The Nowhere City

In daytime, the main avenues of Kaliningrad—wide enough to allow ten tanks abreast to pass a reviewing stand—are half deserted. Traffic is sparse. Before the Russians took it over in 1945, this ice-free Baltic seaport was the ancient German city of Königsberg, the historic capital of East Prussia and one of the more attractive towns of the German empire. Recently there has even been talk of Germany taking the city back. But now the barren monotony and inhuman scale of Communist urban planning make Kaliningrad—the phantom of a city without any visible center—possibly one of the ugliest places in the world. Four hundred thousand inhabitants—70 percent transient sailors, fishermen, and members of the Russian armed forces and their dependents—live here in monotonous apartment blocks, crumbling mountainranges of tar and cement and peeling plaster, gray on gray.

The public squares, as in most cities built by the Soviets after the war, are vast, each large enough to accommodate almost the entire population. Loudspeakers left over from the old Communist public-address system still dangle from their poles. There are no mass rallies nowadays and the loud-speakers are rarely if ever used. But the statue of M.I. Kalinin, a former president of the Soviet Union (he is said to have sent his own wife to the Gulag), is still standing in a vast square outside the railroad station. The city was named for him in 1945 after its capture by the Red Army in fierce street fighting with the Wehrmacht and its annexation by the Soviet Union. A giant statue of Lenin is also still standing on Ploshchad Pobedy (Victory Square)—the former Adolf-Hitler-Platz.

Founded in 1255 by knights of the Teutonic Order on rising ground above the river Pregel (now called Pregolya), Königsberg was the seat of a famous Lutheran university. In the countryside nearby were some of the largest and finest estates of the Prussian military aristocracy. In this quintessentially Germanic region the proverbial Prussian virtues of duty and discipline and austere living were cultivated in huts and manor houses, while in the city itself the dukes and the kings of Prussia were crowned. Immanuel Kant was born here in 1724, and he hardly ever left. At the university he taught not only philosophy, but geography and math as well. Johann Gottfried Herder, a Lutheran minister’s son who also taught here, almost single-handedly invented pan-German nationalism as the expression of the “spirit” of language and folksong and poetry.

Königsberg was an important garrison town, where generations of Prussian officers were trained in blind, ungrudging obedience to the word of command. Yet among young graduates of its military academy were also some of the spirited, if ineffective, aristocratic officers who conspired to launch the coup against Hitler’s tyranny on July 20, 1944.

Driving through today’s city, you would never guess how pretty Königsberg was. Old photographs show a scenic place, with a busy harbor, several fine churches, picturesque wharfs, and stately embankments …

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