By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
Russia’s Kaliningrad’s Westward Look Now Questioned
Kaliningrad, a small Russian exclave, is frequently in the news in Eastern Europe, as it has become more and more westernized and increasingly a tourism destination. Most Americans probably never heard of Kaliningrad, but Russia’s recent support for ethnic Russians in Ukraine has drawn world attention to Russia’s extraterritorial influences. Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea certainly worries the governments of Eastern Europe, none more than Kaliningrad’s neighbors.
The small exclave of Kaliningrad is located between Lithuania and Poland, separated from Mother Russia by 225 miles (362 km). The Russian military hid nuclear weapons there following the devolution of the Soviet Union and many feared that the weapons might be stolen or sold on the black market.
Most students of European history recognize present-day Kaliningrad as the former Königsberg, capital of East Prussia. The U.S.S.R annexed Kaliningrad in 1945 after the Potsdam agreement between the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union ceded the city to the Soviets following World War II.
Königsberg, situated on the Baltic Sea, was a potential commercial and military treasure for the Soviets. The Soviets desperately wanted a port on the southern Baltic Sea, despite already having access in the northern Baltic on the Gulf of Finland at St. Petersburg/Leningrad.
Year-round water transport access to the north Baltic had long been problematic for Russia. Russian Czar Peter the Great sought a window on the Baltic Sea by building St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, a narrow and northern arm of the Baltic. However, harsh winters often iced in this famous port. Königsberg’s coastal location adjacent to Poland’s northeast coast made it more reliable in the winter.
The Soviets made the region of Königsberg a Russian oblast (an administrative unit), an exclave of the Soviet Socialist Republic, and renamed it and the city Kaliningrad. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and Lithuania and Belarus became independent countries, Kaliningrad became a true Russian exclave, isolated from Russia proper. That meant Russians had to cross international borders to reach the oblast.
The Kaliningrad oblast contains 5,830 square miles (15,100 sq km) today, only about half the size of Connecticut. Three-quarters of its 940,000 inhabitants are classified as urban, living in Kaliningrad city.
Kaliningrad’s population and culture are distinctly Russian. Toward the end of World War II, most of the Germans who occupied the city abandoned it. Rather quickly, Kaliningrad was overwhelmed through “Russification,” the process whereby people of Russian culture flooded in. Over the past 55 years, first the Soviets and then the Russians made the port city a major naval complex, mostly off limits to Westerners until recently.
An article in the Christian Science Monitor (Dec. 9, 2012) called Kaliningrad a “Russian island encircled by Europe,” with strong European cultural influences and loosening Russian influences. Kaliningrad’s citizens are easily able to visit Gdansk, Poland, and Berlin, Germany, bringing home both western culture and western goods. Few other parts of Russia approach the high quality of life found in Kaliningrad today.
It is interesting to see landscape, economic and cultural changes occurring in Kaliningrad. As the city’s history is being showcased and tourism is encouraged, Kaliningrad continues, at least until recently, to look ever more westward and away from Russia. The political trajectory of this Russian enclave seems to portend an increasingly progressive future, unless Russia’s new aggressive nationalism dials back Kaliningrad’s westward leanings.
And that is Geography in the NewsTM
Sources: GITN #1180 Russia’s Kaliningrad Looks Westward, Maps.com,Jan. 11, 2013; GITN #557 Russia’s Hot Exclave: Kaliningrad, Maps.com, Feb. 2, 2001; and Admundsen, Michael, “Kaliningrad: A Russian Island Encircled by Europe,” Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 17, 2012.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.