KEEP CALM & CARRY ON IN KALININGRAD ~ WORLD CUP 2018
Even before the Skripal case and the bombing of Syria by the US and its Western allies, you may be forgiven for believing that a trip to Russia’s Kaliningrad to watch England play in the World Cup would be an extremely high-risk venture. The truth is, of course, that the latest hammering of Russia and its people is simply part and parcel of an age-old disinformation war, recently intensified by the alarming prospect that England football fans ~ citizens of the UK ~ might travel to Russia, watch the football, visit places of interest, soak up the nightlife and actually enjoy themselves, thereby discovering in the process that life in the much-maligned autocracy has a lot more to offer than our ‘democratic’ establishment gives it credit for.
Be this as it may, given the pitch, tone and intensity of the bad press that Russia receives in this country, who could blame you for having second thoughts. Consider this random collection of headlines from the British mainstream media:
UK Press Headlines
England fans, be warned… get drunk and Putin will throw you in here! Badly behaved football supporters at Russia 2018 will be stripped NAKED and tied to the bed in terrifying ‘sober houses’ ~ Mail Online, 25 October 2016
World Cup 2018 BLOODBATH: Russian hooligans warn England fans ‘Prepare to DIE’ ~ Express, 11 April 2018
England fans World Cup HELL: Hooligans, hookers and gangsters await – and it’ll cost £14k ~ Daily Star, 3 December 2017
MISSILES ON THE PITCH Derelict Cold War outpost of Kaliningrad in Russia where England will face Belgium in the World Cup is a smugglers haven with a vocal homophobic mayor ~ The Sun, 4 December 2017
Football hooligans, prostitutes, crooks, inflated hotel costs, grim-looking neighbourhoods, smuggling, state-sponsored BDSM houses, cheap vodka and a vocally homophobic mayor? As someone who has been visiting the Kaliningrad region for almost two decades, I may be able to help you separate fact from fiction.
Let’s take the article in The Sun as a starting point and its reference to first impressions of Kaliningrad, namely the comment ‘arriving in a bleak city of decaying brutalist tower blocks’.
When I first arrived in Kaliningrad by train from Poland back in the year 2000 believing myself to be travelling back in time to Soviet Russia ~ a prejudice aided not a little by the stuff I had read in the UK media at that time ~ my first impression was, indeed, one of ‘bleak, brutalist tower blocks’.
Within a day or two, however, I made an important discovery, viz that people don’t come from deprived areas, it is people that deprive areas and any connection between the concrete apartments of Kaliningrad and some of the crime-infested sink estates of England was an illusory one. In a word, whilst some of the older flats in Kaliningrad, especially those erected hurriedly at the end of WWII, are hardly likely to be nominated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the estates themselves as regards humanity are as far removed from the worst of their UK equivalents as fact is from fantasy in the UK press.
Admittedly, The Sun does go on to acknowledge that Kaliningrad, the once beautiful East Prussian city of Königsberg, owes its present appearance to the RAF. Königsberg, which was of strategic importance for the Third Reich and therefore heavily fortified, was carpet bombed by the RAF and the greater proportion of the city, including the historic city centre, was raised to the ground.
It is useful to remember this when considering the architectural and environmental heritage of Kaliningrad, as it is known today, and also to bear in mind that later this once noble city would also fall victim to the ill effects of Perestroika ~ the collapse of the Soviet Union ~ the economic fallout of which impacted the region badly.
But modern-day Kaliningrad is a far cry from all this. Since I first stepped off the Kaliningrad train into a snowy, concrete wasteland that could have been purposefully built by the UK media to represent Russia in all its Cold War glory, a great deal of money has been invested, and whilst the newspaper image in The Sun of dilapidated tower blocks is possibly the worst they could muster, the modern apartments that are rising from the ashes and from the previous financial neglect are clean, smart, imaginatively constructed, spacious and comfortable dwellings. New roads, both within the city and connecting it to the outlying coastal towns, conservation projects ~notably the Gothic Cathedral and Fishing Village ~ glittering palaces to mammon (multicomplex shopping and entertainment centres) bars, cafés and restaurants of every conceivable kind to suit every conceivable taste are everywhere ~ except in the UK media.
