“I urge everyone to be hospitable, kind, not to beat anyone; if you know the English language, help the tourists.” Kaliningrad Mayor Aleksandr Yaroshuk, speaking to radio station KP-Kaliningrad.
Location, location, location
Kaliningrad is the only one of the World Cup host cities not directly connected via land to the rest of the country. This status as an enclave sandwiched between Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea, has shaped the city’s character.
Seized from the Germans in the wake of the Second World War, Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, is now an important naval base, home to the Russian Baltic fleet. There is little question of the city ever being returned to German hands. Like cities such as Stettin, Danzig, and Breslau (now Szczecin, Gdańsk and Wrocław) in Poland, the German population has long since been replaced.
Unlike in Poland however, the collapse of the Iron Curtain has not heralded a period of economic growth. The region remains a backwater compared to its neighbours that acceded to the European Union in 2004.
This is a far cry from the plans in 1991 to create a “Baltic Hong Kong” that could leverage its position on the frontiers of the Russian world and act as a gateway to Europe. This dream was never to materialise: faced with the choice of opening up its economy and doubling down on security, the Kremlin chose the latter.
Recent years have seen a siege mentality develop in the city, it’s status as a Special Economic Zone was revoked in 2016, one third of the local budget now comes from handouts from Moscow; visa-free travel for Europeans ended in January 2017; and the historic German-Russian House was designated a foreign agent and closed in 2016.
The King’s City
The closure of the German-Russia House is particularly poignant given the amount of German cultural heritage in the city. Formerly the capital of Prussia, Königsberg became a bustling Baltic port and member of the Hanseatic League. Kaliningrad still makes a point of honouring its most famous son, the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant spent almost his entire life in the city; the philosopher’s tomb within Kaliningrad Cathedral is a popular destination for visitors and the city’s university is named in his honour.
Nearly all other traces of the city’s German heritage have disappeared. The city is now the only one in Russia named after a Bolshevik, Mikhail Kalinin, and in many ways this is apt for a city that looks decidedly Soviet. The locals blame the British for this, for it was heavily bombed by the RAF during the Second World War and much of it’s old centre was destroyed.
Since the USSR’s collapse, Kaliningrad has become a haven for smugglers, particularly of cigarettes and amber. It is estimated that the Baltic Tobacco Factory is actively encouraged by the local authorities to smuggle more than 1.2 billion cigarettes into the EU each year.
Its military importance to Russia is immense. It is the only one of Russia’s Northern ports that remains ice-free year round and attracted attention recently after Russia placed Iskander missile, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, to the enclave in February.
Then there was Operation “Zapad”, one of the Russian army’s largest ever “war games”, near Kalinigrad in the summer of 2017. The operation sparked, rather unjustified, panic in some Western military circles that Russia was using the war games as a springboard for an invasion of the Baltics. Tensions between Russia and the Baltics remain high, with Lithuania constructing a border wall on the frontier with Kalinigrad in 2017.
The region is not known for it’s rich footballing tradition. Indeed, Baltika Kalinigrad are the only professional Russian football team for 515 miles (818km). Despite this isolation, they came a respectable fifth in Russia’s second division this season, and with a new 35,000-seater stadium, they must be hoping to push on into the Premier League.
One advantage of Kalinigrad’s position is that fans travelling there from Europe have the option of taking a substantially cheaper flight to to Gdansk or Warsaw (Poland) or Vilnius (Lithuania) and taking a bus across the border.
Read before coming:
The Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant