as it was known then, to sign a peace treaty with the French. The small house inhabited by the Prussian queen consort, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, no longer exists.

Not a single stone of Tilsit's once grand Fletcherplatz remains. Today, the square is occupied by the border post that separates the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad from Lithuania. Gray, unplastered Soviet-era buildings surround the square. The washing-lines on the balconies are used to dry fish while, down below, trucks line up on their way in the other direction, across the Neman River to Lithuania.

'Unfamiliar People Opening Familiar Doors'

German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl has embarked on an experiment, though he's not sure what he'll gain from it. "I don't want to go to Tilsit, where I was born," he wrote in his 1997 book "Unterwegs nach Hause" (the title translates roughly as "On the Way Back Home"). "Nor do I want to know how the houses, streets and towns have shrunk. I don't want to see unfamiliar people opening familiar houses and familiar doors."

Now he has gone there after all, 81 years after he was born and 73 years after he left Tilsit, the town the Russians renamed Sovetsk after they marched in, which has now made him an honorary citizen. The mayor spent weeks searching for Mueller-Stahl to give him the news, desperately hoping to personally present Sovetsk's medal of honor to the famous German actor, musician and author who now spends most of his time in Pacific Palisades, California.

Ironically, Mueller-Stahl is wearing the dark-blue coat he wore in the 2007 thriller "Eastern Promises." Canadian director David Cronenberg gave it to him after shooting finished. In the film, Mueller-Stahl portrayed Russian mafia boss Semyon, a rather eerie performance for which the actor received the Genie Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar. "The coat is a coincidence," he insists. "It's cashmere and nice and warm." Indeed, it is blustery and snowing the day he arrives.

So why did he decide to return? "I raced through life for years, forever heading westward," he explains. "Tilsit, Prenzlau, Berlin, Hamburg, Los Angeles -- that is, East Prussia, East Germany, West Germany, the US … That's really as far as the West goes. If all you ever want is to go west, the world's not all right. Only when people start heading in the other direction, toward Moscow, will the world be all right again."

Mueller-Stahl likes phrases like that. Harmony is important to him. Artists must build bridges, he will tell Mayor Nikolai Voyshchev the next morning. Bridges over trenches dug by politicians.

That same afternoon he realizes how difficult this task will be.

Wiping Out the Memory

Mueller-Stahl had taken the ferry from Kiel to the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda, formerly known as Memel, once the most northerly city in Germany and the birthplace in 1898 of his father Alfred. It was from his father, a gifted actor who later moved to Tilsit as a bank employee, that Armin Mueller-Stahl says he inherited his theatrical skills.

The journey from Klaipeda had been a nightmare of blinding snow, black ice and not a single sign to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. After stopping for the fourth time at a gas station to ask for directions, Mueller-Stahl had realized the Lithuanians had deliberately not set up any signs. It was their way of wiping out the memory of decades of occupation by the Russians. He came across the first signpost by the shores of the Neman River. It said it was 118 kilometers to Kaliningrad. But there was no mention of Sovetsk, even though the lights of the town already shone across the water.

How can bridges be built in such an area? After the demise of the Soviet Union, the almost 1 million Russians who inhabited the northern half of the former German province of East Prussia hoped the region would become something of a "Hong Kong on the Baltic." Despite these dreams and aspirations, it remains an inhospitable island at the heart of Europe, whose inhabitants the Kremlin still uses as pawns in its political wrangling with the West.

In such a dismal place, perhaps someone like Mueller-Stahl is indeed a more suitable mediator than an actual diplomat would be. After all, his grandparents, ethnic Germans from the Baltic, lived in St. Petersburg until 1918. Following the Russian revolution, they fled with their daughter Editha, his mother, to Tilsit, where his grandfather preached in the New Church and the Church of the Teutonic Order.

A Lot to Do with Russians

"The whole muddle" of Mueller-Stahl's family, as he puts it, spread like a tapeworm around the Baltic Sea. An aunt married into the noble household of a baron called von der Goltz in Mertensdorf, a village about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Tilsit, in an area that is now part of Poland. As a child, he spent his vacations there. A great-uncle was a professor in Königsberg (modern-day Kaliningrad). And his grandfather was married to the artist Edith von Haken from Livonia, an area now divided between Latvia and Estonia, and later became a pastor in Jucha (now called Stare Juchy) located in Masuria, in today's Poland.

Armin Mueller-Stahl has also had a lot to do with Russians over the years. He shot a documentary about Shostakovich, who he describes as "perhaps the most tragic of all Soviet composers." He loves Dostoyevsky, and he has played the role of Andrei Bolkonski in "War and Peace" on countless occasions. He nearly married a Russian, too: actress Natalya Fateyeva, a woman who is still feted as a beauty in Russia at the advanced age of 77.

"The Soviet authorities prevented us from marrying," says Mueller-Stahl. His voice still sounds wistful, even though his wife Gabriele is standing next to him. But that was all a very long time ago, over half a century back, when he traveled to the Moscow film festival and spent his evenings at the legendary Aragvi restaurant on Gorki Street with Jean Marais, Yves Montand and Gérard Philipe.

His visit to Sovetsk will show whether he can still get on with Russians.

'We Knew Nothing about Sovetsk's History'

Zinaida Rutman has been waiting patiently for the guest from Germany. She has an invitation to the award ceremony in the hall of the children's music academy, where Mueller-Stahl is to be made an honorary citizen. The academy lies on what was once Hohe Strasse, Tilsit's main shopping street, along which a tram used to drive. It's now called Victory Street.

The diminutive 80-year-old lady is the widow of Isaac Rutman, Sovetsk's first honorary citizen. The two were ordered there in the 1950s when the Soviets needed people to fill the town they had cleared of ethnic Germans. Rutman was a vocational school teacher. One day, he stumbled upon a book about Tilsit in a library in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. "We knew nothing about Sovetsk's early history," his widow says.

This discovery prompted Isaac Rutman to begin passionately researching the town's history. But he was ahead of his time; no-one ever spoke about the town's German past. As such, it wasn't until 1993 that he was able to print his book "From Sovetsk to Tilsit," which caused a minor sensation.

Today, people in the town say that Zinaida Rutman didn't approve of her husband's obsession since his inquiries got him labeled as a dissident by the authorities. She was still teaching at the time, and it certainly didn't help her career.

"All our lives, we feared something would happen at this border," Rutmann explains. They were always told the Germans would be back one day, and so they had to remain vigilant.

It was for precisely this reason that the communists on the town council voted against making Mueller-Stahl an honorary citizen. It was only after a series of failed votes that the mayor managed to win them over.

Zinaida Rutman wants to attend the ceremony nonetheless. She says she owes it to her late husband.

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