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Gerfried Horst: Königsberg - Kaliningrad
The Search for an Identity

Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin was born in 1875 into a peasant family from the upper Volga region near Tver. He worked as a lathe operator at a factory in St. Petersburg and in 1898 joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers, the party of Lenin. During the tsarist period he was imprisoned a number of times and sent into exile. In 1917 he took part in the October Revolution. Because of his country-to-factory background, Lenin saw him as the perfect synthesis of peasant and worker, and in March 1919 he recommended Kalinin to be Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets – and thus nominal head of the Russian state. By that time, however, the Soviet assembly and its chairman Kalinin were already serving as a mere smokescreen for the power of the Communist Party, or, in effect, for that of its Politburo. In 1922 Kalinin became Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, which from 1938 was known as the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

Kalinin gave the impression of a benevolent old village mayor, to whom simple folk could turn with their troubles. He remained head of state for 27 years, in the Politburo habitually aligning himself with the majority opinion, as determined first by Lenin and later by Stalin. He held on to his position because he always did what Stalin wanted. In 1934 he signed a decree altering the Soviet code of criminal procedure which in subsequent years allowed the deportation, incarceration in camps and execution of millions of individuals. Kalinin’s own wife was arrested in 1938 and sentenced to ten years at hard labour on grounds of “terrorism”. And yet, by the grace of Stalin, her husband went on being head of state, and though his power diminished, the number of honours showered upon him actually increased. Dozens of cities, villages, streets, factories and schools were named after him. His hometown of Tver was renamed Kalinin as early as 1931; he signed the relevant decree himself.

Kalinin died on 3 June 1946. It so happened that just then a Russian name was being sought for the capital of East Prussia, captured by the Red Army in 1945. One month after Kalinin’s death, an edict signed by Stalin gave the name Kaliningrad to the city of Königsberg and the designation Kaliningradskaya Oblast to the portion of East Prussia that had fallen under Soviet administration. Since 1959 Mikhail Kalinin has loomed larger than life in Kaliningrad, in the form of a monument outside the main railway station. Not only the city bears his name, but also the square in which the Kalinin monument is situated as well as the street that leads to it.

As part of a secret report dated 25 December 1988, during perestroika, submitted by an investigative commission appointed by the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, Kalinin’s role in the Stalinist terror between the 1930s and the beginning of the 50s came under scrutiny. According to the report’s findings, he was jointly responsible for the arbitrary arrest, deportation and execution of millions of Soviet citizens. In consequence, the commission recommended to the Supreme Soviet, Council of Ministers and all Soviet authorities that every resolution that had resulted in the naming of cities, villages, streets, collective farms or other institutions after Kalinin should be rescinded. Since 1990, therefore, Kalinin on the Volga is once again known as Tver. Had Kaliningrad earlier been a Russian city, too, its old name would surely long ago have been restored as well, but because it was formerly named Königsberg, and was the capital of East Prussia, it continues to be called Kaliningrad, and the monument to Mikhail Kalinin continues to grace Kalinin Square.

Is it fitting for the city of Kant to be called Kaliningrad? Before deciding whether the use of his name should be allowed to persist, one must first know more about who Kalinin was. In his essay “On the Moral Face of Our People”, he wrote: “Hatred of evil, however, runs like a thread through our literature and through the work of our finest artists, representing the noblest of emotions and one of the most effective means in the struggle against the enemies of mankind…” And in his essay “On Communist Education”, Kalinin explains: “History has delegated to us the responsibility and honour of carrying on our class struggle until the total victory of Communism has been accomplished…And so we must educate all workers of the Soviet Union in the spirit of blazing patriotism, in the spirit of boundless love for their homeland. I am speaking, not of an abstract, Platonic love, but of a vehement, active, passionate, unquenchable love, of a love that knows no mercy for the enemy, one that shrinks from no sacrifice for the homeland.”

In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (published in 1785), Immanuel Kant wrote: “Now I say that the human being and in general every rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion; instead he must in all his actions, whether directed to himself or also to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an end… The practical imperative will therefore be the following: So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means."

