Tuesday, June 18, 2013

City K.

Frankencity: a statue montage of Kalinin, Kant, Lenin,
and Duke Albert. Can you tell what belongs to whom?

Königsberg. Kaliningrad. King's Mountain and city of Kant, renamed after a communist crony. Królewiec in Polish, Karaliaučius in Lithuanian, and Královec in Czech. Today the city is all and none of these. Kaliningrad is still written on maps and documents, but the name itself has become too narrow to fit the city. Since the end of the Soviet Union, there have been periodic discussions about renaming Kaliningrad, and the topic has become something of a local pastime, albeit a controversial one. Yet despite decades of debate, the name has not changed, and the division of opinions over what the city should be called is as varied as the people who hold them. The question is not only one of semantics, but about the very identity of the city itself, about its attitude towards its past, and towards its future.

Kaliningrad received its current name in July, 1946, shortly after the death of its namesake Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, an old friend of Stalin's and a supporter of his in the struggle for power following Lenin's death. Kalinin was a member of the Politburo for twenty years, and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet -- officially the Soviet head of state, although in practice the real power belonged to the General Secretary of the Communist Party (at that time Stalin). While Kalinin may not have been directly responsible for the repressions and atrocities committed under Stalin's leadership, he certainly didn't oppose them, and his name appears among others on the NKVD's March 5, 1940 memorandum in approval of the execution of around 22,000 Polish prisoners in the Katyn Forest.

The post-war act of renaming Königsberg as Kaliningrad came to affirm, over the following decades, not only the city's new Soviet identity, but the active destruction of and disassociation from its pre-Soviet past. Beginning with the expulsion of the Germans, and continuing with the destruction of the castle's ruins and much of the city's other pre-war architectural heritage, the reclaiming of the ruined city was a powerful symbol of Soviet triumph and strength over fascism. Churches became auto repairs, fields of rubble became towering pre-fab apartment complexes, and Hitlerplatz became Victory Square. The people who built this new city still live in those grey-paneled apartments, and they are the parents and grandparents of the current generation. The idea of Kaliningrad as a rejection of Königsberg is still very much invested in those two names, and especially for the older generation the very idea of renaming Kaliningrad is blasphemous dishonor on the memory of the Soviet soldiers who died in taking the city. For them, seventy years of Russian life here has given the name Kaliningrad a historical weight of its own.

But for others, the act of renaming is less of a problem as the question of what name should follow. Many major Russian cities have renamed themselves as part of the process of de-Sovietization, among them Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Stalingrad (now Volgograd), and Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod). Besides Königsberg, Kalinin also gave his esteemed name to two other large cities (and a double handful of villages), which today are called Tver (named Kalinin in 1931) and Korolyov (named Kaliningrad in 1938). Many of these Russian cities chose to return to their pre-Soviet names, but although this Baltic Kaliningrad might also prefer to escape the cloud of its namesake, the option to revert to its own pre-war name is problematic.

Every few years a petition goes around to rename the city Königsberg (Russified awkwardly as Кёнигсберг). It never results in much, but supporters speak of the importance of acknowledging and honoring all of the city's long and unique history, of preserving the region's original placenames, of celebrating a meaningful regional identity, and of accepting historical responsibility for the last seventy years in a symbolic effort to make the city whole again. It is fashionable among a certain younger segment of the population to refer to the city as Königsberg on social media or in publications, even while opponents cry about the soft creep of revanchism and separatism. Personally, while I deeply support the goals of embracing a full and complex understanding of the city's past and of healing the deep rift between pre- and post-war history, I do not believe that restoring the name Königsberg is the right way to do it.

Königsberg is gone. The war and the Soviet Union were too thorough in their mission to scrub all traces of East Prussia from maps, memories, and minds. Of course some remnants of the architecture remain, and a few old coins and ceramics in museums, but the people, the culture, and the language are long gone. This city is Russian now -- which is not a value statement, but a simple statement of fact. The name Königsberg describes a specific civilization that existed in this place at a specific time, and while the place is still the same, the time and civilization have changed. To say that this city is still Königsberg is an appropriation of a history that cannot speak for itself, a simplification of an incredibly complicated past, and in some sense a dishonor to the city that was wholly razed by the war and to the people who died here or were expelled to live the rest of their lives in places far from home. Their city was not just ruined by the war; it ceased to exist except in memory. This is not Königsberg.

