ZOiS Spotlight 28/2018

How the World Cup made its mark on Kaliningrad

by Rita Sanders 25/07/2018
Alexandre Matveev

If you had asked people in Kaliningrad, the former Königsberg, about the 2018 FIFA World Cup a year or so ago, most of them would have shrugged their shoulders. They would probably have told you that football is not as popular in Russia as it is elsewhere and that Russia only qualified because it was chosen as the host nation. Just six months later, preparations for the World Cup were in full swing: roads were being resurfaced, hotels constructed and buildings given a facelift. Many locals were planning to learn some English and thinking about renting out their apartments to visiting fans. But there was also concern that the city might not match up to World Cup standards, with traffic congestion, the stadium and the House of Soviets near the fan zone being mentioned in particular. As it turned out, the congestion was bearable and the stadium was praised for its amenities. Only the House of Soviets continued to give cause for concern.

Wrangling over the city centre

The House of Soviets was built in the 1970s close to the former site of Königsberg Castle, which had been demolished shortly before. Never completed, the House of Soviets reminds some locals of the grand visions and unrealised hopes of the Soviet era. To others, this Brutalist colossus in downtown Kaliningrad is a Soviet provocation which should have been expunged from the cityscape long ago. And some residents would like to see the Castle rebuilt. That option is not on the table, but then neither is the completion of the House of Soviets. Instead, during the World Cup, FIFA banners adorned the building’s rough-hewn exterior directly adjacent to the fan zone.

Most locals agree, however, that the refurbishment of Lenin Street, which connects the House of Soviets to Victory Square and the city centre, has been a success. Just a year ago, the street looked no different from countless others in the post-Soviet space, both sides lined with the typical low-cost, high-rise apartment blocks built under Nikita Khrushchev. In a matter of months, the facades had been smartened up and given a more traditional Hanseatic feel, prompting malicious comments about “Danzig Disneyland”. The criticism comes from two quarters. There are those who argue that there is no need to create artificial replicas of the old architectural style when the city’s heritage from the days of the old Königsberg is in need of preservation. Others protest that one of the city’s main thoroughfares now has a “neo-Germanic” appearance.

“Germanisation” of Kaliningrad

The discussion of how Kaliningrad should showcase itself as a host city for the World Cup was bound up with an ongoing debate about how to interpret its history. Many visitors from other countries are surprised to find historic Königsberg so much of a presence in today’s Kaliningrad. Konigsbacker, the city’s leading bakery, adorns its dozens of shops with large black and white photos of old Königsberg. Yet for years, the word “Germanisation” has been bandied about by politicians and locals who criticise what they see as false pride in Königsberg’s legacy and who express alarm at insidious German influence. As a result, institutions with links to Germany are closing down and buildings that date back to the days of the old Königsberg are left to decay.

Given the concerns about “Germanisation”, it comes as something of a surprise that one of the streets has been refurbished in the old Königsberg style. This was prompted by the World Cup, of course, but it is also connected more generally with tourism, which brings much-needed revenue into this economically isolated Baltic city. Tourism in Kaliningrad has been booming in recent years, largely due to the tensions with the “West” and the devaluation of the ruble, which have encouraged many Russians to vacation in their own country. Kaliningrad – viewed as quite exotic – fits the bill. Yet it brands itself on the basis of attractions – Immanuel Kant’s grave, ancient churches and the Königsberg fortifications – which date back to the city’s previous existence in another guise. Tourists from Russia express their delight at the European ambience, the cobblestones, the local cuisine. After its revamp in preparation for the World Cup, Lenin Street undoubtedly adds value and appeal to the city as a tourist destination. But the admiring glances are directed not at the architecture of old Königsberg but at today’s interpretation of history, translated into concrete form by a young architectural practice in Moscow.

A city full of fans

Many Croatian, Belgian and English fans enjoyed being in the city and were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome they received. They expressed noisy appreciation in front of the cameras, much to the delight of the locals. The mood in Kaliningrad during the World Cup was relaxed, open and conciliatory. For a moment, political wrangling slipped into the background and personal contact came to the fore. Defying their fearsome reputation, the English fans particularly enjoyed the Baltic, the beer and the Russian cuisine and some said they were planning a return visit. To locals, this showed the West in a positive light.

Many residents of Kaliningrad see themselves as Europeans who have been rejected by Europe. They are still coming to terms with their complex history between East and West in a city which seemed to have been forgotten by the outside world. Despite all the criticism of the misuse of football to score political points, it is clear that much has been gained from the World Cup: people are seeing each other as individuals and are visiting places which would otherwise have remained the abstract focus of suspicion and concern. The fan zone in front of a colossal and unfinished Brutalist building and the new yet traditional facades lining the street into the city centre have awakened a yearning for a reconciliation with history, revealing the city’s strength and resilience but also hinting at old wounds.

Rita Sanders is a researcher in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Cologne. Her research interests include migration, social networks, identity and ethnicity, cultural memory and cognitive anthropology. Her current project deals with mobility and translocal connectedness in Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad.