The Curse of the Bridgehead

Is Kaliningrad doomed to be forever a Russian military base?

2 August 2022

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Kaliningrad is Russia’s most westward oblast. While its position now makes it the most likely place for a flair-up directly between Moscow and the West, it is also Russia’s most ‘European’ region. 

My most vivid impressions of encounters with Kaliningrad are linked, although strangely,  to the nearby city of Gdańsk. I first visited Kaliningrad in the early 1990s. The feeling was heavy. The nature was reminiscent of Lithuania and Poland, but the architecture and atmosphere were that of a classic Soviet province. 

But the most interesting thing was yet to come. When, after a few days of living in Kaliningrad, I arrived in Gdańsk, entered the hotel lobby — an ordinary, still almost ‘socialist’ Polish hotel — and saw the pianist playing Chopin for the guests. 

I suddenly clearly felt the boundary that runs between two completely different worlds. Danzig, like Königsberg, was destroyed by the Second World War. But Danzig was restored, and Kaliningrad was deliberately destroyed throughout almost the entire Soviet period — becoming Moscow’s ‘New Cheriomushky’ in the centre of Europe.

Guessing Stalin’s Logic

A reader not interested in the history of the Second World War and the Soviet Union may not understand at all — how can part of the territory of the Russian Federation be so far from Russia? Why exactly here, between Poland and Lithuania? Of course, there is no precise answer to this question — simply because we will never know what Joseph Stalin’s motives were when he decided to create the Königsberg region within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). 

One thing, however, we know for sure. Stalin did not want this part of East Prussia to become part of the Polish state, following in the footsteps of other regions that were transferred from Germany to Poland after the Second World War. This is even though Poland had more historical ties with the region than Russia.

Nevertheless, Stalin needed another naval base in the Baltic. But he was not the leader of the RSFSR — he was the leader of the Soviet Union. Why did he decide to transfer the Königsberg region to the RSFSR?

The Lithuanian SSR could have been a much more logical and natural claimant to this part of East Prussian territory. Unlike Russia, it shares a border with the region. And for Lithuanians, it is the region of ‘Mažoji Lietuva,’ strongly associated in Lithuanian historical and cultural consciousness with the names of Martynas Mažvydas and Kristijonas Donelaitis.

Nevertheless, Stalin chose the RSFSR. This decision may have been influenced by relations with the allies in the anti-Hitler coalition. It is worth remembering that both the United States and the United Kingdom regarded the accession of the Baltic states to the Soviet Union as an occupation and not as a ‘voluntary decision of the peoples.’ 

After the Second World War, they preferred not to remember this occupation until the beginning of perestroika. However, Stalin’s arbitrary change of Lithuania’s borders could have led to discussions that the leader did not need. 

Kaliningrad as a Trap for Central Europe

Stalin, the first People’s Commissar for Nationalities in Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik government, was a master of creating ‘traps’ for the Soviet republics. Nakhichevan is separated from Azerbaijan by Armenian territory. Nagorno-Karabakh is inhabited mainly by Armenians and surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. North Ossetia is part of the RFSSR, and South Ossetia is part of Georgia. Enclaves of some Central Asian republics in other republics. All these traps are still in operation three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

‘The Red Emperor’ may have thought that he was creating such a trap not only for Lithuania but also for Poland and the whole of Central Europe. A trap just in case of any unforeseen circumstances for the empire. Even today, when one can only guess at Stalin’s possible intentions, the presidents of Poland and Lithuania are going to Suwałki together, confirming the immortal thesis of Russian columnist Mikhail Gefter — Stalin died yesterday — if he died at all.

At the same time, the whole history — and even ordinary life — in the Kaliningrad region in the first decades of its existence — shows that Moscow treated the region precisely as a conquered military base. Any memory of East Prussia’s German past was mercilessly destroyed, but at the same time, nothing Russian was created. 

Kaliningrad was just a ‘bridgehead’ — that is why the atmosphere was so strikingly different from that in the Polish city of Gdansk or the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda. For the country of which it had become a part, it remained a foreign city, which was needed only by the USSR Ministry of Defence. 

Kaliningrad as More Than Just a Military Base

Changes did not begin until after 1975 when the signing of the Helsinki Final Act convinced the Soviet leadership of the inviolability of the borders. And, of course, the beginning of Gorbachev’s perestroika and the emergence of a new Russia on the world map made it possible to believe that the unique geographical location of Russia’s ‘most European region’ was an advantage rather than a problem. 

I remember well how, over the years, the atmosphere in Kaliningrad gradually began to change, how people appeared who understood that it was impossible to live in the region and not think about its heritage and potential. I also remember conversations with the first ‘non-Soviet’ governor of the Kaliningrad region, Yuri Matochkin. 

A professor and head of a local training centre, he treated Kaliningrad not as a bridgehead and base for the Baltic Fleet but as a unique region in Russia and Europe. He fought to create a special economic zone in the region. But all these attempts were fruitless in the Russia that emerged. A Russia ruled first by bandits and then by the Cheka. 

The City’s Position as a Source of Fear and Hope

Under Putin, the commander of the Baltic Fleet, Vladimir Yegorov, would immediately become the governor of the Kaliningrad region, which would eventually revert to being a ‘beachhead’ and an ‘outpost.’ And now that we are talking about Kaliningrad, we are only interested in one thing — will the region’s territory be used for aggressive actions against neighbouring countries? Will the Kaliningrad region become where the ‘hot conflict’ between Russia and NATO is started, or perhaps the beginning of a third world war?

The atmosphere in which the discussion on the ‘correction’ of the Kaliningrad transit rules through Lithuanian territory shows that now, these are not theoretical discussions after Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

And yet, I still try to think of the future not only as an era of war and confrontation. Yes, of course, in Putin’s Russia, the Kaliningrad region has only two options for development — to become a territory of military operations or a region that will forever be stagnant and economically insecure.

But ‘forever’ still does not apply to the Putin regime. The political and economic model the KGB proposed to Russia has been unviable from the start. And this is where the most important question arises — the fate of the Kaliningrad region after Putin’s Russia.

Kaliningrad is the most European region of the Russian Federation. This fact is both due to geography and the population’s experience. Many of the region’s residents have been much more likely to visit Lithuania, Poland or Germany than Russia in recent decades. 

Of course, Kaliningraders relate to Russian propaganda, but not to Russia as such. And as the authoritarian regime weakens, the region’s residents will inevitably have questions about its future.

And this is not even a discussion of the age-old topic of Russia’s possible collapse. 

It is an understanding that in a Russia that would like to be a civilised state and not a terrorist organisation, Kaliningrad could play a special role, becoming not a ‘springboard’ for an attack but a region of Europeans.

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Picture: A.Savin, WikiCommons

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.

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