Raze and rebuild: Kaliningrad’s battle to preserve its complex post-war cityscape

Königsberg was almost razed to the ground by Allied bombing during the Second World War. Today, it is not only what has been preserved, but also that which has been entirely wiped off the face of Kalingrad, that reminds us of the war and the layering of the post-war urban landscape

7 June 2018

Kaliningrad stands out on the pages of an atlas — a small but highly conspicuous pocket of Russia, past Lithuania, Poland and Belarus, surrounded by a thick, blood-coloured border line. Further to the left the Baltic Sea, marked in sky blue, delineates Russia’s second and final western border, the solitary drape that remains of the once mighty iron curtain. Russian Kaliningrad, once Prussian Königsberg, was absorbed by the Soviet Union following victory in the Second World War. Now, its status within that empire’s principal successor, the Russian Federation, has become something more: a phenomenon of post-geography, where the ambitions and cultures of two powers clash, a place where past and future battle it out with armies of brick, paving stone and concrete.

The city’s post-war history is one of immediate and longstanding repurposing. Königsberg was almost razed to the ground by Allied bombing during the closing stages of the War. On entering the devastated city, Red Army soldiers could not have failed to notice the irony that it was the military structures that had best survived the destruction. The forts, barracks, officers’ quarters, bunkers and dug outs of Imperial and Weimar Germany remain today the best preserved of Kaliningrad’s historical buildings, although many Protestant churches did also survive the bombing (only to fall in peace time: today the majority of them have been taken over by the Russian Orthodox Church).

From an engineer’s point of view there is nothing surprising in this: the military buildings were built to be strong. In the Soviet period these military buildings were used as granaries and warehouses. For instance: the Kronprinz tower, once used to store vegetables, today houses the Baltic Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts. Of course, the transformation of old forts, factories, power stations and other ageing pieces of industrial infrastructure into exhibition halls and art museums is nothing new, but for Kaliningrad this kind of gentrification is of particular symbolic importance, representing a beautiful urban metaphor of the at-least-temporary capitulation of the military before the artistic — a 21st-century incarnation of the swords to ploughshares injunction. Sadly, only a part of the old military infrastructure has been repurposed life. Much of it continues to serve as the backdrop for the medieval role-plays and military reconstructions that are so popular in Kaliningrad. In this context, the Baltic Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts offers a powerful and contemporary alternative to the retrograde and military outlook that Kaliningrad’s architecture, and Russia’s government, endlessly encourage.

In a letter written to his sister, quoted in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, a First World War soldier writes: “I find myself completely unable to comprehend how this landscape will ever return to its former evenness.” Over the course of many decades the Soviets in this city aspired to be German, Hanseatic — in other words, imported; the Germans, meanwhile, for the sake of preservation, strove to be Soviet. These two tendencies played out side by side, quite literally. You might see, for example, an old red-brick house of the early 20th century, with an old-fashioned tiled roof, stucco work and window panes, fused onto the side of a concrete Soviet apartment block. The brutal cement stitch which joins these buildings is a powerful metaphor for the temporal division of before and after. Or consider two of the most recent and striking examples of this “transformation”. The first is the Fishing Village, an “ethnographic” settlement of gumdrop houses built in an allegedly historical style on the River Pregel Embankment in 2007. The second (and even more recent) has taken place on Kaliningrad’s central street, Leninsky Prospekt, a cluster of Soviet-era apartment blocks that the city government, as part of preparations for the World Cup, have incongruously recast (or, rather, re-plastered) in a pseudo-historical “Hanseatic Style”.

This repurposed and conjoined landscape of Kaliningrad, both urban and natural, can be understood as a palimpsest, the result of the layering of successive beds of visual information from each successive era. It demands not only to be documented but also to be understood. Graffiti is a useful starting point if you want to get your head around the palimpsest. Perhaps the most famous instance of Kaliningrad graffiti appeared in the immediate post-war years, when an anonymous individual adorned the walls of the tomb of the philosopher Immanuel Kant with the phrase: “Now you understand the materialism of existence”.

Kant’s tomb resides in the Königsberg Cathedral, which was built in the 14th century, almost totally destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944, and restored in the 1990s. For the entire Soviet period the ruined cathedral was considered a symbol of Prussian militarism and fascism, and, by some, a “cataract on the eye of our new socialist city”. The cathedral was saved from complete destruction only by the presence of Kant’s tomb. Ten years from now, perhaps a builder removing layers of plaster and paint from a building wall will find that famous post-war riposte to Kant’s idealism. Or perhaps they will find the popular graffiti slogan of the 2000s, “König, the city of my fucking birth”, scrawled a couple of metres away from the handwritten shop sign of the baker or tailor who toiled away behind the walls of that same building in the 1920s. The layers of the palimpsest expressed through urban wit.

