Resurrecting Königsberg Russian City Looks to German Roots

The Allies bombed the Prussian city of Königsberg into the ground in 1944. Residents of what is today the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, a desolate Soviet landscape, are considering rebuilding the city center to reflect some of its historical German architecture.

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."

'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
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.