No one today still knows Kalinin’s writings; you cannot buy them in any Russian bookshop. The state of which he was head has been dissolved into a multitude of states; the ideology that he embodied is now history. The teachings of Kant, on the other hand, are as universally valid today as at the time of their formulation. Numerous contemporary social and moral concepts find in Kant their point of reference. His “practical imperative” contradicts Kalinin’s demand that no mercy be shown the enemy. For Kant, even the enemy is a human being and must therefore be regarded “as an end in itself”, not seized in the night by agents of a secret police and shot to death without a hearing, as Kalinin advocated.

On moral grounds, then, there can be only one answer to the question of whether Kaliningrad should continue to be so named: the conclusion reached as long ago as 1988 by the investigative commission of the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party. Politically, however, we still await such an answer.

Königsberg was founded in 1255 by the Teutonic Order, a brotherhood of crusaders formed in the Holy Land. The Polish duke Konrad of Masovia had summoned the Order into the country in 1225 to aid him in Christianizing the pagan Prussians (a Baltic people related to the Lithuanians). As a countermove, the grand master of the Order, Hermann von Salza, obtained sovereignty over the region for the Teutonic knights from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX. The last grand master, Albrecht of Brandenburg, was advised by Martin Luther in 1525 to convert the Order’s territory into a secular duchy. He introduced the Reformation and in 1544 founded Königsberg University. Immanuel Kant was born in the city in 1724 and lived there until his death in 1804.

At the end of August 1944, Königsberg was destroyed by two British air attacks. What were left of the German troops continued to fight in the ruins against Soviet forces until the unconditional surrender of the city on 9 April 1945. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill assented to Stalin’s wish for Königsberg and the surrounding territory to be ceded to the Soviet Union. Of the roughly 120,000 German civilians still living in the city by this time, some 100,000 died in the following three years through violence, hunger or disease. In 1948 the survivors were deported to West Germany. The sufferings of these people are described by Michael Wieck in his book A Childhood under Hitler and Stalin: Memoirs of a “Certified Jew” (English translation published by the University of Wisconsin Press). The city was repopulated with Soviet citizens from all over the USSR. Until 1991 the whole region was a military zone, closed not only to foreign visitors but also to Soviet citizens from other parts of the country. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the territory (oblast) has been an exclave, a Russian “island” situated between Lithuania and Poland, which in 2004 became members of the European Union.

Königsberg has been known by the Russian name of Kaliningrad since July 1946. Its political rulers have repeatedly emphasized the inseparable connection of the city and surrounding territory to Russia. As both are named after Kalinin, Governor Georgy Boos and Mayor Yuri Savenko celebrated the 60th anniversary of Kaliningrad and Kaliningradskaya Oblast in 2006, without any mention, however, of the man who lent them his name. No flowers were laid at the Kalinin monument. Not even the old Communists could be bothered over Kalinin; their concern was now that of restoring the monument to Lenin, which had been removed more than a year earlier from Victory Square (the former Hansaplatz, or Hanseatic Square). The city government has thus far been unable to find a new location for it.

Why the name of the city is Kaliningrad is a question that is never broached. Instead reference is repeatedly made to Russia. A 28-metre-high triumphal column was erected in Victory Square to commemorate the victory in World War II and the Russian soldiers fallen in the siege of Königsberg. In a message from the governor and the mayor to the coming generations, enclosed in a time capsule buried in the column’s foundation, it states: “We, their descendants, shall summon up all of our strengths and talents to bring about the flourishing of our ‘Amber Region’. We shall cherish within us the hope that the richness and beauty of Russian soil in the heart of Europe will increase!”