However, critics are also right to say that this city is no longer Kaliningrad either. That name is the legacy of a man and era that must be remembered, but is dangerous to idolize. Just because the Soviet Union won the war does not justify the crimes of Stalin, Kalinin, and many others, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Red Army's atrocities in its advance into Prussia. That reason alone is enough to change the city's name, but the issue is not only one of commemoration, but of current identity.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad is still part of Russia but no longer contiguous, and is forced to confront the implications of being surrounded by the European Union. It has developed its own regional identity, shaped by a deep consciousness of and pride for its unique balance between Russia and Europe. It is inherently part of both. This is no longer the closed and top-secret city of Kalinin, the essence of Cold War Soviet identity, but an open and increasingly international place that is shaped by both East and West. If Prussian Königsberg and Soviet Kaliningrad are two separate cities that happen to share a plot of land, then today there is a third Russian city to join them, and that is the one that needs a name of its own.

There are many suggestions for what this name could be, but unfortunately none of them have risen as a clear favorite. Suggestions include variations on Kantgrad (Кантград), obviously in honor of the philosopher, and Kalinagrad (Калинаград), a modification of the current name in homage to the Kalina Rose (Guelder Rose, in English), which has Slavic mythological meaning. My personal favorite is Korolevets (Королевец, or some variant thereof), which has the value of actual historical and linguistic roots, as well the evident necessity of starting with the letter K.

The original Teutonic fortress, which later became the royal castle, was supposedly named "King's Mountain" (perhaps referring to the Pregel's steep banks) in honor of the Bohemian King Ottokar II, who was a leader of the Teutonic crusades against the native Prussians. In Slavic languages this name survives variously as Královec (Czech), Królewiec (Polish), and Karaliaučius (Lithuanian, not actually Slavic), and was translated more or less literally into German as Königsberg. The Russian version of this Slavic name was Korolevets, or perhaps Krolevets, which was used on old maps instead of or next to the German form Königsberg. This is the name I advocate returning, as it encompasses the area's entire history but is still of Russian origin and acknowledges the city's current language and culture. For now, however, the majority of residents is still in favor of keeping the name Kaliningrad, for better or for worse.

The historical schism that so tortures this city today was created (and is maintained) by the attempt of one city to deny the existence and legitimacy of another. If this rift is to be closed, then the current city cannot afford to disavow either its Prussian or its Soviet past, and it must find some way of making peace with the war and the oblast's current position in Europe. If I were in charge, this would include enacting real protections for historic buildings and fortresses, including Soviet ones. The House of Soviets, that hulking monster, should be cleaned of asbestos and finally finished and given a real use. It would be repeating the crimes of the past to allow such a powerful symbol of the city to collapse, let alone to destroy it. A monument to the victims of the war should be erected on the island, which should remain open parkland as the most fitting memorial to the vibrant city which used to stand there. And for the love of Kant, let there be no more Potemkin reconstructions of Disneyland Prussia, like the new Fishing Village. But these are just my suggestions, and in three days I will no longer live here.

Fortunately this is a real debate that is happening now. There are strong advocates for all sides, and no one claims to know what this city will look like in twenty years. That is true for all of Russia, but especially for Kaliningrad Oblast. Globalization and the clash of generations both play a role, as the first group of young people come of age who were not born in the Soviet Union. The first generation that is not from either Königsberg or Kaliningrad might finally find a way to live both in Europe and in Russia, in three cities and in one.

They are City K.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Victory Day

On the last day of April, an olive-colored truck pulled up to the World War II tank memorial outside my dormitory and a team of soldiers climbed out, armed with buckets of industrial-strength paint. They proceeded to give the tank a spring makeover, repainting everything from the detail on the wheels to the entire green body and white regimental identifiers. I intermittently watched this process with amused disinterest from the balcony, returning to discover, after the painters had left, that the tank  my tank, which I have come to regard with a mix of antipathy and black fondness  had suffered a defamatory insult. Where before its long green muzzle had proudly sported six red stars, a badge, I presumed, of destroying six Nazi tanks, now there were only four. In one afternoon, my tank's valor had decreased by one third! I felt confused and betrayed, and called into question everything I thought I knew about my neighborhood tank, which has stood immovably outside my window through rain and snow, tolerant of clambering children and drunken carousing alike. Were the six original stars themselves a lie? Perhaps my tank had never earned such glory, or perhaps the opposite was true, and it had been far more victorious, deprived of stars every year at the whim or laziness of its painter.

