Kaliningrad or Karaliaučius: A land fought over for centuries

Kaliningrad RIA/Scanpix

The Soviet army would take its reservists from Pabradė to these wastelands, which had not seen a plow since the war. The firing ranges were pitted with bomb craters and collapsed trenches, and the overgrown villages seemed like the Russian countryside during serfdom.

It was a slushy March and we were sleeping in tents on wet sticks, drying our shoes next to a “buržuika” wood stove. In the morning, we had to deepen the frozen earth in the trenches. Once, during the summer thaw, we watched with horror as a Russian tank with a Lithuanian driver – I think his last name was Putna – sank under the ice in a deep, muddy puddle. Nobody could help him…

This strengthened the dark impression I got of this impoverished Baltic land, which the Balts, Germans and Slavs fought over for bloody centuries. That impression has remained to this day, though the Kaliningrad zone was declared a free economic zone in 1991. In 1995, when the free economic zone was closed, Vladimir Putin decreed that it would be a special economic zone that would come into effect in 2006, after a 10-year delay.

This region of more than 15,000 square kilometers with 938,000 residents had to attract special attention from investors, but it remained a strategic, exceptionally militarised Russian forward outpost against the West.

The well-being of the region’s people also was not helped by the fact that, for a long 30 years, the Pregolsko village near Kaliningrad was the home of Putin’s in-laws. Until November of 2001, Jekaterina Škrebniova, the mother of Liudmila Putin, lived here.

After a complicated eye surgery, Škrebniova moved to Moscow, closer to her powerful son-in-law. She should be about 90 now, but there is no telling whether or not she is still alive.

In an interview with a local newspaper in January of 2000, Škrebniova complained: “What of it, that I’m the president’s mother-in-law?” She said that her son-in-law never visits and he didn’t even have time during his visits to Kaliningrad or for military exercises. Meanwhile, she complained of a leaky roof (she lived in a standard apartment in an old three-story German building damaged by bombing) and of the indifference of state support services. However, she was proud of the proletarian unification of the two families’ origins.

Putin has also never visited Lithuania, unless he flew over it. In an interview with Komsomolskaja Pravda on 19 January 2000, Škrebniova said that after their marriage in Leningrad in 1983, the two newlyweds drove a blue Zhiguli through the entire Baltic region, and even through Lithuania, to visit their mother-in-law – though not without a few adventures… Putin never spoke to his in-laws about his work, but even if he had, it wouldn’t have sounded bad to the post-war settlers, who were typical newcomers in the old Prussian lands.

Under the Potsdam conference’s decision on 25 February 1947 taken by the countries that won World War II, this region, as a source of German militarism, was taken from Germany and shared between two countries that had won the war. The northern part went to Russia, which is where the Kaliningrad oblast is now located. The southern part went to Poland, then a part of the Soviet Union. After that, the region’s ethnic composition changed yet again as Baltic Germans emigrated en masse to Germany. They were replaced by Russians in Kaliningrad oblast and Poles in Poland.

The former Prussian kingdom, which was dominant in a unified Germany, had an autonomic status within Germany until 1945. However, the Prussian legacy was deliberately destroyed. On 4 July 1946, the Konigsberg region was renamed to Kaliningrad, although Mikhail Kalinin, the chairman of the Supreme Council who had died just a month previously, did not have any relationship to Konigsberg. German and Lithuanian place names that the Nazis had not managed to change were changed to Russian ones.

It was only after the fall of the Berlin wall that some began thinking about the renewal of Prussian heritage. After Germany was reunified, in 1989, it began developing Prussian cultural heritage, and there were even considerations of the return of the name “Prussia” to the region. However, the residents of Brandenburg and Berlin voted against this in a referendum in 1996.

The fate of the region was decided during the Potsdam conference. As reserve colonel Jonas Užurka wrote – that was when the borders of Eastern Prussia (not Kaliningrad oblast) were drawn. The question of the Soviet Union’s Western borders had to be conclusively decided in the Allied peace treaty’s Peace Conference, where the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union would finally decide on the enclave’s status.

That is how a third of the northern part of Eastern Prussia was handed over for the USSR to manage – until the Peace Conference would decide otherwise. Because Moscow was interested in that never happening (Joseph Stalin would tell the West that all of the Germans had fled Konigsberg, so there was no reason to recreate Prussia), the USSR changed the 50-year management timetable to a voluntary incorporation into its own territory.

To tell you the truth, Lithuania is also interested in this land, and not only because it was once Baltic territory. Moscow itself began the intrigue. As the front moved through the Baltic states, wrote Soviet historian Romas Šarmaitis in his journal in 27 February 1944, nobody had any doubt that the Klaipėda region would be connected to Lithuania. According to him, Vyacheslav Molotov had spoken to Lithuanian communists in Moscow about the question of Lithuania’s Western border.