The formerly German land of East Prussia’s northern region was converted into “Russian soil”, a sacred concept to every Russian, but the conquest of the territory and the expulsion of the German population are not in themselves sufficient to account for this transformation. When a German princess married a tsar, as occurred frequently from the 18th century onward, she was required to join the Russian Orthodox Church and accept baptism with a Russian Orthodox name. In a religious ceremony, the German princess Sophie Auguste Friederike of Anhalt-Zerbst became the Russian princess Yekaterina Alexeyevna, later Empress Catherine II – “the Great”. Accordingly, on 10 September 2006, to conclude the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Kaliningrad oblast and the renaming of Königsberg, Alexius II, Patriarch of Moscow and spiritual leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, consecrated the mighty Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Kaliningrad’s Victory Square. President Putin even came to the city on this occasion. As Alexius stated, the new cathedral bears witness to the fact “that this is Russian land, that this is Orthodox land”.

It is two Muscovites, the governor, Georgy Boos, and the chairman of the regional duma, Sergey Bulychev, who determine the politics of Kaliningrad oblast. Both men belong to Putin’s party, United Russia, and efforts to give the city and territory a Russian identity originate in Moscow. They include providing external signs of the oblast’s Russian identity by a coat of arms and flag, the design of which began in autumn 2005. Unveiled in June 2006, this new coat of arms is bordered by the ribbon of the Order of Lenin, which, during the Soviet period, was associated with Kaliningrad oblast. The lower half of the arms consists of blue wavy lines symbolizing the Baltic, upon which are superimposed five gold-coloured little discs representing amber. Above this, against a red background, rises the silver wall of a castle fortified with battlements and two towers, intended to signify that the territory is an outpost of Russia. The gate in the middle of the wall is open, as a sign of the territory’s openness to the sea and of Russia’s to the world. Above it is the monogram of Empress Elizabeth, and above that an amber-gold crown, presumably that of Prussia. The flag consists of a wide blue stripe below and a wide red stripe above, separated by a narrow yellow stripe; on the left side of the red stripe there appears the fortified castle wall from the coat of arms.

This mixture of Soviet, tsarist, putatively Prussian and freely devised regional motifs was described in an article by Igor Shkelov, published at the beginning of June 2006 in Kaliningradskaya Pravda, as an optical illusion and abstract theory. The crown, it claims, is an unhistorical, artificial product. Moreover, this symbol of the monarchy is combined with the ribbon of the Order of Lenin, even though Lenin, more than anyone else, actually contributed to the destruction of the Russian Empire – not to mention the fact that he died long before Kaliningrad appeared on the Russian map. The monogram of Empress Elizabeth resembles nothing more than the Euro symbol (€), and, as Russia owes its acquisition of the territory to Joseph Stalin and not to the empress, it hardly belongs here. Even a monogram of the letter “J” would be more appropriate.

In the most recent reading of the law concerning the coat of arms and flag of Kaliningrad oblast in 8 June 2006 in the regional duma, several deputies criticized these designs, with the Communists objecting to the crown for being as well suited to Kaliningrad oblast as a saddle to a cow. Nevertheless, because an absolute majority in the duma was held by Putin’s United Russia party, 21 of the 34 deputies voted in favour of the designs for both arms and flag. Both were thus available for use when celebrations opened at the beginning of July for the 60th anniversary of Kaliningradskaya Oblast’s Establishment.

The oblast government is also searching for an anthem and to that end has initiated a competition. Up to now only songs have been accepted which, in the selection committee’s view, represent a blend of Russian folksong and march music. However, during the Soviet period, there was a song serving as territorial anthem with the title “In the glorious year 45”, to words by Pavel Turchaninov. Referring to the new Russian settlers, it includes the lines

No effort did they spare,

out of ruins they built

a new Russian city–

our Kaliningrad.

Apart from these lines, the text deals exclusively with Soviet land, Communism and the Party and would thus need alteration in order to be used again. It remains to be seen whether or not a song will be selected as the oblast’s anthem that explicitly mentions “Kaliningrad”. But can there be an anthem that suppresses the very name of the territory it extols?

The new coat of arms and flag belong to Kaliningrad oblast; the familiar one shown on many postcards is, in fact, the coat of arms of Königsberg. In a book published in Kaliningrad in 2005, Grigory Lehrman writes: “Königsberg’s coat of arms is one of the oldest and most beautiful of any European city…A coat of arms represents historical origin; it is an eternal, imperishable document that the people understand independently of their ethnicity or language.” The coat of arms is the guardian of historical memory and therefore more reliable than tradition. That is why it is so important to preserve the old, historic East Prussian coats of arms and to explicate the significance of their symbolism.

