Kaliningrad: a pearl on the Baltic Sea

Hidden between Poland and Lithuania lies a province of Russia. The piece of land was first part of the large state of Prussia, but fell into the hands of the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Kaliningrad, the capital of this province, was largely destroyed. Nowadays, the city is home to many Russian buildings and a unique pre-war cathedral, the Dom of Koningsbergen. A holiday to Kaliningrad is not as simple as to another country in Europe. Geographically speaking, the city may be on this continent, but it is and remains Russia. So get your passport ready, apply for a visa and enjoy the sights the Baltic Sea city has to offer. Source: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons (PD)

A piece of Russia in Europe

Kaliningrad is a city located in the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia. The term oblast refers to a province or region and is used in Russia and other Eastern European countries. In the Netherlands we call Kaliningrad Oblast an exclave: a piece of land that is not geographically connected to the mother country. The 15,100 km² oblast is surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, making it the only part of Russia in Europe. The capital of Kaliningrad Oblast is Kaliningrad and has 453,500 inhabitants (2015). The city is located on the Baltic Sea and at the mouth of the Pregel River. Although temperatures do not rise very high (average 18°C in July), the city attracts 450,000 visitors annually (2008).

History of Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad was founded by a knighthood

Kaliningrad was founded in 1255 under the name Königsberg. This medieval city consisted only of a wooden castle built by the Teutonic Order. The Teutonic Order was a spiritual knighthood founded in 1189-1192. The Teutonic Order conquered many pagan areas to convert the population to the Christian faith. The Teutonic Order that had authority over Königsberg was in possession of present-day Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and part of northeastern Poland in the mid-fifteenth century.

The country became a province of Prussia

In 1457, the castle, now replaced by stone, became the headquarters of the Teutonic Order. The former headquarters of Mariënburg Castle had been conquered by Prussia (a state in Central Europe). Due to years of conflict with the conquered territories, the Teutonic Order finally lost its territory in 1466. After the signing of the Second Peace of Thorn in 1466, the conquered territories in Poland and Lithuania were returned to Prussia. In Estonia and Latvia, the Teutonic Order also lost more and more influence, because the Livonian Order (a branch of the Teutonic Order), which had authority over these two countries, became increasingly independent. All the Teutonic Order had left was the current Russian exclave with Königsberg as its capital. Their territory became part of the state of Prussia as a puppet state by signing the peace treaty with Prussia. This is a state that often becomes economically dependent on another state after a war. The Teutonic Order, which had spent a lot of money on warfare, received support from Prussia in various areas. Prussia had the advantage that if they were attacked, the opponent had to defeat their puppet state first. The puppet state was named the province of East Prussia. In 1724, the capital Königsberg had grown so large that three other cities (Kneiphof, Altstadt and Löbenicht) were merged with the city. In 1914, the province was invaded by the Red Army (the army of the Soviet Union), but was defeated by the army of the German Empire. The German Empire was a large state of which the state of Prussia had become a province. Until 1945, East Prussia belonged to the province (and former state) of Prussia in the German Empire.

In the hands of the Russians

In 1944 the Red Army invaded East Prussia again. The Soviet Union (now Russia) was ruled by a communist party and until its fall in 1990 controlled fourteen countries, including the Baltic states, Belarus and Armenia. In the first years of the Second World War (1939-1943), Koningsbergen was too far away from the front lines to be affected by the war. When the war was almost over in August 1944, the city was hit by British and American bombers and the historic city center was destroyed. In April 1945, East Prussia was conquered by the Soviets and became part of the Soviet Union. In 1946 the city of Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad. Kaliningrad (Kalininstad) was named after the recently deceased Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, politician and loyal supporter of Prime Minister Joseph Stalin.
The 150,000 German-speaking inhabitants were considered Nazi supporters by the Soviets. Residents who had not yet died by starvation or disease or by Russian execution around 1947 (only 20,000) were deported to Germany. Soon the Kaliningrad Oblast territory was filled with soldiers and their families, and settlers from the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union fell, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) became independent, causing the connection between the Kaliningrad Oblast and Russia to disappear.
Source: A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons (FAL)

Sights in Kaliningrad

The city

The city that was in the hands of the Soviet Union after the Second World War did not receive any interest. The government believed that all pre-war buildings were a symbol of Nazism. A small amount of money was released not to restore the ruins in the city but to completely demolish them. Kaliningrad therefore mainly consists of buildings that the Soviets placed.
The Old Prussian district of Fischdorf is unique. This city district from 2006 is a representation of what the city looked like in the time before the Russians seized power and all hotels and restaurants have a German (the language spoken in Prussia) name. A striking building in the city is the Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral. This white cathedral from 2006 has four gold-colored spherical towers. Kaliningrad also has many entertainment venues, cozy terraces, one of the oldest zoos in all of Russia (from 1896) and a museum that is full of beautiful pieces of amber found on the Baltic Sea. One of the few pre-war buildings is the Koningsbergen Cathedral.

