Geopolitics

Kaliningrad, Mother Russia's Rebellious Western Son

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.

Pensive in Kaliningrad
Pensive in Kaliningrad
Marek Górlikowski and Paulina Siegień

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.

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.

Anti-Russian sentiment

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.

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.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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