The Russian language has two words for “truth”: pravda, truth in the sense of correctness or justice; ístina, truth in the sense of candour or genuineness, of “perspicuity” corresponding to the Greek word alétheia – in other words, the “truth” that is the opposite of “lie”, that denotes the actually existent, the unadulterated and authentic, as opposed to the invented. Ístina comes from the world and belongs to human reason; pravda comes from heaven and is a gift of divine benevolence. The concept of ístina is deeply rooted in the Russian national character. That explains Kaliningradskaya Pravda’s criticism of the coat of arms agreed upon by the territorial duma: it is an artefact, and unauthentic. The Königsberg coat of arms, on the other hand, is genuine. One can therefore already predict that the regional government’s attempt to introduce a synthetic coat of arms and a synthetic flag for the Kaliningrad oblast will not be accepted by the populace.

The search for the unadulterated leads those born and brought up in the region to delve into the history of the land where they live, that of East Prussia. This interest has evidently also been discovered by local commercial enterprises. In the pedestrian underpass between the shopping centres “Mega Market” and “Mega Center”, near the Nordbahnhof (North Station), one suddenly finds oneself confronted by an entire wall covered with a huge map of East Prussia in its historical borders, from Marienwerder (now in Poland) to Memel (now in Lithuania). Above it in large Russian letters are the words “Vostochnaya Prussiya” (East Prussia). To its left is a depiction of the East Prussian coat of arms; to the right, the flag of East Prussia; under it is the coat of arms of the city along with – in Russian and German – its name: Königsberg, accompanied by a Russian translation of its meaning and a brief history that ends by stating that the city has 424,400 inhabitants (2000). The fact that it is no longer called Königsberg, but has been known as Kaliningrad since 1946, goes unmentioned. On the map of East Prussia, all places and areas are given their German names, though written with Cyrillic letters. The remaining walls are decorated with enlarged photos from the old Königsberg. In this way, the management of the shopping centres “Mega Market” and “Mega Center” give their customers the feeling of walking through a Königsberg street.

Another by-product of the Russians’ striving after ístina is their derision of anything inauthentic or false. Almost every newspaper has a joke page, and on 1 April 2006, Kaliningradskaya Pravda challenged its readers to discover which articles in that day’s issue were actually April-fool’s spoofs. There was one right on the front page, reporting that workers at an unnamed company had dismantled Kalinin’s monument from its pedestal the day before, but the paper’s reporters had not yet succeeded in determining the perpetrators’ identity. Under the article is a photo of the Kalinin monument’s empty pedestal. On page 3 there is a report of the visit of a delegation from Kaliningrad oblast to the city of Korolev, near Moscow, which was formerly also known as Kaliningrad, but in 1996 was renamed after Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, founder of the Russian space programme. Because Kalinin had visited that city near Moscow on a number of occasions but had never come to Kaliningrad, the two municipal administrations had now decided to swap the names of their towns. Korolev would thus henceforth be called Kaliningrad again, while Kaliningrad would adopt the name Korolev – which would work out neatly since Königsberg in Russian is “Korolevskaya Gora”.

These April-fool’s jokes are a good indication of what Kaliningradskaya Pravda – and probably the majority of its readers as well – thinks of Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin. If it were possible, one would be only too glad to get rid of the name of a man who had nothing to do with the city or the region and never even set foot in it. In the meantime, it has become commonplace to use both names. If you buy postcards picturing the Cathedral, the Königstor or the Kant monument re-erected in 1992 by Countess Marion Dönhoff, on most of them you’ll find “Königsberg – Kaliningrad”.

The name “Königsberg” is omnipresent. In Kaliningradskaya Pravda’s personal advertisements on the Internet (, contact-seekers always give the city’s name as “Kaliningrad (Kenigsberg)” – the Russians, using Cyrillic letters, write “Kenigsberg” or “Kyonigsberg”. With their accent it sounds almost like the pronunciation in old East Prussia: Kānichsbarch (ch as in “loch”). The young people call the city “Kenig” or simply “Kyon”.