A week later, on the eighth of May  the last school- and workday before Victory Day and in fact the actual day German forces surrendered in Europe (although it was already the ninth in Moscow)  a steady stream of schoolchildren filed noisily by my window with armfuls of red flowers. Chaperoned by teachers carrying umbrellas, just in case the heavy sky decided to relieve the muggy pressure with a massive thunderstorm, the students covered the tank with their tulips and carnations, and when there was no more room on the exposed surfaces, they stuck them in the wheel wells and down the muzzle. And the red flowers matched the painted red stars and the red banners hung behind.


I mention this anecdote because I find it strangely fitting for the vagaries of fact and memory that define the war, and the sometimes absurd quality of commemoration in Russia today, and in Kaliningrad particularly. May 9 is not a day to be taken lightly. It is impossible for me to imagine the scale and horrors of the war, but I will be the first to acknowledge that the sheer enormity of the casualties suffered by the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945 is staggering and sobering. Estimates of Soviet war losses vary widely and are highly contested, but modern guesses put the number of military and civilian dead somewhere between 20 and 30 million, with the percentage borne disproportionately by what is today Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and western Russia.

If May 9 were only about remembering the dead and honoring veterans, then I would gladly carry flowers and stand in silence for those who lived and died in the war. Indeed, I have done so. But in Kaliningrad, of all places, the city's very identity is bound inextricably to the narrative of victory, which is a slightly different thing. This day means many things to many people, but I am sure that nowhere is it celebrated quite like in Russia, where on the ninth of May everything comes out in a spectacular patriotic glut of red flags, tank parades, military marches, and everywhere the greeting of "Happy Victory Day."

We had an unusually long winter, but by mid-morning on the ninth it was already well into seventy degrees and humid enough to make me sweaty from the five minute walk to Victory Square. Over the week prior, they had put up huge multi-story celebratory banners on the buildings around the square, and had slowly erected a large stand of bleachers, for VIPs to watch the festivities across from city hall in the luxurious comfort of seats and shade. We plebeians were left to join the masses crowding the square and both sides of Leninsky Prospekt. Our plans to meet at the nearby statue of Mother Russia had to be amended when we discovered that the street was already cordoned off, and it was forbidden to cross.

Instead, we claimed a spot not far from the square, behind several young children squeezed up to the cordon fence. I have never seen such crowds in this city before, even on the first few very nice days of spring when it seemed like everyone was out in the parks. Although our view of the street was good when we arrived, we got slowly pushed back by forceful latecomers, who had no compunction about worming their way straight through to the very front. Welcome to Russia. Squeezed up against everyone else's equally hot, sweaty, stinky bodies, we waited for the parade.

It started with twenty minutes of interminable marches, played by a military band whose melodies were lost in the crowd by the time we heard them. Then, divisions from every special branch of the military and police paraded around the square in full dress and weaponry, most bearing their own flags as well as the red Victory Banner  a replica of the flag raised over the Reichstag in 1945. After that, a few jeeps drove past bearing veterans, in a timely reminder that the war ended not seventy years ago, and there are still a few people left who were part of the storm of this city and have lived here since. I cannot imagine how much they must have seen it change.

The human part of the parade was then followed by a display of machinery that was clearly choreographed to grow in both size and absurdity. First, there were tanks, and the little boys in front cheered because they could finally see something on the street. Then there were tanks with rocket launchers, and then bigger tanks, and then armored vehicles with mounted red-tipped missiles, then giant trucks pulling enormous howitzers behind, and finally, in a finale of ultimate militancy, gigantic blunt-nosed vehicles with mysterious tubes on their back, presumably for transporting entire batteries of unknown missiles. The little boys cheered. I cheered in incredulous shock, first that there was something bigger than the howitzers, and then that there was something even bigger than that. And afterward, someone told me that this day is a celebration of peace.

