The following photographs were taken during our New Year’s trip to my wife’s home town of Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. From 1871, it was the capital of East Prussia and Germany’s largest city in the East. In 1944, and during the siege of 1945, Allied bombing destroyed large swathes of the city, and it was eventually captured and subsequently annexed by the Soviet Union. Much that remained of historic Königsberg was then systematically demolished by the Soviets, who, shortly after the war, renamed the city Kaliningrad. The new Soviet city that rose from the ashes of Königsberg was, and still is, predominantly populated with rows and groups of reinforced concrete high-rise flats, but modern-day Kaliningrad is a city in transition.
When I first visited Kaliningrad in the year 2000, it was, in many respects, a very Soviet city. Since my last visit, however, 8 years ago, a considerable amount of money appears to have been thrown its way resulting in the removal and relocation of the large bronze statue of Lenin, the subsequent landscaping and block paving of the plain
parade ground where Lenin’s statue once held sway, the symbolic erection of a glittering gold-domed Orthodox church where Lenin once stood and, most conspicuously, impressively and incongruously, the construction of three or four massive palaces to Mammon — great multi-complex department stores dominating every corner of the bustling city centre, comprising supermarkets, shopping centres, hitherto unknown westernised bars and so forth. Gaily festooned with garish advertisements, including ever-restless digital screens, and surmounted by five-foot neon-type letters, these monolithic structures embody all the trappings of our capitalist society, except more so. Thirteen years ago, it was the arrival of small, specialist boutique-style shops and idiosyncratic restaurant-bars that formed a strange juxtaposition with the red-brick Teutonic forts and Gothic architecture of old Königsberg, but as odd as these may have seemed at least they conformed to scale.
In the residential areas, the story is somewhat different. There, little has changed. The concrete blocks hastily erected in the post-war ruins which struck me as so drab and grim when I first clapped eyes on them are now even more drab and grim; the suspended balconies that bristle on every front even more dilapidated and suspect. It is at the top of one of these crumbling edifices that one of the main reasons for overcoming one’s fears of the statistically safest means of travel lies, in the form of Victor and Victor’s art studio.
Victor Rybinin, a most unassuming, modest and friendly chap, is an artist and historian who lectures and teaches in these subjects at Kaliningrad University. He is one of the more vocal among those in Kaliningrad who assert the need to channel less money into commercial projects and more into restoring Kaliningrad to its former Königsberg glory. In essence, if not in fact, Victor has never stepped foot in Kaliningrad, refusing to accept the name and always signing his name and residence as ‘Victor Rybinin from Königsberg’. (I should interject here with the observation that some success has been made on the restoration front. A line of buildings along the river’s edge were faithfully recreated according to the architectural style of a bygone era and named The Fishing Village.)
It’s about 20 flights of stairs to the door of Victor’s art studio, but worth every step and more. The small, wedge-shaped room with its wooden half-loft is a past-addicts dream, crammed as it is with every conceivable artefact from the old city of Königsberg; its walls adorned with interesting enamel signs, both pre-war and of wartime origin. Many times we have made the pilgrimage to this hallowed precinct bearing gifts of toms, pickles, cheese, crisps and gherkins and many hours have been spent picnicking there beneath the disconcerting gaze of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. As Victor speaks fluent German and Russian and I speak neither, it is left to Olga on these occasions to translate the night away — no small feat, as I forgot to mention that the edible provisions that we bring with us are invariably accompanied by a bottle of vodka or two!
Kaliningrad/ Königsberg has an atmosphere all of its own, albeit an ambiguous one. This was a city and a region where in the latter part of the Second World War many lives were lost. It has, as do so many Russian cities, a history stained with suffering and with blood. Indeed, many of the ancient buildings still bear the scars of ferocious fighting inflicted during the siege of 1945. It is, historically, a militarised region and today, as the western-most tip of Russia, its strategic importance is underlined by the presence of both military bases and academies. Kaliningrad/Königsberg is an interesting place to visit; a place steeped in history. It is not a tourist destination, at least not for the likes of the boozy Ibiza Brits brigade. And if you do plan to visit the region, you’d do well to remember that the Russian Police and security services are not, as their British counterparts are, hamstrung by political correctness! You have been warned!
The photographs that you see here are of our last trip to Kaliningrad and include some taken in Victor’s art studio. They also include some of Victor’s drawings and paintings.