The name “Königsberg” carries a definite cachet. A bus company has been known for years as “König Auto”. “Königsberg” is the name of a beer and “Königsberger Festung” the name of a vodka. A furniture factory called “Königsberg” ( offers throughout all of Russia its wares “in the Prussian tradition”, including a “Berliner” furniture collection, a “Bismarck” couch and sets designated “Kaiser”, “Kanzler (Chancellor)”, “Siegfried” and “Wilhelm”. A business magazine that recently appeared in Kaliningrad is named Novy Kyonigsberg – “New Königsberg”. The Hotel Sambia in Zelenogradsk, the East Prussian town of Cranz, belongs to the “Königsberg Trading” group. On billboards in Kaliningrad, you can see a bust of Immanuel Kant and the reproduction of one of his letters, dated and signed in “Königsberg”: this is how the oil company Lukoil advertises itself as sponsor of the Kant Museum.

Before the city’s 750th anniversary celebrations in 2005 there were several attempts to restore the name Königsberg. An action committee calling itself “Pro Koenigsberg” demanded that the deputies of the territorial duma once again call the city by its old name. The appeal is signed by “Citizens of the City” and is therefore anonymous. The web page of this initiative,, can still be found on the Internet but has not been updated since 2004. It contains a wealth of arguments and a comprehensive account of the life and deeds of Mikhail Kalinin, as well as comments by noted personalities in Russia who have spoken out in favour of renaming the city Königsberg. These include the former minister of culture Mikhail Shvydkoi, who is quoted as saying: “Kaliningrad is a Russian city; therefore it can also be called Königsberg.” The late philologist Vladimir Toporov argues that it would be better for Russia itself to bring back the name Königsberg to the map than wait until this becomes unavoidable.

Some of Kaliningrad’s politicians, for example the former regional duma chairman Vladimir Nikitin, reject any reference to Königsberg – including the rebuilding of Königsberg Castle – because they fear that this “Western island” will distance itself from Russia and the territory would be appropriated by the European Union and NATO. This fear, however, is unfounded. The people in the region want to remain Russian. Yet they seek a national-regional identity and prospects for development. They don’t want to live in a dead corner, sealed in behind borders that are difficult to traverse, barred from the European Union. They want to feel pride in their home. They are fully aware of living in a city which for many centuries was known as Königsberg in Prussia, “a great city and epicentre of an empire”, as Kant wrote in the preface to his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Viewpoint (1798), a university and maritime trading city, whose location, “bordering countries of various languages and customs, is favourable to commerce”.

The Kaliningrad-based “best Russian portal for indie music” has the web address, while the Kaliningrad pop group “LP” has “LP group, Königsberg, Russia” printed on its posters and also uses them for appearances in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities. They simply find the old name of the city nicer than “Kaliningrad”. They love their hometown, which they consider the most European of all Russian cities, and have no intention of moving to Moscow. The constant flying back and forth is costly, but their hometown of Königsberg is worth more to them than this expense.

Kaliningrad’s Komsomolskaya Pravda published at the end of April 2006 an article about Russian films shot in the city. The list includes some important titles, such as Father of a Soldier (Djariskatsis mama), the 1964 Georgian film in which the ruins of Königsberg Castle can be seen. The most recent film “about us”, as the newspaper put it, was the German TV film Eine Liebe in Königsberg (“A Love in Königsberg”) by Peter Kahane. Before its initial broadcast by the German network ZDF on 2 April 2006, it was given two showings in a Kaliningrad cinema, which was a source of pride for the city’s inhabitants. Komsomolskaya Pravda asked when a Russian film would again be made in Kaliningrad, addressing its query to the country’s leading studio, Lenfilm in St. Petersburg. The studio’s publicity department explained: “Everything that can be filmed in your city can also be filmed somewhere else…It’s easier to travel to Jamaica or Hong Kong. If the screenplay calls for the Baltic coast, you’ve also got that in St. Petersburg or in Lithuania. And there are no uniquely picturesque landscapes in Kaliningrad oblast.” If there is a serious desire for more filming in Kaliningrad, the region must be made more attractive – for example by renaming the city Königsberg. This opinion was published by the newspaper under the headline “What the Experts Say: If you change the name to Königsberg, we will come!”

