World Cup 2018: Life inside Kaliningrad, Russia's exclave between East and West

A preview of the city that plays host to England’s final group match

Oliver Carroll
Thursday 28 June 2018 08:34 BST
World Cup 2018: Simon Calder tours the Russian city of Kaliningrad, where England play their final group match

If you want to experience a snapshot of the many identities of Kaliningrad, the host of England’s final group match, it is enough to take a trip to the vacant, marshy island in the middle of the city.

In the centre of that island is the restored German cathedral, the final resting place of philosopher Immanuel Kant. There you experience the city’s past, its life as Königsberg, trading port and capital of East Prussia.

Look up and you see the city’s more overwhelming Soviet identity in the House of Soviets, an unmistakable brutalist structure. Built on the grounds of a 700-year-old castle, the building is known locally as “the monster” or “buried robot”.

To your left, you see checkpoints and security officers consistent with the region’s present status as a militarised exclave. And to your right, past the fishing village, is a new 35,000-seater £200m football stadium – a vision of shining modernity that authorities hope represents the city’s future.

Russia’s westernmost territory – nestling between Belarus, Lithuania and Poland – was handed to the Soviet Union as part of the Potsdam settlement. Then, its isolation was but a theoretical matter. Everyone, after all, was a happy comrade.

But after the fall of the Soviet empire, borders suddenly mattered. Kaliningrad found itself as an exclave, separated from “big Russia”, as the mainland is known locally, by 200 miles. Ever since then Kaliningrad has served as a weather vane of external relations – acting either as a bridge or a geopolitical bubble, depending on the Kremlin’s mood.

In the 1990s, following nearly half a century as a closed armed garrison, the region transformed itself into Russia’s Hong Kong. European business made it their tax-free Russian home. In the early Putin years, issues over visa-free travel for locals were the harbinger of the larger impasse that would come.

Today, Kaliningrad has become an unforgiving mirror on east-west anxieties. It has become, in the words of Nato commander General Philip M Breedlove, a “very militarised piece of capital”.

The strategic importance of Kaliningrad comes down to two things, says Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the RUSI defence and security think tank based in London.

First, the exclave extends the range of Russia’s powerful anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles significantly; now they cover much of Nato’s eastern territories in Poland and the Baltic states. Second, its position limits the capacity of Nato ground forces to defend the Baltic border by reducing the gap through which troops can move.

England fans celebrate after beating Tunisia in first game at Russia 2018 World Cup

In recent years, Russia has invested in a huge modernisation of Kaliningrad’s missile systems. It brought in nuclear-capable, dual-purpose Iskander-M systems to the region – temporarily, the Kremlin insists. There is evidence that Russia may be upgrading nuclear missile storage facilities.

Mr Bronk says the west is right to be concerned: “The Russians may insist the redeployment is temporary, but in the absence of inspections we have to assume the missiles remain.”

Even though that military standoff seems to be here for the long term, few locals are willing to contemplate a turn away from what they see as the region’s European roots.

While most of the region’s Germanic identity was destroyed either by RAF bombers or deliberate Soviet design, Kaliningrad is increasingly looking to embrace its European past. The new shopping centre in the centre of town, which offers an unusually wide range of western retail, is called, appropriately enough, Europa. Facades of Khrushchev-era prefab housing have been spruced up in German, gingerbread style in time for the World Cup.

At least some of the region’s newfound European identity is commerce driven, suggests the local historian Alexander Popadin.

“Königsberg is a better sell than Kaliningrad, basically,” he says. “Politics don’t always play a role”

In the Yeltsin bar, a hipster joint with kraftovoye beer and designer filament lightbulbs, talk of Iskanders certainly seems a world away. Tattooed barmen debate the attributes of the 19 beers on tap. A live band attempts to drown out the chanting of a small group of England fans, delirious at Germany’s early exit from the World Cup. There is talk of urbanism, Allen Ginsberg and quesadillas with guacamole.

Outside the bar, a plaque showing the 29th article of the Russian constitution spoke to the rebellious spirit of the people inside. “Everyone in this bar shall be guaranteed freedom of speech and expression,” it reads.

“Moscow can’t quite understand us,” says Mr Popadin. “It isn’t a matter of being Russian or German. We want to be both. And that sometimes annoys them like hell.”

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