Sweden's former prime minister Goran Person once described Kaliningrad this way: “It is heavily polluted. There are illnesses there like AIDS and tuberculosis. There is atomic waste. You find almost every imaginable problem in Kaliningrad.”
Kaliningrad is both a city and an oblast ["state"] in the Russian Federation, sandwiched between Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. Before it was annexed by the USSR after World War II, the area was part of a unified German state called East Prussia for 700 years. Its capital was the beautiful medieval city of Konigsberg.
During World War II, the Red Army rolled into Konigsberg and renamed it after Mikhail Kalinin, one of Stalin’s buddies. Soviet authorities decided to just pave over the destroyed city. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad found itself trapped between Poland and the newly independent Lithuania. With the accession of those countries to the EU, Kaliningrad became a little Russian island trapped in Europe.
Nothing exemplifies the blight of Kaliningrad more than the House of Soviets. Built in 1960 to be the administrative center of the state, this strange, futurist behemoth has still never been occupied due to structural problems. It dominates the drab city center, a looming icon of Kaliningrad.
Kaliningrad’s current state of decay is all the more depressing given its rich past. Konigsberg was a gorgeous city, which, had it remained intact, would have rivaled nearby UNESCO heritage cities like Gdansk, Riga, and Tallinn. Today, Kaliningrad is little more than a spreading mass of gray apartment blocks.
The Soviet authorities never had the resources to completely rid Kaliningrad of its heritage. The grave of the city’s most famous son, philosopher Immanuel Kant, has been restored, along with the medieval cathedral.
Public drinking is a popular pastime in Russia, and though it’s far from Russia “proper,” Kaliningrad is no exception. Drunks are a common sight in the city center, especially in the abandoned lots behind the city’s main hotel, the Gostinitsa Kaliningrad. I watched this old guy repeatedly attempt to try to stand up.
Kaliningrad is full of empty, decrepit spaces where drunks and feral dogs make their home. Out on Leininsky Propsect, the main street in town, old women beg or try to sell the saplings of pussy willow trees for a few rubles.
Excursions from the city provide relief from the gray monotony. A young woman named Katya, invited me to a barbecue out at her dacha. The road out to her place was rutted and muddy, and the country house turned out to be little more than a tool shed in an empty field.
The next day, my friend Margarita drove me to the ruins of the ancient Balga Castle near the Baltic coast. Balga Castle was the site of one of the fiercest battles on the Eastern front during World War II. The Red Army’s atrocities were some of the worst of the war—rape and murder were actively encouraged. Today, the place is a brick ruin, equal parts memorial and rustic campground. Campers lounge around in their SUVs drinking, barbecuing shashlik (Russian shish-kebab), and listening to dance music. There are a few memorials to German and Russian soldiers at Balga, but the overriding feeling is a remembrance of the place’s ancient Germanic heritage. The poet Joseph Brodsky once said of Kaliningrad, “The trees whisper in German.” Balga Castle reminded me of this.
Back in the city, I had an espresso with Yuri, a former Soviet security officer turned businessman, in the shadow of the House of Soviets. He pointed to it, “We wanted to turn it into a brothel. The 'whorehouse of Soviets' has a nice ring to it. But it isn’t fit for anything. Such a pity. What can I say, this is Russia.”