Russian troops on Victory Square
Veterans under a banner "Happy Victory Day!"
Big guns
Bigger guns
Missiles
Bigger missiles?

Extricating ourselves from the press of people afterward took another thirty sweaty minutes, and we made a large circle to avoid the square and head west to a bus stop off Prospekt Mira. If Russia has taught me one thing, it is that a bus is never too full to fit two or five more people, even if, for no explicable reason, it has no windows that open. If Russia has taught me two things, it is to never ask why such things are so.

Regardless, our final destination, to which we walked the final half mile after abandoning the bus that had become stuck in traffic on its way to a lower level of hell, was the Fifth Fort. One of the fifteen massive brick defensive fortresses in a ring around the city that were built in the late nineteenth century, the Fifth is now a museum and the site of an annual Victory Day battle reconstruction. If you're not quite sure what this entails, well, neither was I, but the answer is mostly explosions and Nazis.

Because we had left quite soon after the parade, we were able to snag a prime front-battlefield seat on the "side of the Fascists." Behind us, an increasingly intoxicated group of Russians was enjoying what they loudly proclaimed was a very good bottle of schnapps. In front of us stretched a open field, traversed by a long ragged trench, several foxholes, and quite a lot of barbed wire. On the far side, to our left, was the Red Army encampment, with a tent, a couple large field gun installments, and people milling around in dun uniforms. On our side, perhaps thirty reenactors dressed in a hodge-podge of German military uniforms pottered around a campfire and set up a few machine guns in the trench. I watched a guy in an SS uniform make a few practice shots on his friend's rifle, then pull out a cell phone from his pocket and take a call. Several Gothic-print signs pointed towards destinations like Königsberg, Pillau, and Berlin, in case you weren't able to tell which side was the Germans' from the swastikas printed on the sandbags.

At this point, all my functions of higher thought short-circuited, and I kicked into a backup mode that I have come to understand enables survival in surreal situations. At the appointed hour, an unearthly wail of air-raid sirens began, and everyone gasped as a small plane with red stars on its wings buzzed low over the field, trailed by a series of spectacular fireballs on the ground that tossed up chunks of sod and made waves of heat. Suddenly, it was pursued by a second plane, marked with the cross of the Luftwaffe, and they chased each other around for a good fifteen minutes, performing stunts and earning cheers whenever the Soviet plane got low enough to make another bombing pass against the Germans. Eventually, the German plane disappeared and the Soviet one made a victory lap, to loud applause.

Then followed a brief parley, which ended in Nazi treachery as a camouflaged German fired some sort of bazooka at the departing Soviet officer, earning a new artillery bombardment in revenge. The Red Army slowly advanced, crawling through the tall grass and receiving resounding encouragement from the huge crowd every time they made a particularly daring maneuver. It was a little like a rowdy football game, if football games involved field artillery and Nazis. Behind us, the partiers had imbibed enough schnapps to be periodically confused about what was happening, and one man kept asking, "Are those guys ours?"

The outcome of the day was of course guaranteed from the beginning, and eventually some poor soul, who must have been dying of heatstroke in his German greatcoat, waved a white flag, while some other poor soul, equally laden with his wool Soviet getup, waved the red flag in victorious excitement, and everyone cheered. In a May miracle, the corpses righted themselves and returned to life, and the crowd poured onto the field for photos with both the victors and the recently dead.

Alright men, history might not be on our side, but at least our uniforms
look more intimidating.

Victory Day in its current incarnation is a recent phenomenon, and seems to be as much about Russia today as it is about remembering 1945. Although one of the babushkas that works at my dormitory told a story about watching fireworks in the 1950s from a Kaliningrad bridge with so many other people that she was afraid it would collapse, Victory Day wasn't the sort of massive annual national spectacle in the Soviet Union as it is today. There were military parades on Red Square only on the major anniversaries, in 1965, 1975, 1985, and 1990, and intermittent local celebrations in some cities since the sixties.