At the time, Lithuanians were quick to create a commission to analyze this question. The commission included Professors Povilas Pakarklis and Juoza Žiugžda; writer Antanas Venclova; pre-war financial commissar and 10-year post-war prisoner Juozas Vaišnoras; and Lithuanian etymological researcher Borisas Larinas from Leniningrad.

When Antanas Sniečkus met with artists on his birthday in 1973, he told them about how in 1944 in July or August he had spoken to Stalin about Vilnius, and Stalin allegedly ordered “the republic’s governmental bodies to locate themselves in Vilnius, which is related to so many of the aspirations of the Lithuanian people”. Who can say whether he had not discussed the fate of Eastern Prussia at the time as well, if not its incorporation into socialist Lithuania?

The main task of the commission led by Larin was to identify how much territory should be connected to Lithuania. According to the proposal they prepared, which Lithuania’s socialist government agreed to, the Lithuanian SSR’s border had to encompass Tilžė (Tilsit or Sovetsk), Įsrutis (Insterburg or Chernyakhovsk), Gumbinė (Gumbinnen or Gusev) and Tolminkiemis (Tollmingen or Chistye Prudy), coming within 60km of Konigsberg. According to the commission, Konigsberg would have remained a free city, the way Danzig had been before the war.

But why not connect all of Eastern Prussia? As historian Antanas Kulakauskas said in a conference on Eastern Prussia about 20 years ago, the commission’s main argument was the Lithuanian place names throughout the region.

The commission had no doubt about the Lithuanianness of Eastern Prussia. However, it had run into another problem – within what boundaries should an independent Poland be recreated? This problem touched the fat of Vilnius. However, everything was decided by the interests of the victor, the Soviet Union – to have warm-water ports in Memel and Konigsberg in the Baltic sea.

At the time (an even more so now), the connection of the old Prussian lands to Lithuania was somewhat of a fantasy. Šarmaitis, who had no idea how things would progress in 1944, wrote in his journal: “Of course, moving too much into Germanised lands would not do – there would only be more toil and trouble with our neighbours the Germans.” He had no suspicion that Molotov’s hint could have been disliked by Stalin and the thousands of Kaliningrad oblast settlers who considered Lithuanians to be fascists.

The settlers would say: “The Lithuanian bourgeois is agitating us with propaganda. They’re asking us why we came here. They’re saying there will be a war soon. They’re saying that everyone here is waiting for the Americans.”

By the way, those naïve and unfulfilled hopes were stimulated even further in the autumn of 1944. As Naujasis Židinys-Aidas wrote three years ago, the Vilnius State University’s Physical Geography faculty at the time received an order to organize a file of German and Lithuanian place names in Easter Prussia and create a matching map. Vytautas Gudelis, who worked at that faculty at the time and later became a famous Lithuanian geographer, said that they had worked very enthusiastically on this project.

They collected Germanised place names, returned them to their Lithuanian forms, and tried to create a map, but in January 1945 the university’s rector said that the work was no longer necessary.

It is believed that Sniečkus was dissuaded from further hopes by his overblown loyalty to the Kremlin which had not said anything about a different status for the Kaliningrad oblast. Rumours began to spread in Vilnius that this land was too neglected to appropriately use it for agriculture. However, in 1960, the leader of the Lithuanian Communist Party (LKP) had written the following sentiments in his notes after a visit to the Kaliningrad region: “Oh, that old Prussian land, its Lithuanian family…”

On the other hand, after Stalin’s death, Sniečkus fell into the bad graces of Lavrenti Beria which made him very cautious about asking such risky questions.

Historians believe that, having been in good favour with Nikita Kruschev, the leader of the LKP still held his sentiments for Eastern Prussia for some time but was talked out of seeking the Curonion Lagoon region, let alone the connection of the Kaliningrad region to Lithuania, anew by Mikhail Suslov.

The Lithuanian state that restored its independence in 1990 allegedly presented a threat to Kaliningrad, wrote Naujasis Židinys. At the time, the Kaliningrad Lithuanian community was only registered after many failed attempts. When the post-Soviet military was withdrawn from Lithuania in the middle of 1993, there was a long-lasting “cold war” between Lithuania and Russia regarding transit into Kaliningrad through Lithuania.

The tensions between the two states never subsided, and after the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, those tensions only increased. Russia has consistently been “Iskanderising” this exclave and increasing its military potential.

On the anniversary of the Potsdam conference, international law expert Dainius Žalimas said of the historical narrative of the enclave, “if the occupation of those Eastern European territories hadn’t have been left to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, the only alternative would have been another war. The West decided to wait until the Soviet empire collapsed on its own, which paid off, just not very quickly,”

Something might await us today as well it would seem, if Russia will crumble and that region will be given to Lithuania. Then, Lithuania’s area would be 80,000 square metres, we’d have even more access to the Baltic Sea, we’d be even closer to the West, and the West would rid itself of a very dangerous and continentally de-stabilising territory.

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