The centuries-old Cathedral of Koningsbergen

The cathedral in the old Kneiphof city center
The Koningsbergen Cathedral, located on the Pregel River, is also known as Kneiphof Cathedral. Kneiphof is one of the three old city centers that were merged into the city of Königsberg in the eighteenth century. The almost ninety meter long cathedral was built on behalf of local bishop Johann Clare who felt that all the churches in the city were not impressive enough. Before construction began, hundreds of piles were placed in the unstable subsoil. To bring the long poles to the location, an opening was made in the city wall and a bridge (the Dombrücke) was built. In 1330, the foundation stone of the cathedral was laid, which would also have a defensive function. The Teutonic Order soon showed that they disagreed with the construction of a defense structure near their castle. In 1333, adjustments were made to the cathedral (fewer walls) and in 1380 the cathedral was completed except for the frescoes (wall paintings). In 1440, vaults (ornate arches) were placed on the ceiling, which were a very popular method of decoration in Europe at the time. Two towers were also built on the cathedral, which was over thirty meters high, but these were destroyed by a fire in 1544. One of the two towers was rebuilt in 1640, bringing the total height of the cathedral to over fifty meters. During the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the cathedral was equipped with a clock and an organ.
Source: A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons (FAL) Destruction of the cathedral in the Second World War
During the Second World War, bombings severely damaged the entire city, including the cathedral. The wooden interior of the cathedral was completely burned and little was left of the cathedral’s roof. The cathedral is one of the few ruins that remained untouched by the Soviets. The reason was the presence of the tomb in the cathedral of the beloved philosopher Immanuel Kant. Restoration work did not take place until 1992-2008. The roof and tower were renovated based on old construction drawings. Five bells were hung in the tower, the heaviest of which weighs 1,180 kilograms. A new organ was made by an organ builder from Potsdam, Germany at the request of Lyudmila Putina (then wife of President Vladimir Putin), who had grown up in Kaliningrad.

The modern World Cup stadium

World Cup in 2018 in Kaliningrad
The FIFA Football World Cup (Football World Cup) will be partly held in Kaliningrad in 2018. Once every four years, thirty-two countries (in 2016) compete for the world title during this tournament. For each Football World Cup, a country is selected where the tournament will be held. In 2018, the matches will be played in twelve stadiums in twelve different cities in Russia.
Kaliningrad Stadium
The World Cup stadium Kaliningrad Stadium in Kaliningrad will be built between September 2015 and December 2017. The arena is located on an island in the city that was overgrown by wild vegetation for decades. The planned cost of RUB 10 billion was already increased by RUB 5 billion shortly after the start of construction in 2015. The main reason is the unstable subsoil of the island, which meant that a stable base had to be created first. These additional costs leave insufficient budget to realize all plans. In 2016, FIFA approved that the stadium could be smaller and have 35,000 seats instead of the agreed 45,000. The arena in Kaliningrad will be the smallest stadium of the twelve. After the FIFA World Cup, the stadium is used by Kaliningrad football club Baltika and hosts national championships.

Tips for when you go on holiday to Kaliningrad

Visa for Russia

To enter Kaliningrad Oblast, you need a Russian visa. You can apply for a tourist visa at the Consular Department of the Russian Embassy at Scheveningseweg 2 in The Hague. The visa application takes approximately ten working days and costs €35 (as of 2017). With a tourist visa you can stay in Kaliningrad (or other areas in Russia) for thirty days.
Source: Alexander Pronin, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-4.0) Access only with a passport
You cannot travel to Russia with the Dutch identity card (ID card). If you do not have a passport, you can apply for one from the municipality. The duration of the passport application depends on the municipality, but usually does not take longer than two weeks. A passport costs about 65 and is valid for ten years (for adults in 2017). The passport must be valid for at least six months and have two blank visa pages.

No euros

The only legal tender in Kaliningrad Oblast is the Russian ruble. Converted, 1 euro is approximately 68 Russian rubles (in July 2017). So banknotes are also printed with high amounts of up to 5,000 Russian rubles. This seems like a lot, but in reality it is only 72 euros. Dutch bank cards with a Maestro or Cirrus logo are accepted at ATMs and payment machines. Contact your bank before your holiday and find out whether your bank card has been locked. Many banks, such as Rabobank, block the card for use outside Europe to protect the card holder from misuse. You can also request Russian rubles from the bank so that you can bring cash to Kaliningrad.