Resurrecting Königsberg Russian City Looks to German Roots

By in Kaliningrad, Russia

Part 2: 'Of Course We're Part of Europe'

Very few of those you talk to here about the city and its future, about the tensions between East and West, comment as firmly as the cathedral construction manager. Odnitsov is used to dealing with the Western media. With his work rebuilding the cathedral, he has also become a symbol of the city. He has nothing to lose because he has already won.

Other Kaliningrad architects are more hesitant to talk -- they stumble a bit and want to speak about buildings, style and aesthetics, about how Königsberg can be resuscitated without looking too kitsch. Although few want to discuss politics, they also avoid the kind of tone often heard in Moscow these days -- namely that Russia doesn't need the West -- and that is telling. They also use the word "Europe" differently than many in Moscow do. When they say "Europe," they mean the West, the European Union. Chief Kaliningrad architect Genne, a 41-year-old Russian of German descent from Minsk, adds: "Of course we're a part of Europe."

Mixing the Modern and the Historical

In conversation, Genne likes to bring up examples of architecture in Germany. He speaks often of Hamburg, saying the revitalization of the former port area, now known as HafenCity, as well as the revitalization of the bank of the Elbe River are successful examples of urban renewal. Genne also believes the new Elbphilharmonie symphony building designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron is an outstanding example of how one can successfully combine modern and historical buildings, because the structure places a modern structure on top of an old brick warehouse. Genne imagines something similar for the redesign of Kaliningrad's city center. He would like to see the structures of the three city quarters revived, but built in a largely modern way.

In their search for a new image for their city, residents of Kaliningrad are also trying to find their own identity. They are coopting the West, the old and the German to balance their own desires and aspirations.

Economist Pavel Fyodorov was responsible for building the Fishing Village, a row of houses constructed in the old style with a small lighthouse and pseudo half-timbered buildings. Fyodorov once served as vice governor of Kaliningrad. He stepped down from political office and sold his Moscow apartment in order to finance his dream to invest in and build the Fishing Village. "I decided I needed to leave my mark on this city," he says, adding that something here touched his soul. He describes it as a diffuse presence of an old history and an emptiness.

His grandfather fought in World War I and his father in World War II. He says he more or less inherited the reservations about Germans, but that he developed his own view over time. "I am the grandson and the son of soldiers, but that doesn't mean I have to view the Germans as being like wolves. You can't dislike someone but then like what they've created," Fyodorov says. And his love is Königsberg -- or at least his idealized vision of the city. The Fishing Village isn't historically accurate, it's based on Fyodorov's vision of a German place. It also turned out very kitschy.

Dreaming of Königsberg

Given that most of the buildings that would have served as a testament to what Königsberg looked like are gone, anyone can feel free to create their own image of the city. Kaliningrad architect Arthur Sarnitz, for example, comes from an Estonian family, not from a German family as he likes to claim. He grew up in Kaliningrad, but then moved to Britain and the United States during the 1990s. He's dressed in black with a Yankees cap backwards on his head. The 48-year-old designs and builds whatever the people commissioning him want, but he says what he really dreams of is Königsberg. In his office, he is developing computer-animated films that show the German city's resurrection.

He's one of the only people interviewed who brings up the Soviet era without being asked about it. He says he can remember the old buildings in Kaliningrad being torn down when he was a child. "Even at the time, I didn't think it was okay, but we were hostages of this ideology," he says. "But we have to leave the ugly 20th century, with the 100 million dead, with its division of people into Russians, Germans, fascists and communists behind us. Now, in the 21st century, the people should reach out to each other."

If he could, Sarnitz says he would rebuild the entire city center based on the historical records. He has participated in Heart of the City from the very beginning. As radical as his ideas are -- he'd like to tear down the Soviet-era buildings and reconstruct Königsberg's historical buildings -- Kaliningrad isn't some sort of palimpsest that can be erased and entirely rebuilt. There are real limits to what can actually be done.

Sarnitz has an idea of beauty in his idea that is based on Kant's theories. Sarnitz recites one of the philosopher's most famous quotes. "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me."

For Sarnitz, the "starry heavens" are an example of beauty. Beauty sharpens the moral sense in people, he argues, and can also promote human values and attitudes like esteem and respect. And out of esteem and respect arise other values like freedom and peace.

There's much at stake when residents of Kaliningrad contemplate Königsberg. Sarnitz would prefer for Königsberg to become more of an intellectual idea than an actual concrete place, one in which the kind of East-West bickering like that which accompanied the annexation of Crimea doesn't exist. In his mind, it would be a free and peaceful place.

But in the real and concrete Kaliningrad, there's a real threat that the redesign of Kaliningrad will fail because of complicated property ownership situation, the very questions that drive everyday politics. Still, Alexander Popadin, who heads the Heart of the City office, says he believes that ideas have the capacity to influence things. A few months ago, speaking to everyone he could, he expressed the idea that Central Square needed a new name. He says he has now heard a lot of talk in town about renaming it to "Peace Plaza".

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Stephen, UK 07/25/2014
1. Kant was not alone
It is also the town of the realist German philosopher Herbart and others. The death of Prussia was a huge loss for European culture. How wonderful if it begins to come alive again.
lol1232 07/26/2014
2. Mergers
" it is only because of ideas, aid and investments from abroad." This would be a good way to have mergers of west money with Russian economy for sure. Christopher Meyer (Kings College London) said after the ww11 and speaking of EU "this corporation, first with this functional level, but always with a political ideology in the background, that we are moving toward ever closer Union....step by step in an area where corporations makes sense towards a much more AMBITIOUS project of ever closer UNION." Good to see the Dream of one world government never ceases through ideology and corporations.
wikary69 07/26/2014
3. Russian and German LOVE
The peak time for germano-russian love was pact Ribentrop Molotow. Love is not rusting and now is florishing. North stream oil pipe under Baltic sea is vital supply money for russian army. Without pipe Mr Putin will have problem to pay russian officer around $2000 a month. Without this army Mr Putin will not invide Ukrainians. On the end mr.Putin will grab half of ukraine as was before 100 years ago, thanks to germans who supply indirectly money for Mr.Putins axtravaganza. Lesning what Mrs Merkel tolking to Putin is vital for whole Europe , as it was in 1938.
ed.laing.773 07/26/2014
4. slant
This essay suggests a view that the Russians are responsible for destroying the built heritage of the city, when in actuality the built heritage was destroyed by the 1939-1945 war (and specifically UK bombers). So why the russophobia? or is that a silly question?
Tim6674 07/28/2014
Since all germans are dispelled, it's just another russian city. I don't see any reason to restore the former look - except for tourists.
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