And the wonderful thing about Kaliningrad is ~ and it is a wonderful, vibrant city ~ that in spite of its devastation, in spite of all that has befallen it, its historic heart lives on. For the Second World War aficionado there is still, surprisingly, much to trace and see. The most obvious attraction, and a must-see experience, is the German Command Bunker, now a museum. There are other museums as well, but my advice to you is to get off the beaten track and discover the remnants of Königsberg yourself. Original Königsberg buildings are easily identifiable as their red-brick construction stands out, and many of these buildings are still pock marked with bullet holes inflicted in the fierce street fighting that took place in the Battle of Königsberg.
If Cold War, Soviet Kaliningrad is more your cup of tea, there’s still a lot of that as well ~ although decidedly less than when I first visited. I must confess that although Kaliningrad has improved by leaps and bounds since my first visit in the year 2000, I do miss the old, predominantly Soviet feel and have a soft spot for that first impression. It was rather like being in my own Michael Caine movie. But even though the great bronze statue of Lenin has been unceremoniously shuffled up a side street, replaced with the glittering domes of the Orthodox Cathedral, and the old concrete parade and rally ground has been transformed into a smart, block-paved plaza, signs, symbols and statues that point to Kaliningrad’s Soviet legacy are never far away.
Without question the greatest symbol of all in this respect, and one that the British media never tire of referring to as the ‘ugly concrete monstrosity’, is the House of Soviets, which occupies a location close to the magnificent ~ but sadly blown-up ~ Königsberg Castle. I’m not quite sure what the House of Soviets was built for, but I do know that nobody seems to know what to do with it. Nevertheless, as formidable as it is, with the passing of time it is rapidly gaining an air of respectable gravitas, standing, as it does, as an indelible monument to Kaliningrad’s Soviet past.
Whilst the House of Soviets is a little too large to take home with you, if its souvenirs you’re after ~ Germanic or Soviet ~ there are three or four excellent antique shops in the city. Alternatively, the central market is a great place to find something unusual at a good price, and the market’s outlying buildings, many of them old German structures, have stores hidden away in them stocking all kinds of memorabilia, both Soviet retro and Russian.
Intertwined within the old, the new, the Germanic and the Soviet there is also an odd fascination with Englishness, which expresses itself in whimsical pastiches. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Pub London, a themed bar which attempts to replicate the London pub experience. It approaches this by incorporating first a traditional bar (most café bars in Kaliningrad are waitress service) and then by ensuring that principal on the menu is the traditional offering of fatty fries and burgers (not sure whether we should be proud of this or not). Some old English expressions, such as ‘cool as a cucumber’ ‘my cup of tea’ are printed in gilt on the walls and there is even the ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’ sign. Downstairs to the loos (where the concert room also is, which has hosted and still does host some very good bands) things get decidedly English-quirky. The toilets are fashioned after the iconic British telephone box ~ even down to the gated red doors ~ although you’ll be relieved to know that just like Dr Who’s TARDIS the inside is very much larger.
The Britanski pub, which features in The Sun article referenced here, also tries very hard to present itself as a British hostelry (incidentally, the football club scarfs and pennants festooned across the walls have not been dug out for the World Cup, they have been part of the interior décor since the pub was opened), and tucked away in an unassuming concrete building there is the original nod to British pubness ~ The Francis Drake. Eighteen years ago I walked into this establishment and was ‘astonished’ ‘shocked’ ‘horrified’ (take your pick) to find Charles Wells’ Eagle on handpump!
Meanwhile, outside of Kaliningrad you should take time to visit (a) Svetlogorsk ~ the seaside resort (b) Curonian Spit National Park (c) Nesselbeck Castle.