Recently the regional government seems to have taken notice of this development. Although it isn’t assuming political leadership in the process, it no longer is standing in its way. In May 2006, before an audience of German and Russian journalists, governor Georgy Boos called the destruction of Königsberg Castle in 1969 a “barbaric act of vandalism” and announced that the historic centre of Königsberg will be rebuilt as it used to look. The castle will not be reproduced in its original form, but rather in sections combined with the Prussia Museum and a first-class hotel. And not only will parts of the castle rise again, but the surrounding old town as well. Parallel to this reconstruction, a modern, post-Soviet European-Russian city is to be erected. Today’s Kaliningrad will then have become a different city, which the present name will no longer fit. “Kenigsgrad” perhaps…?

What sort of identity will inhabitants of the future Kenigsgrad ascribe to themselves? Boos has claimed to have been entrusted by President Putin with the task of integrating the region into Europe as a model for the whole of Russia. He can well imagine Königsberg “as an integral part of the European territory”, with visa-free entry and exit and the free flow of trade. The only difficulty he sees is in the relationship to NATO. As for the identity of the city’s future inhabitants, Boos maintains: “They will regards themselves as Russian Europeans.”

Certain journalists have quipped that there isn’t much difference between the words “Russians” and “Prussians”. In German, the tsar was known as Herrscher aller Russen (Ruler of All the Russians), which sounds almost like Preussen (Prussians). There will thus perhaps be created in this region a Russian Prussia, and the future inhabitants of Kenigsgrad, as successors to the former inhabitants, would then be Russian Prussians.

In the same vein as Boos’s reference to the name “Kenigsgrad”, it was suggested in 1990 that Leningrad be renamed “Petrograd” in order to avoid the German-sounding “St. Petersburg”. The Russian inclination to īstina, to truth and authenticity, however, resulted in the reinstatement of St. Petersburg’s original name.

On 1 July 2006, Kaliningrad mayor Yuri Savenko awarded the city’s “Zeal” prize to deserving citizens. One of them was Svetlana Sokolova, who was honoured for the medieval jousting tournament that she organized in 2005 to commemorate the city’s 750th anniversary. The event was dubbed “Regiomons – 2005 – Korolevskaya Gora”, the Latin and Russian names for Königsberg.


The French lyric poet and philologist Michel Deguy suggested a few years ago how the region might be integrated into Europe:

“We are prepared to accept – with bloody mists rising before our eyes… – that the name of the obscure and undoubtedly murderous Kalinin, “a tool of Stalin” according to the reference books, covers up the name of the European Moses…. If ever there was a place for remembrance, it is this city, which must be given back its German name. Reminders of Kant must return to the streets and shop signs, just as reminders of Joyce have returned to Dublin. The least that can be done in the way of reparations would be to proclaim Königsberg as ‘European Cultural Capital’, even if only for a year.”

Governor Boos, too, could adopt the writings of Kant as a guideline. He would do well to write on the wall of his office, in large letters as a constant reminder, the final sentence of Kant’s An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment:

“When nature has unwrapped, from under this hard shell, the seed for which she cares most tenderly, namely the propensity and calling to think freely, the latter gradually works back upon the mentality of the people (which thereby gradually becomes capable of freedom in acting) and eventually even upon the principles of government, which finds it profitable to itself to treat the human being, who is now more than a machine, in keeping with his dignity.

Königsberg in Prussia, 30th September, 1784

I. Kant”²

For a long time now, the inhabitants of Kaliningrad have regarded Kant as their compatriot. If they are allowed to decide the matter freely, one may safely expect the name of Königsberg to be restored to their city.

© 2007 Gerfried Horst

¹Translation © Mary Gregor
² Translation © Mary Gregor

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