The huge annual televised parade on Red Square and the enormous celebrations all across Russia, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, really didn't start until 2005, and seem to be growing bigger every year. That year also marked the introduction of the wildly popular St. George's ribbon campaign  black and orange striped ribbons, reminiscent of the wartime Order of Glory, which are given out freely before the holiday and worn on lapels, handbags, or car antennas as a symbol of commemoration or as a stylish statement. Since the 65th anniversary of victory in 2010, the lavish scale of the celebrations, especially in Moscow, has been enormous, with the participation of tanks and other heavy military equipment being a particularly recent addition.

Reenactments and modern patriotism aside, the victory narrative itself bears further scrutiny. It invariably refers to the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война), which differs from World War II by including only the years 1941-1945, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941. This timeline presents the Soviet Union as a victim of treacherous invasion, while leaving out the part where Stalin made a secret pact with Hitler dividing Poland between them, which not only enabled Hitler to invade Poland in 1939 without fear of a two-front war, but also allowed Stalin to annex half of Poland himself  much of which territory Poland never regained. I don't mention this in an attempt to diminish the enormity of the loss and sacrifice that the Soviet Union endured during the war, or to imply that Victory Day is an artificial holiday today. May 9 is and should be about remembrance, but the war was complicated, and remembering it must be too.

Parsing this victory narrative in Kaliningrad adds further layers of complication, in a city where Lenin's statue on Victory Square has been replaced with a triumphal column bearing St. George himself under the inscription "Dedicated to the Great Victory, 1941-1945," and where much of the Russian-speaking population has always been connected to the military. Soviet victory over East Prussia and Germany  remains perhaps the single most fundamental part of Kaliningrad's identity today, even after nearly seventy years and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For almost the first fifty years after the war, that victory powered the destruction of all that remained of Königsberg, as well as the city's material and mental transformation into Kaliningrad. Today, it is still the lynchpin of Russian legitimacy and control in the area, even as the region has become an exclave once again and is now surrounded by NATO and the European Union. 

But the thing about victory is that it is just a point in time. Afterwards, life, no matter how different, must still go on, and Kaliningrad is surely a symbol of that. However it's celebrated, May 9 is ultimately just a single date in a city that struggles with these questions every day. 

"Happy Victory Day! / USSR Victory"
"9 May," on the city government building. Above, left to right, the flag of
Kaliningradskaya Oblast, Russia, and the Victory Banner. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Rest in (Not-so) Peace

On a scale of morbidity, I probably score above average, but far below your archetypal black-clad teenager who taxidermies small mammals instead of trying out for choir. I'm not particularly drawn towards death and the macabre, but neither do I find them inherently repulsive. I've always approached dead things and the topic of death from a biological, anthropological, or historical perspective. History, after all, is more full of death than the entire CSI franchise, but I wouldn't say that, on the whole, historians are better versed in how to date a body from the kinds of maggots in it. Death is a fact of life, and every society has its own beliefs and behaviors associated with it. For people who bury their dead, cemeteries are important loci of memory, both personal and cultural. They are natural places for reflection on the past, and for contemplation about one's own place in time. In a city with such a conflicted relationship to its history, it was only a matter of time before I started investigating the cemetery situation. Let's just chalk up my last week to academic research then, and leave morbidity out of it. Besides, there's always something interesting to find in a graveyard.

Königsberg, like all medieval cities, started with a small core and slowly spread outwards as its population grew. Burials were usually around churches -- inside the church if you were very important, within the immediate grounds if you were wealthy, on adjacent land if you were an average person, and outside the hallowed fence if you were a suicide or itinerant actor. Safety concerns from continued outbreaks of plague eventually led to the establishment of cemeteries separate from churches. After the construction of the city's ring wall and defensive fortifications in the mid-nineteenth century, the major cemeteries were located outside the wall.

There were many small cemeteries in Königsberg, but with the growth and modernization of the city in the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century, they conglomerated into just a few large main sites. Four of these are interesting enough to merit discussion, not because they are well-preserved, but precisely because they are not. Each has met its own grisly fate in the decades since the war, and today they vary from somber to hair-raisingly eerie. I thought I was getting used to stumbling into bizarre and surreal corners of this city, but apparently I was wrong.

Current map of Kaliningrad, with cemeteries of note highlighted in red.

