Nestled in between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, far from mainland Russia, Kaliningrad feels much more like Europe, and its residents are proud of its Western-like values.
KALININGRAD — "Somewhere in the 39th kingdom," is how Russian tales often begin. It's also the perfect opening line for a story about Kaliningrad, the Russian Federation's 39th administrative region. Nestled in between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, this little Russian exclave straddles two very different realities.
If not for the grave of philosopher Immanuel expand=1] Kant, it would be difficult to single out the former Prussian Königsberg in the Soviet landscape of today's Kaliningrad. The city looks like a sea of post-Soviet towers. The concrete skeleton of the House of Soviets, built where an old Teutonic castle was demolished by Brezhnev's order, dominates the horizon. The project was never finished because of construction debacles.
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Kant's tomb in Kaliningrad — Photo: J110
Lower petrol prices are all that lure Polish people to Kaliningrad. Foreign drivers here are given wooden beams to put under the vehicle's wheels because the locals know that more fuel can be poured into a tank that is slightly inclined. Russians, on the other hand, spend their weekends hunting down the best deals in Polish supermarkets. Since the local border traffic agreement between Poland and Russia in 2012 simplified the border crossing, Kaliningrad is deserted every Saturday.
The weekly exodus to Poland for groceries even inspired Kaliningrad-based rapper Timur Titarenko to write one of his biggest hits, Biedronka, named after a highly popular Polish discount chain. The idea for the song was born in a three-hour line on the Polish border.
We meet with Timur in a popular club called Reporter, which is full of bearded hipsters glued to their iPhones. "Kaliningrad has several places where you can have fun just like in the West," Timur says. The 33-year-old was born in eastern Ukraine and moved to Kaliningrad with his parents at the age of six. "Those who arrive here from mainland Russia feel like they're in Europe," he says.
Several of his friends who came to visit never left. "After the collapse of the USSR, there was nothing left to do in Russia but drink," Timur says.
Ira, in her late twenties, lives in a large studio in one of the concrete blocks. She studied in Moscow, but the cities she loves are Amsterdam and Barcelona. Her last visit to mainland Russia was about a year ago, and she can hardly remember it.
Her last visit to the Netherlands, on the other hand, remains very vivid in her mind. That was when she understood that the world was divided into three camps — Europe with Ukraine, the United States, and Russia — each running its own propaganda machine.
During the Dutch Festival of Redheads, which Ira attended, the organizers prepared stickers with national emblems for participants to wear. She didn't take the Russian one for fear of people's reaction. One night, a guy she met in a bar shouted in her face, "Fucking Russia! Fucking Putin!" when she told him where she was from.
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Kaliningrad's main square — Photo: Dima Bushkov
Katia and Siergiey, both in their forties, came to Kaliningrad from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, five years ago. "It is such a relaxed place," Siergiey says. "The climate is so different." But most importantly, Kaliningrad feels closer to Europe. "The only thing in Russia that made me proud was the Mir space station," he says.
Although Katia and Siergiey long for European democratic standards, they scoff at the idea that Kaliningrad could influence Russia with the kind of Western reality they're exposed to. Katia explains that the European dream could hardly sprout on the Siberian soil where people defecate outside despite temperatures dropping to minus 40 Celsius.
Homosexuals, who face hostile politics in Russia, can find an enclave within the walls of Amsterdam, a Kaliningrad gay club run by businessman Boris Obrazow. He admits to having clashed with the local authorities, but after several years he managed to persuade the governor that Amsterdam was a kind of service to Kaliningrad. "I told him that it was better if homosexuals gathered in one place rather than spread all over the city," he says. The officials acknowledged his point and haven't bothered him since.
"Europe is not a geographical term," says Artiom Ryzykow, a 37-year-old blogger, journalist and author. "It's a way of thinking."
Despite his English diploma, a daughter in Berlin and his frequent visits to New York, he doesn't feel tempted to leave Kaliningrad. He feels that it belongs to both Russia and Europe because residents travel a lot to the neighboring EU countries. "In Kaliningrad, we can decide to drive to Berlin to have dinner."
Moscow, on the other hand, with many mountains and borders in between, seems far away indeed.