Svetlogorsk (formerly German Rauschen) is Kaliningrad region’s most favoured coastal resort.
When I first went there it was run-down, semi-derelict and yet sublimely attractive. Structurally, things have changed just a bit: The once much-vaunted Hotel Rus where I first stayed has of late acquired some serious competition and likewise the cafeteria/restaurant sitting lonely on the front has been joined by many friends. The ostentatious houses, with their gated gardens and lofty turrets, built by nouveau riche Russians, have mellowed in their grandeur and no longer seem to threaten their more historic counterparts, which line the streets of this quaint little town or peep out fairy-tale-like from the little glades in the pine forest. Many of these older buildings are fine examples of wood-clad Gothic, whilst the old water tower and the mud bath building seated directly below it are in an architectural league of their own. Inevitably, new development and commercialisation has put a shiny new stamp on this place, but the sands are as golden as they ever were, the buildings as evocative, the bars and cafes as different and appealing and the atmosphere as Romantic. Incidentally, if its amber that you are looking for, and remember the Kaliningrad region is the source of at least 90 per cent of the world’s amber deposits, sometimes referred to as ‘Baltic Gold’ ~ in Svetlogorsk you’ll find no shortage of amber stalls selling all kinds of products, from rings and necklaces to elaborate pictures and in all kinds of hues ~ golden, milk, green etc. There are also amber stalls in the city of Kaliningrad itself, and for an astonishing amber experience be sure to pay a visit to the fascinating Regional Amber Museum.
In summer, Svetlogorsk, like any seaside resort, tends to get rather busy. For relative solitude, the joy of nature and some of the best, white sandy beaches imaginable, take a trip to the Curonian Spit, a long, curved stretch of land populated with pine forest which separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea coast. You could make your destination ‘The Dancing Forest’, so named because of the inexplicably contorted shape of the trees, stopping off for refreshment on the way in one or two of the many café/bars that are dotted around in the woodland.
Another outside-of-Kaliningrad destination is Nesselbeck Castle, not to be confused with the ring of defensive forts that surround Kaliningrad, many of which are now museums, bars and shops, simplistically transformed and thus thankfully spared from over-refit.
One of the most appealing aspects of the Kaliningrad region ~ and Russia itself ~ is its quirkiness, and it doesn’t come much more quirky than Nesselbeck, a modern, purpose-built castle which functions as a medieval-themed restaurant, bar and music venue. Here you can dine in style as gallant knights in armour swing swords around your table; you can listen to bands and watch them perform on the bar-mounted stage set against the backdrop of two large copper brewing barrels and surmounted by an effigy of a knight in shining armour. Afterwards, you can visit the torture museum, appropriately housed in the tower, and take in a real live jousting contest whilst seated on the terraces above the castle’s courtyard.
And if this is not quirky enough, wait until you visit the dungeon toilets. I can’t speak for the Ladies, but the Gents is most unusual. How many toilets do you know that have in one of the cubicles a skeleton perched on a seat of spikes and a urinal set in a guillotine!
Getting to these places ~ in fact, getting anywhere ~ is no problem. Kaliningrad itself has a tremendous public transport system, spoiling you with the choice of multiple and frequently running bus services (so frequent that they often seem to be racing each other), a good coastal train system, trams, trolley-buses and taxis. Nevertheless, during the World Cup tournament these are bound to be stretched to the limit, so as a precaution I would advise latching onto a reliable taxi driver and using him exclusively.
