I have been told that the old city of Königsberg was gone and that the present city of Kaliningrad was nothing to write home about. But I have decided to write home anyhow.
Kaliningrad is a fascinating place seeing that almost all the inhabitants are immigrants from Mother Russia. This old Prussian stronghold which fostered people such as Immanuel Kant, is today a Russian exclave in the centre of Europe and enclosed by EU and NATO countries. Here in between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, everything is in Cyrillic, people speak nothing but Russian and the reminder of grotesque Soviet architecture is everywhere.
The people of Kaliningrad
But though the people of Kaliningrad are citizens of Russia, and vivid supporters of the Russian ice-hockey team, they also seem very European. In difference to Little Moscow in Riga (which is the closest I ever have come to Russia before) you rarely see the extreme Russian fashion with all its glittery shirts and 10 centimetre miniskirts.
The people here are rather laid back and extremely welcoming to foreigners – even those of us who only know two sentences in Russian. They are helpful and curious and I have on more than one occasion been stopped on the street to answer if I am a tourist, what I do here, where I am from and many other things I am not sure of, as they often only speak Russian and continue even though it is evident that I have no idea of what they say.
Those who do speak English are willing to do a great deal to help out lost tourists.
A business man whom I fell into talk with on a restaurant spent 15 minutes calling friend and foe to help me procure a visa registration, while a young waiter ran to and from the kitchen trying to answer all my questions regarding an ice-hockey match that Russia had just won. After five times to the kitchen where it was evident that the cook was a great ice-hockey fan, he could tell me that it had been the semifinal of the world championship and that Russia now had to play against either Canada or Sweden in the final.
So even though the city is nothing really to write home about, the people are. Here, as everywhere else in the world, springtime means young couples kissing in the park and groups of youngsters enjoying friendship and a beer on a bench in the sun.
Having the military base near Kaliningrad also means that one encounters a lot of navy soldiers and officers in the street, especially on a national holiday such as May 9, known in Russia as Victory Day.
The older officers are out with their families, while the younger often keep in groups of four enjoying a day off, though still in full uniform. Once in a while you encounter an officer who is so decorated with medals that you wonder how he can walk upright.
I was in the Soviet army
Feeling this fascination for the uniformed, I ventured on a trip to the submarine embarked on the river. An old navy officer, who now held the function of tourist officer, greeted me and in German explained that I was standing next to the torpedoes. They looked so massive that I wonder how they could do anything, but sink to the bottom of the ocean. The old officer placed a cap on my head, stole my camera, took a picture and said that now I was in the Soviet army. Thank you, sir!
But I think I might very well get sea-sick on a submarine in the long run. Therefore, as the land rat that I am, I have deserted the Soviet army and am now sitting on a bench at the river side, while a young man is playing on his guitar on a bench next to mine.
I don’t know the song, or what it is about, but the music makes a great companion.
On the other side of the river lies Kant’s Island with the cathedral, as one of the only symbols left of old Königsberg, and next to the island is placed what easily can be described as the most hideous evidence of Soviet architecture ever made. The Palace of Culture in Warsaw is no comparison! In pre-war times this place held a medieval castle and I cannot but cry out in anger at the men who chose to dynamite the ruins of that castle instead of rebuilding it.
But as I said, coming to Kaliningrad might not do much for you when it comes to great sights, beautiful churches and castles. It is, however, a great experience in meeting friendly and interested people, and for that reason I am happy that I went.