Today, the Kaliningrad city cemetery is located out towards the end of Проспект мира, which used to be Hammerweg Straße. It is a huge, sprawling property, crammed to bursting with graves and memorials. If you've never been in a Russian cemetery before, it can be overwhelming. Each plot is usually individually fenced, and they are rarely organized in clear rows or columns. Rather, you must squeeze and pick your way through a chaos of painted enclosures, cramped within each of which are usually raised flowerbeds. Headstones commonly have engraved pictures of the deceased, which I find a little creepy. The general atmosphere is one of quiet disorder -- which, considering this is Russia, is fitting.

I came there, not to see the Russian graves, but because the ground has not always held Russians. Smack in the center of the city cemetery used to be the Second Luisen Friedhof (that is, the second cemetery associated with the Queen Louise Church, which was located quite a distance away). Apparently, the city's new Soviet masters, in need of a graveyard themselves, dug up the Germans buried there and replaced them with Russians, eventually expanding the cemetery's area by six or seven times the original. Wandering without much purpose through the maze of burial plots there today, I managed to stumble upon what seem to be the last remaining German headstones -- collected in a haphazard pile behind a low building. A few names are all that's left, now quite literally disembodied.

Городское кладбище (City cemetery) today -- the large green rectangular
shape at center
City cemetery map overlaid with a map from 1938. The territory
of II Luisen Friedhof is visible underneath.
Russian memorials.
Soviet memorials.
Wandering around, I stumbled on the tomb of Andrey
Josephovich Sommer (Андрей Иосефович Соммер),
Major-General of tank forces and Hero of the Soviet
Union. The street I live on is named after him, and the
tank in the square by my dorm is, I believe, a memorial
to him as well. 
A German headstone (Karl and Marie Zummach, 1868-1934 and
1878-1942, respectively) lies atop a pile of garbage somewhere in the
center of the cemetery. 
More old headstones. 
This is all that remains of the German cemetery here. 

Skipping across town, the eerie-levels ramped up several notches. Looking at old maps, I knew there used to be a huge cemetery right behind the lecture hall/dormitory complex where I teach at the university, and I'd heard rumors that it was possible to find a few Jewish headstones still standing there. So, on a sunny Friday afternoon, I and my co-explorer Fabi traipsed past the dorm and into the woods. The trees had not yet leafed out, and the ground was still covered in a thick soggy mat of brown leaves. The whole area was littered with beer bottles and empty cigarette cartons, clearly being used for illicit parting. Unsure where exactly to find the headstones, we wandered through the underbrush and garbage for about fifteen minutes, stumbling up and down over the uneven terrain. The ground had clearly been shaped by people several years ago, and at first I thought it was more trenches, although within the city seemed like an unlikely spot for them.

Eventually, we found our way onto a path winding through the sparse trees, which led us to a black iron fence. Entering through a large gap in the bars   -- there was an open gate on the other side, we later learned -- we had found the Jewish cemetery. In fact, the entire area used to be one large cemetery, subdivided into sections for various congregations. A Jewish foundation must have contributed towards building the fence around that particular section, because the enclosed area was slightly better preserved than woods around it.

A few birds twittered overhead, and after just a few meters we stumbled on our first indication that this was in fact a cemetery. A large piece of stone was half-buried in the path, carved in a floral motif, chipped in many places. We stepped over and looked up, suddenly seeing weathered pieces of rock everywhere. To the right was a broken slab of a large marker, still standing, with similarly massive pieces laying flat under the leaves. We cleared away the detritus, and discovered inscriptions on one, the words too worn to make out clearly. Here and there, empty stone borders that used to mark graves poked out of the earth, half-buried themselves, more marked by the trees growing out of their centers than by any long-stolen headstones.

We found only a few remaining stones with legible writing on them, in our hour or so of searching. The whole time, the birds chirped, a teenage couple made out on top of a particularly large and vandalized tomb, and I felt like this place couldn't possibly be real. It was a movie set, not a cemetery. Cemeteries are carefully maintained, pilgrimages of memory for the relatives of those interned within. This was long since forgotten, the remaining stones left to return to the earth, along with their names. Cemeteries are places of mortality, but the plots themselves seem eternal. It is doubly shaking to be confronted with the fact that not only will we die, but the stones that mark our heads will one day too return to dust.


