The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
FIsh Village: The tourist attraction sits on the banks of the Pregolya River in Kaliningrad, Russia. | Michael Amundsen / Christian Science Monitor

Kaliningrad’s Drift toward Europe Shows What Happens to Russians Cut Off from Russia, Nationalist Commentator Says

Staunton, May 15 – Separatist and pro-German sentiment among ethnic Russians in Kaliningrad reflects not only German revanchist efforts but the threat of “the alienation of young from the Russian world” if they are “cut off” for a lengthy period from Russia and if Moscow acts as if “’there are no problems’” with such people, according to a Russian nationalist writer.

In an essay on Stoletie.ru entitled “Crimea has Returned but Will Kaliningrad Leave?” Vladimir Shulgin argues that “the events in Ukraine obviously showed what will happen with a people who for a long time are intentionally separated from their true Russian name, spirituality and customs.”

The Russian nationalist’s words underscore something that Moscow is loath to admit and that helps to explain some of the hysteria behind the Kremlin’s words and actions: Russian identity is far less strong than Russians would like the world to believe, and Russians in the non-Russian countries are different from and even antagonistic to Russians in the Russian Federation.

Shulgin begins his article by asking directly “Why has our Baltic Shore suddenly been seized by an obsession with all things Koenigsberg?” Why are people in what he describes as “a typical Russian region, where [the members of that ethnic community form an enormous majority of the population saying and doing such pro-German things?

“What,” in short he asks, “does all this mean?”

In part, Shulgin says, it reflects the actions of German writers and bloggers who promote the idea of the restoration of a German Koenigsberg and who are able to win over marginal elements who carry German flags and march around. But this “separatist” movementreally “exist only in their imagination.”

German commentators call any manifestation in Kaliningrad an indication of the appearance of “die Deutsch-Russen” (German-Russians) and encourage Germans in Germany to support them. Indeed, the message to the latter may be more important than the former: Germans need to be Germans and not Europeans or Atlanticists.

But if the Koenigsberg movement is not as strong as some German writers suggest, it does exist and has a basis for doing so, Shulgin writes. And there is the chance that the movement’s activists may succeed in organizing a referendum in support of some if not all of their goals.

That is because the Russian community of Kaliningrad is largely cut off from Moscow and has begun to articulate narrow regionalist goals: autonomy from the central government, the right of return of Germans who were forced out, and the renaming of cities, towns and streets to reflect their original German titles.

Another reason they may succeed, the Russian commentator says, is that in the face of German propaganda and the lack of well-articulated national sensibilities among the Russians in Kaliningrad, “local politicians in essence do not interfere with the separatist mobilization of public opinion.”

Shulgin’s article does not mean that he believes Kaliningrad is going to become independent as “the fourth Baltic state” as some have predicted or transfer from Russian to German sovereignty, but it clearly does mean that he and others in Moscow fear that Russian identity there is weaker than they would like it to be and that measures must be taken.