I started this article debunking some of the more unsavoury myths pedalled and perpetuated by the UK media. Amongst all of the other scare stories there is bound to be something about danger on the roads ~ and in this there is some truth! The main thoroughfares in Kaliningrad are extremely wide, the city traffic is notoriously dense and vehicles of every denomination tear along like racing greyhounds. Beware when crossing the roads! Time was once when to cross these roads you had to clan together at the kerbside at designated points in groups of five or more and, when you could wait no longer for the traffic to stop, shoot across the road at breakneck speed. Thankfully, in more recent times Kaliningrad’s equivalent of the local council have overseen the installation of automated pedestrian systems. As if by token of the seriousness with which traversing the road should be taken there is no little green man as in England and no ‘We, the Pedestrians, have right of way over you, the motorist, mentality’. As in all things Russian, common sense triumphs over political correctness and swanning arrogantly over the road at a pace you would call your own is not an option. Most of these systems incorporate a large digital clock providing simultaneously both you and the motorist with the time you have to cross the road. Once this countdown expires, it’s into gear and all systems go ~ coming ready or not! The crossings at the very busy intersections in the middle of the city also employ these clocks, but with one additional refinement: once the traffic draws to a halt, a high-pitched, frenetic screeching sound emits, similar to the backing sound used in the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho. You may think it’s crude, but it’s effective ~ time yourself, you’ll see!
Hooliganism and people
It pains me to hear UKers talk of football hooliganism as if we did not invent it. We did invent it; we exported it; and having ‘sown the wind’, now ‘we are reaping the whirlwind’. Well, perhaps not quite: cue criticism of the British media, which, in the last 12 months, has made a concerted attempt to tar the people of the entire Russian continent with the same brush from its propaganda barrel.
All countries, every country, has its good ‘uns and its bad ‘uns. Sadly, the time-honoured game of football, wherever it’s played and supported in the world, attracts a certain minority ~ but minority is what it is.
The Western media would have you believe that the Russian people are a terrifying lot. There are good and bad in every society, but speaking from personal experience in the 18 years that I have been visiting Kaliningrad and its region I have met some truly wonderful people ~ warm, welcoming and unforgettably hospitable. One shouldn’t generalise, but the trouble we have in the West with understanding Russian people is that they are generally more open than we are. It’s a case of ‘what you see is what you get’, and Russian people do not mince their words. Take for example how our media picked up on the Mayor of Kaliningrad’s advice to the locals: He was reputed to have said, ‘Don’t hit anybody’, referring to Brits visiting Russia for the World Cup. We would say, ‘don’t get into a confrontation, argument, altercation’ but when all’s said and done, it really amounts to the same thing. Ironically enough, in a land where free speech is supposedly restricted, the people of Russia tend to speak a lot more freely than we can. Perhaps it’s something to do with not having to carry the awful burden of Political Correctness.
As for the autocracy, all you need to remember is that Russians are a proud, united people living in a homogenous society with a deep sense of belonging. Their cohesive identity is founded upon a socio-political model based on traditional, conservative family values underpinned by the Orthodox Church. Gay marches may be missing from the itinerary, as suggested by the UK media, but as you are going strictly for the football you should not be too disappointed.
As for Kaliningrad, in the last analysis, Kaliningrad is a place of contrasts and contradictions. It is Russian but it is not as Russian as some other places in Russia; it has a Soviet feel but sometimes, and in some places, it hasn’t; it is a part of Mr Putin’s autocratic society, but there’s hardly a whiff of that; it’s Königsberg the capital city of East Prussia, but there’s nothing left of that and yet there is; it’s Russia so it’s cold, but very often it isn’t; it’s concrete and foreboding, is it? It can also be very leafy green and colourful. What Kaliningrad most definitely is not is the terrifying and God-forsaken place that the British media would want it to be. This is fantasy; this is propaganda.
In the words of the philosopher Imannuel Kant, who lived and died in Königsberg, ‘Es ist gut’ ‘It is good’ ~ if you want it to be, it will be. Good Luck with the footer!
Postscript: This article, Kaliningrad: the Russian enclave with a taste for Europe, published recently, attempts to suggest that the majority of Kaliningradians are longing to ’embrace’ so-called liberal Western ‘values’. Hmmm, you’ll have to ask them yourself whether they really want such enrichment!