Identity Negotiation (2019)

 

The city of Kaliningrad, the former Prussian Königsberg, lies as a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania. It is surrounded by the EU and NATO and thus forms a bridge between Russia and Europe.

 

In April 1945 Königsberg was captured by the Red Army. As a result of the fighting, in particular the bombardment by Allied forces in August 1944, over 90 percent of the city center was destroyed. The remaining German inhabitants were expelled from the Soviet leadership in 1947 and 1948. The city was mainly resettled by Russians. This complete exchange of a population is probably a unique process in Europe.

During the communist epoch, the government endeavored to deny the German-Prussian history in principle and to create a myth of the "evil city". The pre-war history of Königsberg was put under a taboo and it was only allowed to talk about the sections that were useful for the legitimacy of the annexation of the city. Accompanied by the stigmatization of Prussian-German history with Königsberg as a symbol of permanent aggression, the region was portrayed as Slavic land, which was occupied by the enemy for centuries. The Battle of Königsberg became the origin myth of the city and as a new topos an integral part of the reconstruction of Kaliningrad.

For the reconstruction, the vision of a socialist model city based on the model of Moscow emerged. Not only the appearance of new buildings and wider streets should remind of the Russian capital, but the entire structure of Kaliningrad should be adapted to that of Moscow. Kaliningrad was to be rebuilt in the spirit of Soviet ideology, as the former architecture represented foreign and above all "hostile" ideologies. In 1968, the city administration demolished the ruins of Königsberg Castle, claiming it was a the center of fascism. The "Dom Sovetov" ("House of Soviets") was built on the ruins of the castle as a symbol of Soviet power and as a manifestation of the doom of the Prussian era. However, this monumental project failed because the government ran out of funding.

Since the former Königsberg had no Russian traditions, the transformation of the city also aimed to transform Kaliningrad into an inhabited monument of victory. The "Victory Square", the "Avenue of Heroes", the "Victory Park" were meant to express the heroism and pathos of the Great Patriotic War.

 

Since 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kaliningrad region or Kaliningrad oblast is part of the Russian Federation. By the accession of Poland and Lithuania to NATO and the EU around the turn of the millennium, Kaliningrad has become an exclave within Europe.

In addition, Kaliningrad's geopolitical position is of European, partly global importance as  it is the military base of the Baltic Fleet and one of the ice-free Baltic Sea ports. This was again reflected in the discussion about the installation of a US missile defense shield in Poland and the possible deployment of Russian medium-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region.

 

Identity Negotiation examines the links between the traditional image of history, current state doctrine, symbolic architecture and local identity of a new generation growing up in a region characterized on the one hand by the demarcation of Russia from the European Union and, on the other, by its potential for an European integration because of its geographic location.

 

Two basic currents determine the life in the Kaliningrad Oblast: On the one hand, a rapprochement with or an integration into the EU, motivated by the fear of isolation of the exclave, is desired. On the other hand, there is a desire for a separation from the West, based on the fear of losing national identity through a Europeanization of Russia.

The proponents of an isolation of the Oblast and thus the Russian Federation from the West emphasize Russian patriotism in order to reaffirm their desire. They conclude on one side that the Kaliningradians are no Europeans but Russians, and on the other side that especially the young population of the Oblast is much more familiar with the neighboring EU countries Poland and Lithuania than with their own Motherland, where most of them have never been to. Therefore, the representatives of this option advocate that the Russian culture should be extended on the exclave and support in this context for example the construction of Orthodox churches in Kaliningrad. In May 1996, on the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, the foundation stone of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, based on the cathedral of the same name in Moscow, was placed on the Victory Square, with solemn speeches declaring: Kaliningrad belonged eternally to Russia. 

One is afraid of the loss of the Russian identity, afraid of a "Europeanization". This is another reason why Russia is extending its influence on the area. One is alien in Western Europe and eventually somehow subterraneously connected with Russia.

 

Beyond Kaliningrad, the general problem of identity of Russian society becomes clear, which has long been the question of whether Russia belongs to Europe or represents its own cultural space. In Kaliningrad this problem is given particular importance in view of the settlement of the Russian population in the formerly German territory and the associated uncertainty of its legitimacy. In addition, there is the special geopolitical situation of the Oblast, which makes it difficult for the young people there to identify with their motherland.

 

To counteract the abandonment of the youth towards the mother country, the "Junarmija" - the Young Army or Youth Army - was launched for instance in May 2016. The military-patriotic organization "Junarmija" claims to have nearly 200,000 members by now. They are children and adolescents aged 8 to 18 years. According to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, they should be educated as patriots of the country - patriots who could also be useful for the military.

This patriotic education can also be observed in the new education system, in which the children are to be educated as patriotic and proud as possible from an early age.

 

Nevertheless, in many parts of the new generation, a closeness to European culture can be observed. This is justified by the fact that the Kaliningradians are closer to Europe than Russia, simply because of the geopolitical situation: they have always watched foreign TV, they can speak foreign languages ​​(including Lithuanian and Polish) and travel regularly to their neighboring countries, which leads them to realize more and more how their own life could look like. They begin to critically question the politics of remembrance of their own government and the prevailing system. In addition, the post-Soviet generation is taking a new look at the history of the area, which is no longer based solely on the background of the war experiences.

 

Until now there is still opposition between the Soviet and the post-Soviet Kaliningrad, which refers to German-Prussian history and opens up towards Europe. Prussian-German history offers, in addition to the European idea, a general starting point for a new development of identity. It is not about a revival of Königsberg, but about what is selectively reminded of it to build an identity-forming collective memory. The challenge faced by the residents and their policy makers is no less than developing a new self-image from both such different parts.

LUKAS VAN BENTUM

All photographs © 2020 Lukas van Bentum