History of Kaliningrad: how Prussian lands became “historic Russian territory”

Lithuanian-Russian border
Lithuanian-Russian border with Kaliningrad, picture VSAT

The name Kaliningrad is the subject of much debate these days. Russia complains and lies while the world walks warily around. The region seems to be of great importance to Russia, even though the Russians have been in control of these German lands for just over 60 years Jūratė Važgauskaitė writes in TV3.lt.

Historians say that the region’s history is painful and difficult and that there is now only a shadow of what used to be a prosperous region. These lands belonged to the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire before finally ending on the winning side of the Second World War.

Nothing remains of the old town

Until the Second World War outbreak, East Prussia was a prosperous, if isolated, corner of Germany. In the first half of the 19th century, Kaliningrad became a major city. New housing estates were built on the city’s outskirts, and buses and trams ran in the city from 1895.

In 1926, the fourth railway station, one of the largest and most modern in Germany, was built, along with a large hall where the so-called German East Fair was held.

An airport has been open since 1919. From 1941-1945, during the Second World War, the fortress was fortified with an underground electricity station, factories, underground tunnels and other communications.

In late August and early September 1944, the city was bombed by British and US aircraft and suffered a 3-month Soviet siege and an attack in April 1945. About 70% of all buildings were destroyed in the centre of the city.

At the beginning of April 1945, before the storming of Kaliningrad, the city had a population of about 150 000 inhabitants. At the end of April 1945, only about 25 000 inhabitants remained after the attack.

The Soviets, during their rule, destroyed the Old Town and other important cultural buildings by destroying their historical heritage. In the 1960s, the walls of Königsberg Castle and other buildings were blown up under Soviet orders. New streets were built in place of the densely built-up neighbourhoods with ornate historic buildings, and the old houses were abandoned.

The centre of Kaliningrad, considered Europe’s most militarized region, is now bigger than it was before the war. Kaliningrad is home to 460 000 people – almost half of the region’s population. During the Soviet era, there was little left of the former Kaliningrad.

He even tried to take back what was not his

Algirdas Jakubčionis, an associate professor at Vilnius University, speaking about the history of Kaliningrad, said that Stalin “took back” the place, which had never been inhabited by Russians, from the Allies, explaining that it was “historical Russian lands”.

This, the historian said, shows that neither the language nor the methods have changed since Stalin’s time. Russia can call any territory, at any time, “its historical lands” and try to take them back

In 1943, at the Teheran Conference, Stalin made a series of territorial and other demands on the Allies as to what he would “take” when the war was over. All of them were accepted because the war was not yet over, and Soviet active participation in the war was needed.

The Allies felt obliged to the Soviets because of their contribution to the war against Nazi Germany, so there was no major objection to their wishes, at least not vocally. In fact, even at the time of the Potsdam Conference, Stalin was not yet sure whether he would get what he wanted, namely the ports of Konigsberg and Memel, and he needed both.

“One of the most interesting demands, which remained unfulfilled, was the desire to recover Port Arthur, a port on Chinese territory, which Russia had lost after the unsuccessful Russo-Japanese war in 1905. Stalin explained that, 40 years on, nothing has been forgotten and that the territory must return to Russia. This is a classic Russian version, where territories that once belonged to them have to “return”, said the historian, who stressed that not only territories in the Far East but also in Europe have to “return” to Russia, even if they never belonged to Russia.

The Soviets saw themselves as victims of the war and demanded whatever they wanted, and the Allies did not object. Nobody wanted to keep the territories that were Germany’s, so the partitions did not seem painful to anyone except the local population.

“Stalin declared that he wanted East Prussia because it was ‘an ancient Russian land’, which was a clear lie. Even a thousand years ago, there were Baltic tribes living there, but no Russians or Slavs. Later, the territories belonged to the Germans. When Stalin was asked what he would do with the Germans once he had taken the territory, he replied, ‘ once we have taken it, there will be no Germans there. And he was right because the historian said that as the Soviet army passed through East Prussia, people fled or were killed in large numbers just to avoid falling into the Soviet clutches”.

The Colonists terrorized and made people laugh

According to him, Soviet-ruled Poland agreed that the Soviets would take over East Prussia up to the river Vistula and beyond the Vistula. After the takeover, Soviet colonists, primarily military personnel, began to move into East Prussia after the takeover. It was one of the most remote Soviet territories, so establishing bases was necessary. People were also brought in from various parts of the Soviet Union to rebuild East Prussia and settle there.

“There was a time when there was a shortage of vehicles, and camels were used on the streets to carry loads. There were also cases when the new arrivals did not know what a water supply was, broke it, broke fences in the meadows to separate pastures because it was alien to them, burned farm buildings because there was a shortage of firewood, looted and burned uninhabited houses for firewood, and otherwise destroyed a beautiful land that was alien to them,” the historian said.

According to him, East Prussia got its current name in 1946, when the old Bolshevik Mikhail Kalinin died.

There were thoughts of annexing Kaliningrad to Lithuania after creating economic districts. These were huge territories that were to be governed by local administrations, not by Moscow. The People’s Economic Councils were large administrative-economic districts where everything had to be managed independently. Let’s say Lithuania, Latvia and, Estonia, Moldova – there was one financial district each. This meant that, say in Lithuania, 80% of industry was managed from Vilnius.

“One of the Kremlin’s ideas was to annex the Kaliningrad region to the Lithuanian People’s Economic Council. There were even attempts to find Lithuanian equivalents for the names of Kaliningrad villages. <…> The deliberations took place, but thanks to the efforts of Mr Sniečkus, this was avoided.

The annexation of Kaliningrad would have meant a higher percentage of the Russian-speaking population in Lithuania and a significant militarization of Lithuania. It would have meant that Lithuania’s economy and the standard of living of its population would have fallen. It would have been necessary to keep Kaliningrad as well, which was not wanted.

It is believed that this is why Kaliningrad was refused, although I believe that Moscow decided it was better for that area to remain in the Soviet Union. The illusion is that the Allies gave Kaliningrad to the Soviets for half a century more. I have read the treaties. They say just hand it over, and that’s it. There is no time limit,” Jakubčionis said.

He added that Kaliningrad, like Klaipėda or Šiauliai, was a closed territory for foreigners, but the area was not closed to Soviet citizens. The city was not closed.

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