Rather than rebuild Kaliningrad, the Soviets turned the city into an architectural utopia
England now travel to a city of ghosts and — it must be said — a place where that boorish song about ‘10 German bombers’ and the ‘RAF from England’ could hardly be more inappropriate.
Kaliningrad was Konigsberg, an old German city, when British air power flattened it more than 70 years ago and the collateral damage is still all around.
An obscure museum to days past displays dolls and books from a German kindergarten, salvaged from the ruins in 1945.
But what happened next turned this place into the land that time forgot. The USSR annexed it, the few remaining Germans fled or were expelled, and the city was renamed after a Stalinist henchman, Mikhail Kalinin.
Rather than rebuild it, the Soviets turned the city into an architectural utopia — as they saw it — of wide roads and concrete high-rise blocks.
Those brutal-looking buildings will form a grim backdrop to England v Belgium on Thursday, in an enclave detached from Russia and cut off from Europe for the many inhabitants who cannot afford the visa required to cross into the countries that border it: Poland and Lithuania.
Enticing tourists has been a monumentally hard sell, since visitors need a full Russian visa to enter just for a day. Getting out of the place is also not easy. Vladimir Yermakov, a barman, says: ‘The flights to Moscow are expensive and over land the journey is long and needs a visa which costs. There is no special settlement with Moscow to recognise the problems of being an island in a country and being out on our own.’
The fabric of Kaliningrad bears out his complaint. Many of the tenements are grotesque and crumbling, while some of the roads are uneven and the trams ancient.
Yet you feel the cost of host city status might be worth it, if only to get Kaliningrad on the map. The region’s dour tourism chief Yevgeny Maslov — officially ‘head of state protection of heritage sites’ — will not say how much has been spent on enhancing the city for the tournament but he does say it will help the place out of its obscurity.
‘It’s not a competition with other cities and I do understand, being the capital or being bigger, they can attract more people,’ Maslov tells Sportsmail. ‘But I think we can attract newcomers and show them there is something different and unusual about our city.’
The Russians now see a value in the German architecture which the Soviets consigned to the scrap-heap. They have been working on the distinctive town houses which remained intact. ‘We have cleaned up their facades so they look as they did,’ says Maslov.
The relationship with the German past seems an uneasy one, in a city where some of the street names from the pre-Soviet days remain. Though locals talk of attracting German tourists to a city which once belonged to their country, the museum at the Friedland Gate is obstinately Russian, with neither German nor English translations on the displays.
Officials insist the new 35,000-capacity stadium will not be a white elephant after the games
It does not tell the stories of the civilians who died. A sophisticated 3D film of the city’s history, which seems to have been prepared for the World Cup, characterises the city’s Russian period as the one which made the people happy.
The millennials here call their city ‘Little Russia’ and for them the Motherland is ‘Big Russia’, though they seem to look to the west, rather than the east.
‘We are more European,’ says Ekaterina, 20, a World Cup volunteer. ‘We feel European. There is now an arrangement where it only costs 4,000 roubles (£50) for a visa to cross into Lithuania and from there we can visit other places. We might take the bus to Berlin. I think people in Kaliningrad and Big Russia differ very much.’
Another volunteer, 20-year-old Valeria, feels differently. ‘We and the rest of Russia are not so different,’ she says. ‘Every country is multi-national. There are just different cultures.’
There have been calls from a monarchist, anti-Communist movement, Baltic Vanguard of Russian Resistance, to break away. In March, one of their leaders, Nikolai Sentsov, became the fourth member of the group to be detained. This is a hardcore minority. An independent state would not be economically viable. But in a country where opposing Vladimir Putin is a struggle, dissident discussion is hard to find.
Sportsmail found the shutters down at the Kaliningrad offices of activists loyal to Alexei Navalny, who opposed Putin in March’s presidential election. There was graffiti on the outside of the building, on Leninskiy Prospekt, and no sign of life. Solomon Ginzburg, deputy of the Kaliningrad regional duma, did not want to talk.
The host city has been working hard to promote the region’s broader appeal and tourism chief Maslov insists the new 35,000-capacity stadium will not be a white elephant after the last of their four World Cup games.
The area struggles with tourism since visitors need a full Russian visa to enter just for a day
‘The stadium is a normal size so they are going to be OK,’ he says. ‘It’s not an issue to be worried about. Young boys here can play in this stadium and maybe play in a World Cup, too, one day.’
FC Baltika Kaliningrad, who are expected to occupy the stadium, draw average crowds of 4,500, though they have just been promoted to Russia’s top flight.
Putin urged regional leaders last month not to allow expensive new stadia to become ‘flea markets’. That happened to venues during the economic crisis of the 1990s. Baltika’s stadium, where the grand entrance is made of columns taken from a German church almost flattened during the air raids, staged sales of European cars, which were lined up around the pitch.
They were making the most of the party while it lasted on Wednesday, with the DJ at FanFest near the German castle ruins imploring supporters of Spain and Morocco to step inside.
The morning drizzle had developed into rain, so it was a struggle, just as it has always been here.