Map today of Nevskogo, Litovsky Val, and Yuri Gagarina Streets.
Darker brown represents building developments. The largest green
blob at center is undeveloped "park land," much of which overlays
the old cemeteries.
Overlay with map of 1938, revealing the chain of cemeteries underlying
both building developments and parkland. The Jewish cemetery (Jsrael
Friedhof) is farthest left. The large oblong shape at center used to be
a hippodrome, and is squarely under where I now teach.
The only surviving Hebrew headstone we could find. 
Most of the cemetery looks like this -- slowly being reabsorbed by
the ground.
Eduard Zachmann (?), dates illegible
Trees reclaim stone.
When reading German headstones, it's helpful to have
a German with you (thanks, Fabi!). This one belongs to
Lea Kunkowstein, née Muszcat (?), who was 80 years
old when she died 30 August, 1913.
The only sign that someone still cares for the cemetery is part of a brick
wall and plaque in Hebrew and Russian: "In blessed memory, let rest in
peace the souls of all buried in this cemetery, and all the Jews of this city
who died at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust, whose names and
places of burial are unknown."

From there, I journeyed back to see what had become of the Alte Pillauer Landstraße cemetery, without high hopes. This used to be another large cemetery, along both sides of what is now Дмитрия Донского Street. The area north of the street is now the City Central Park, housing the puppet theater, a small children's amusement park, and an outdoor ice skating rink. I had known that the western half of the park had once been a graveyard, but I didn't know that the bulk of the cemetery had been south of Донского, and I had never been there.

Walking along the street, I passed Baltika Stadium (which my 1938 map identifies as Erich Koch Platz, after the head of the Nazi Party in Königsberg), marking the beginning of the cemetery on my left. Today, a few apartments and businesses have been built there. Once I passed the roundabout, however, there was nothing but trees on the left -- trees and disturbed ground. The reason why no modern maps mark a cemetery there anymore is because there isn't one. Graverobbers from the sixties and more recently have systematically stolen almost every tombstone and exhumed almost every grave, looking for buried valuables. I'd known this beforehand, and was expecting empty parkland; what I saw was far different.

When you dig up a grave, it leaves a hole -- a hole about six feet long and three feet wide. When you dig up an entire cemetery of graves, it leaves a grid of holes, arranged in rows as orderly as there were once headstones. Graverobbers don't bother to replace the dirt that they removed; they pile it between the graves. The result, after weather and flora, is an eerily distinctive landscape of geometric holes and mounds, as unnerving by the cold thoroughness and symmetry of the work as it is by the concept. As I walked along the main path through the gravescape, careful not to deviate and risk breaking my ankle by falling into an open grave, I realized that what had looked like trenches by the Jewish cemetery had been the same phenomena as here. Robbers had dug up those graves too, and I had nothing else to compare the resulting terrain to except for products of war.

I find it difficult to describe the sense of unearthly disembodiment that accompanies walking along a path raised above row on row of holes for acres in all directions. It is the inversion of walking through a cemetery, surrounded by white tombstones that rise up from the ground like a forest of their own. But when you look down into a pit, at exposed roots in the muddy wall, and brown leaves and empty soda bottles at the bottom, you feel especially aware of the corporeal. There is an air of wrongness about it, something unnatural, like the dead have dug themselves up and forsaken their duties of memory, leaving us to stare helpless, without anything to mourn. Cemeteries have an eerie quality that comes of knowing you are surrounded by dead bodies -- but that feeling is compounded when the bodies are gone, and you are surrounded by only their holes.

I don't know what the robbers did with the skeletons. What does one do with a used coffin, anyway? Maybe many have been re-buried under just a few feet of dirt after being stripped of their valuables, I don't know. I can't imagine what else you'd do with something that unweildy. Or perhaps the Soviet government helped with the removal of remains, in the name of de-Germanification. At any rate, I was half expecting to look down into one grave too many and see a skull looking back at me. But I didn't. That's probably a good sign.

Prospekt Mira today. The city central park is the large middle green chunk
through which the creek runs, with the tan network of roads inside it.
Overlay with 1938, showing the network of cemeteries both in central
park and in the "park" below it. The lower part is where the graverobbing
is most obvious today.
Haunted ferris wheel, anyone? This amusement area in central park
is built on what used to be graveland.