It is not only what has been preserved, but also that which has been entirely wiped off the face of the city, that reminds us of the war and the layering of the post-war urban landscape. In Kaliningrad it is the ruins and waste spaces which sometimes seem to speak loudest of at all. The ruin, a symbol considered characteristic of antiquity, has taken firm root in modern Kaliningrad. The clearest example of this is the intractable debate among architects and the public around the interrelated fate of two of the city’s most famous landmarks — the House of Soviets and the Königsberg Castle — and whether, specifically, to demolish the former and rebuild the latter.

The Königsberg Castle was built in the 13th century and destroyed, by controlled explosion, in 1968. Construction on the House of Soviets began in 1970, but was halted, never to be restarted, in 1990. The building was designed in the Soviet Brutalist style by a team of leading architects that included Lev Misozhnikov, one of the co-creators of the experimental region of Severnoye Chertanovo in Moscow, and Julian Schwarzbreim, who cited Niemeyer’s famous National Congress of Brazil as an inspiration. The location where the House of Soviets stands is not, as is popularly believed throughout the city, the site of the old Königsberg Castle itself, but rather near the ruins of the castle’s eastern wing.

The House of Soviets is one of the most famous of the many unfinished late-Soviet building projects which litter contemporary Russia. It is certainly the largest monument to Soviet architecture that exists in Kaliningrad. The huge scale of the building was highly unusual for a provincial Soviet city. The project was one of colossal ambition. The finished building was to consist of 21 floors of administrative offices served by eight lifts and was to contain numerous cavernous congress halls as well as a huge underground restaurant. The view from the top, as those who have climbed to the top by bribing the building site’s security guards can attest, is very impressive. The facade was originally to be of enamelled glass, before budget constraints led to the decision to use concrete panels instead.

Many architects and culturologists compare the scale of ideological and material resources invested in the construction of the House of Soviets with that which must have been required, long ago, for the construction of the Königsberg Castle. Intended to be a symbol of the Soviet victory over Germany, the House of Soviets instead became a symbol of the Soviets’ colossal defeat before the laws of history. The building, despite having been 95 per cent completed by the time construction ceased, is uninhabitable. More than ten years ago, when Kaliningrad/Königsberg celebrated the 750th anniversary of its founding, the House of Soviets was painted light-blue, and windows were finally installed in the heretofore vacant portholes. Every year, residents of the city, together with pop singers flown in for the event, celebrate its anniversary on the vast empty square that leads to the building. The local authorities plan to transform this square into a fan-zone and concert venue for the World Cup. These one-off parties notwithstanding, the people of Kaliningrad continue to argue over the future of the “monster”, as the House of Soviets is often called.

Kaliningrad’s contemporary artists have also added their voices to this urbanist debate. The work of the San Donato group (Alexei Chebykin, Evgeny Umansky and Oleg Bliablias), for example, is particularly interesting. They travel through post-Soviet cities creating temporary sculptural compositions whose purpose is not to fill space in the landscape but to give it meaning. In Kaliningrad the group has installed a group of gargoyles on an electrical box overlooking the Kronprinz tower, recollecting the former warlike residents of the once-military structure. Liberation, an installation created in Kaliningrad’s zoo, considered the oldest in Russia, is particularly touching. It shows a hippo, a deer, a donkey and a badger, standing on each other’s back in a pyramid. Kaliningrad’s zoo suffered particularly during the storm of the city by the Allies, and these four creatures, the unwitting hostages of man’s brutality, were the only animals to survive from the zoo’s 2000-strong collection. The figures that make up the installation are rendered with a ghost-like feeling of transparency, rising up from the twisted bars of their broken cages, untended since the war. The sculpture represents their liberation from obscurity, from oblivion, from the ruins of the past.

The broken-open cage captures something about the Kaliningrad palimpsest. There is a kind of emptiness to the modern-day ruins. Emptiness can exist within the flats and courtyards of lived-in high-rises as much as among the botanist-confounding mess of grasses that cover the vacant urban wasteground. The urban wasteground is characterised not by the absence of construction but by the absence of progress and meaning. It is the physical expression of a society caught between an irretrievable past and a formless future.

If you do come to Kaliningrad for the World Cup this summer, you may see something of this for yourself. In stadium is set in a scrub territory (which looks like an island on maps) that was once called “die Lomse” — the swamp. Its Prussian inhabitants tried to plant trees, and even established a plantation of silk worms. The silk worms were forgotten after the war, but the new Soviet authorities also planted trees, as well as building small residential houses complete with gardens. What will become of “die Lomse” after the World Cup? Perhaps as the decades pass the stadium we see today — a construction project of similar ambition to the House of Soviets, but one that was brought to its logical conclusion — will become yet another of Kaliningrad’s wastegrounds: a further entry in the city’s record of victory and loss.