Sunday, May 10, 2009

Window on Eurasia: “Koenigsberg is a Russian City,” Kaliningrad Mayor Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 10 – Kaliningrad is not a trophy won by Moscow as the result of the Soviet victory in World War II but rather “a Russian city” that became part of the Russian Empire two centuries earlier, according to that city’s mayor. For that reason, he says, it is his personal view that it would not be a problem to restore Koenigsberg as its name.
Indeed, Feliks Lapin said in a wide-ranging interview on Echo Moskvy radio yesterday, Russians should be proud of the fact that Koenigsberg is a Russian city, although he admitted that many people would have problems with this or with calling the entire oblast, created in 1945, Eastern Prussia (
Not surprisingly, that comment has attracted the most attention, given the sensitivities of Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Germany about a region all of whom have a stake in, but Lapin also provided an intriguing perspective about the difficulties Kaliningrad faces as a Russian exclave and about the impact of its propinquity to EU and NATO member countries.
On the one hand, Lapin said, the economic crisis had hit his city harder than many other Russian areas not only because of the downsizing of the military there – he said that Kaliningrad was no longer a military “city” but a military “town” – and the impact of other post-Soviet changes but also because of its being cut off from the Russian Federation proper.
But on the other, he argued that despite the problems he and the residents of his city face, its location and the influence of its neighbors on Kaliningrad have had some positive consequences, making it one of the safest Russian cities at the present time and promoting a more cosmopolitan set of attitudes among residents.
Residents of his city, Lapin said, have been steadfast in the face of the current economic crisis because “all of them understand how complicated things are, because [they] are people who have passed through a crisis much more difficult than was the case” in the remainder of the Russian Federation.
They know that the downsizing of the Russian military which provided much of the life blood of the city earlier has left them with challenges others do not face, Lapin continued, and they understand, especially now, that the completion of some projects, including the building of new housing stocks and highways, will have to be put off.
One of the reasons for their understanding, he said, is that Moscow, “over the last three years,” has lifted many restrictions on the region and allowed it to develop as a special economic zone with ties to Europe. And another is that the situation with regarding crime is much less negative than in other Russian cities.
“Many people say,” his interviewer remarked, “that Kaliningrad is a port city with prostitution, narcotics, HIV/AIDS” and wonder how the people there are coping. To which Lapin responded that “everything [there] is like in a normal big city,” including all the problems his interviewer mentioned.
But he added, there is one dimension on which Kaliningrad is distinguished “from other [Russian] cities in a positive way: [there] city can walk about at night without fear.” And he acknowledged that this was “certainly” the result of what his Echo Moskvy interviewer described as “the influence of the neighbors.”
Those include both the Poles and the Balts, all of whose countries are members of the two key Western institutions, the European Union and NATO. But those memberships do not prevent the Russian residents of Kaliningrad from having regular and positive interaction with members of those nations.
“You know,” Lapin said, “when people talk to one another, no one typically asks whether you are a NATO member or not a NATO member.” Instead, they focus on common issues, including on shared works of art and culture which lay the foundation for “a communion of people and a closeness of people.”
Because that is the case, the mayor continued, how one calls the city he heads matters. Calling it Kaliningrad as now focuses on the events of 1945 while restoring its earlier name of Koenigsberg would serve to underscore the way in which that city has long been part of Russia and of Europe.
Russians have every reason to be “proud that Koenigsberg is a Russian city,” although he noted that many would object and even more would have problems with calling the oblast “Prussia.” It might be better to keep its current name, Kaliningrad oblast, “or call it something else,” such as “Western Russia” (

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