Open graves and garbage.
Here the grid of depressions is clearly visible.
Watch your footing! 
That's a grave if I've ever seen one. The thing sticking up in the left corner
is a root, not a femur. I checked.

I ended my pilgrimage at the Gemeinde Friedhof out towards the end of Cranzer Allee, now ул. Александра Невского (Alexander Nevksy St). As Königsberg’s third main city cemetery, founded in 1913, the Cranzer Allee site was equipped with a crematorium, which was decorated with legendary frescoes of dancing dead. However, there appears to have been a nearby ammunition explosion in 1920 that damaged the building, although it was rebuilt and continued to function until July 1945, but no longer exists today.

The Cranzer cemetery is the only place I have found in this city that feels like a memorial to the people of Königsberg. As such, it's unsurprising that it owes its continued existence to the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge), and not to any Kaliningrad source. The Commission, an independent nonprofit organization founded in 1919 to care for German war dead, now administers over 800 sites in 45 countries, including eight in Kaliningrad Oblast.1 When the Commission began work on the Cranzer location in 2001, the cemetery was already the burial site of around 5,000 bombing victims, soldiers, refugees, and prisoners of war, later accommodating about 2,900 soldiers and 570 civilians moved from other parts of the city. Including its original civilian internees, the small area now contains about 11,000 dead.

It is a quiet, hidden corner of the city now, inset from the road behind several buildings. No individual headstones remain; now there is only a common memorial raised on a small hill in the center, and rows of tablets engraved with the names of the known dead. On separate pillars are those of the Red Army who also died during the battle for the city. Scattered throughout the field and among the sparse trees are groups of simple stone crosses, somber enough to mark the ground for what it is, but as anonymous as those resting beneath them.

Passing a small girl playing with her mother in the grass and a grandfather pushing a baby stroller, I sat on a fallen cross in the middle of the open field, enjoying one of the first truly warm days of spring. A group of students cut through on the path, followed by a trio of men with open bottles of beer at eleven in the morning. Although the grounds are under the Commission's care, no one seems to be regularly employed to clean up the empty bottles and other rubbish that accumulates in the grass. I would have thought the crosses are enough to designate a tone of respect and reflection, but perhaps I sense only what I have brought with me; for others it just a park, a shortcut between adjacent properties.

And what, after all, is my own relationship to this ground? I am neither German nor Russian; I have no known connection to this city beyond the fact that I have happened to live here for the last seven months. The destruction, suffering, and casualties that happened here were the product of a war that ended nearly half a century before I was born. Of course I am not personally responsible, and yet I cannot help but feel the weight of some fault. The RAF may have bombed this particular city without American planes, but U.S. air forces wrecked our own share of death and destruction on Dresden, Hamburg, Mainz, Kassel, and so many others that it's hardly important whose grandfather sat in the cockpit. Whether or not any of it was justified is a different question, but neither rebuilds cathedrals nor reanimates the dead.

There is a role for blame, but for me, two generations down from the war, it is farther and farther away. My generation has many lessons to learn from the twentieth century, but for us the imperative must come, not from personal experience, but from the weight of the horrors of which we must make sense, from the legacies of a war of which we are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Europeans call this process peace and reconciliation, and that, after all, is precisely what this cemetery is designed to promote. I don't know more than the names of those who lie here, but they lived and died in this city where I live now, and they deserve to be remembered in it.

Cranzer/Невского cemetery map today, located in the large kelly-green
shape with the long driveway and little circle inside it.
Map overlay with 1938, the solid red H designating the crematorium's
location. Although the size of the cemetery today has shrunk from
what it used to be, little else of note has changed.
Entrance sign: Cemetery for the victims of the Second World War
It may feel like spring, but the trees haven't leafed
out yet. 
View towards the central memorial.
Soda can, cigarette carton. 
Central memorial.
One of the few remaining original tombstones: Mit Gott für König und
Vaterland / With God for King and Fatherland

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1.  Their locations are: Königsberg/Калининград, Pillau/Балтийск, Schloßberg/Добровольск, Fischhausen/Приморск, Heiligenbeil/Мамоново, Germau/Русское, Insterburg/Черняховск, and Tilsit/Советск