The architectural bureau looks pretty much like any other in Europe -- computer drawings hang on the walls, attractive young women concentrate as they stare into oversized monitors. Even the head of the office is wearing outsize glasses. What's different here, though, are the odd place names featured in the plans. Rather than being in Russian as one would expect, they include German names such as Altstadt, or Old Town, Löbenicht, Kneipfhof.
These were the names of the city center districts in the city of Königsberg in the former East Prussia, but Königsberg was wiped from the map at the end of World War II, 70 years ago. The city had a grand history as the coronation site for Prussian kings. It was famous for its university, where philosopher Immanuel Kant once taught. In 1724, the year of Kant's birth, the cities of Altstadt, Löbenicht and Kneiphof joined together to form the city of Königsberg. With its brick, Renaissance and baroque buildings, with a medieval castle on the Pregel River, with its Brick Gothic cathedral and its proximity to the Baltic Sea, it was one of Germany's most beautiful cities.
During the final days of August 1944, 360 aircraft with the Royal Air Force flew across the sea heading for Königsberg. They dropped hundreds of tons of highly explosive and incendiary bombs. The city continued to burn for days. The Altstadt, Löbenicht and Kneiphof districts all lay in ruins, along with the cathedral, the castle and the university. A half a year later, soldiers with the Red Army occupied the city and changed its name to Kaliningrad. Today, 430,000 people, mostly Russians, live here -- in an exclave located far away from the Russian Federation, far away from the West, stuck between Poland and Lithuania. Moscow is 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) away and Berlin 700.
The Kaliningrad Planning Office is located in a modern high-rise in an area that was once part of the historic Königsberg Old Town. Planning Office head Alexander Popadin is 50 years old, Russian, and had an earlier career as an architectural critic. Now he wants to see through an urban renewal of the Altstadt, Löbenicht and Kneiphof districts, with the support of the city. The project is known as "Heart of the City."
Bringing Life to a former Wasteland
Popadin and Vyacheslav Genne, Kaliningrad's chief architect, opened a competitive tender and 39 firms have submitted their plans with the winner set to be announced in the autumn. Architects weren't asked to submit concrete designs, but rather make fundamental decisions about the future of the districts. Should, for example, the castle be rebuilt? Or should its foundation walls become part of a museum? Can the banks of the Pregel be made interesting for investors? How many streets should there be? Prior to the war, Altstadt, Kneiphof and Löbenich had a total of 44 small streets. Today, four major thoroughfares, each with several lanes, pass through the 160 hectare area. For nearly 70 years, the city center stood almost empty and the once grand Central Square, home to the castle, is a wasteland. There's a parking lot, a lawn and a single building that people in the city just call the "monster." It is the House of Soviets, which was built for Soviet party functionaries but was never occupied.
During the 1990s, the cash-strapped city sold land for construction without any central planning at all. Now, the city has very little influence over what happens with that land because it lacks money to buy it back. When things do get built here, it is only because of ideas, aid and investments from abroad. That's part of the reason the Heart of the City competition was tendered in several countries. Much of what has been built in Kaliningrad over the past 20 years has been the product of international cooperation.
Residents of the Russian Federation's western exclave also have a different relationship with the West than Moscow, given that they profit on a daily basis from trade between the East and West. Correspondingly, tensions such as those currently dividing the West and Moscow carry greater risks for them. This is particularly true of the city of Kaliningrad, with its German history. Kaliningrad has sought to find its own identity in the debate over the past 20 years over the future shape of Russian-German relations. The Heart of the City is intended as a fusion of things Russian and Western.
An East-West History
Preparations for the competition began last year, well before the Ukraine crisis. Kaliningrad is not only a special place because of its East-West history, but also because residents of the city, more than any others in the former Soviet Union, know what it is like to be in the situation Russia has been heading towards for a few months now: isolation.
Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 in honor of Soviet leader Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, who had just died. Between 1945 and 1948, the Soviets expelled all Germans from the city. The so-called Kaliningrad Oblast, the city and the area surrounding it were turned into a restricted military area. For 40 years, no foreigners were allowed to enter the area and even Soviet citizens required special permission. Soldiers were brought to Kaliningrad from all across the Soviet Union, with as many as 200,000 stationed here at times to practice for worst-case scenarios. The Soviets also stationed nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad region.
Königsberg had been a special pace for German philosopher Immanuel Kant. "A city such as Königsberg, by the River Pregel, is quite acceptable as a suitable place for the expansion of human knowledge as well as world knowledge," he wrote. During the Cold War, though, Kaliningrad became one of Europe's potential flashpoints.
Under Soviet control, everything that evoked the city's German past had to go. The ruins of the Prussian castle were razed with explosives in 1968. The removal of the cathedral's remains was also considered, but it also happened to be the grave of Kant, a man the Soviets admired, so it was left in peace. Soldiers stationed in Kaliningrad were housed together with their families in massive newly built apartment complexes and their children were taught to hate the Germans.
'I Was Always Afraid of the Germans'
"War films ran on TV that showed veterans describing the terrible actions of the Germans," recalls Alexei Shabunin, who was born in Kaliningrad in 1970 and is today the editor in chief of the local Dvornik newspaper. "You could see tanks all over the place in the forest and when I asked why that was, adults told me because we Russians need to defend ourselves. I was always afraid of the Germans."
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leading to an event that no one had expected -- one that looks like a miracle from the perspective of the summer of 2014: In Kaliningrad, the East and the West came together peacefully. Old East Prussians who had been forced to flee after the war traveled to Kaliningrad to see what was left of their homeland. Russian tour guides who led the groups, speak of the many tears that flowed when the former residents of Königsberg came to realize that much of it had been lost forever. Occasionally, a visitor might find a cherry tree he or she had planted as a child. Another found the porcelain that his family had hidden before fleeing -- a brief moment of euphoria, but then the tears returned.
Kaliningrad had become a Russian city. German countess Marion Dönhoff, the former publisher of the respected weekly Die Zeit, who died in 2002 at the age of 92, traveled to Kaliningrad during the 1990s. Until 1945 she lived in Schloss Friedrichstein, the largest palace in East Prussia, which was located just 20 kilometers away from Königsberg. In January 1945, she fled by horse for 1,200 kilometers toward the West. Her palace was set ablaze by the Red Army. Today, there is nothing left of the palace; instead tall grass grows on the site. Dönhoff said of it, "Perhaps this is the highest degree of love -- to love without possessing."
At some point, the Russians living in Kaliningrad also began to fall in love with the old Königsberg. They unearthed German street signs and hung them up in their apartments. They protested when local officials threatened to pave over old cobblestone roads with asphalt. By then, it appeared it was only World War II veterans who did not share this love -- for reasons easy to understand. Journalists Shabinin says that some younger Kaliningrad residents began viewing themselves as "Prussians rather than Russians."
Igor Alexandrovich Odintsov, a former colonel in the Soviet Army who studied engineering, was largely responsible for erecting barracks in the massive prefab concrete style of the Eastern Bloc. He would later lead the effort to reconstruct the Königsberg cathedral starting in 1992. Germans and Russians alike donated to the project. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself procured a new organ -- manufactured in 2008 by Alexander Schuke-Potsdamer Orgelbau, a German company -- and is as high as a three-story home.
Cathedral construction manager Odnitsov is 77 years old today, and he speaks to visitors in the tone of a colonel. He comes from Simferopol in Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine for five decades but was annexed by Russia four months ago. "Let me emphasize that Putin is the best and most popular president, please write that," Odnitsov commands. "Please also write that the cathedral is the symbol of friendship between two people, the Germans and the Russians. Any attempts to break this friendship will fail."