Preludium: the identity of Kaliningraders

Full name of the project: “Identity of the inhabitants of Kaliningrad Oblast since 1991 to the present day: constitutive factors and direction of ongoing changes”

Financing institution: National Science Centre of Poland

Grant name: PRELUDIUM

Numer umowy: UMO-2014/13/N/HS6/04214

Carried out between: 02.2015-02.2017

Between Kant and Kalinin. The identity of Kaliningrad Oblast and its inhabitants

Are inhabitants of Kaliningrad Oblast ‘European Russians’? Is the region a different Russia, being influenced more by Polish food, German highways and Spanish beaches than by Russian empty spaces, traditional boots and cuisine? How the identity of almost a million people living in the westernmost part of Russia has been shaping since the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Kaliningrad Oblast is a region that usually appears in the media in the context of Russia’s tense relations with the European Union and the NATO. It is presented as an “aircraft carrier”, as well as “a great military base of Russia”. Rarely can one hear or read about the everyday life in the region, the developmental challenges it faces and the values ​​and symbols which are important to the ordinary Kaliningraders. In particular, the question of identity changes among the region’s populations remains widely unknown both in Poland and in wider Europe.

The research project, carried out in 2015-2017, was designed to, at least partially, fill this gap. It has led to the conclusion that a number of factors influence identity processes in the Kaliningrad region. The project-related activities attempted to grasp their complexity. Among others, it tried to answer the question of how the complicated and multi-faceted history of the region influences the contemporary life of Kaliningraders. Hence, the study focused on both the Soviet times (1945-1991) and East Prussian times (from the Middle Ages to World War II, with emphasis on the 1870-1945 period). Understanding the pre-war past and its influence on the present would not have been possible without taking into consideration such elements as the internal situation in Russia, the impact of Kaliningrad Oblast’s neighbourhood with the European Union and NATO countries, current international situation and information space.

During the implementation of the project:

  • over 40 sociological interviews were carried out with the inhabitants of the Kaliningrad Oblast, as well as with the inhabitants of the Pomorskie and Warmińsko-Mazurskie voivodships, including academicians, think tankers, local government officials and NGO employees;
  • two field trips to the Kaliningrad Oblast of four weeks were conducted (with total duration of four weeks), as well as trips to Elblag, Gdansk and Olsztyn;
  • activity on web portals in which the topic of identity was tracked, including content appearing in thematic groups on social networking sites;
  • extensive Polish, Russian, English and German literature on the past and present of the Kaliningrad Oblast and other issues raised in the project was collected;
  • a 300-pages-long manuscript was prepared; it will serve as a basis for future PhD thesis, as well as publication on the identity of Kaliningrad Oblast’s inhabitants.

Research has made it possible to say that at least since the 2000s the Kaliningrad Oblast has been experiencing an intensive debate on its past, present and future identity. It pertains mostly to the city of Kaliningrad and it has focused on the appearance of public space and symbols of the city and the region.

One of the main dilemmas present in the debate has been the relation between the Soviet and the East Prussian (German) times. An ever-growing interest in the legacy of the pre-war period transposes into East Prussian Königsberg becoming a reference point for many urban projects. A similar phenomenon, albeit not of the same scale, has been observed in other cities of the region. At the same time, there is a considerable group of people who are strongly in favour of cultivating the Soviet and Russian culture and tradition. They argue that too much attention paid to foreign civilizational legacy can pose serious threat to the region’s present and future Russianness.

As time goes by, another factor strengthening the importance of the above-mentioned discussion has been the 2018 FIFA World Championship in Russia, with Kaliningrad being one of its host cities.

The project has led to the conclusion that the primary level of identity of Kaliningrad Oblast inhabitants is the national one. They feel that they are Russian nationals (citizens of the Russian state) and that they have noticeable ties with inhabitants of other parts of Russia. This does not mean that they do not differ from one another. Regional differences can be significant, primarily for geographic and historical reasons. Nevertheless, the regional level of identity should not be seen as contradictory to the national and state one, even thought is becoming increasingly important.

Research indicates that successful development of the Polish-Russian cross-border cooperation has had its share in identity processes taking place in Kaliningrad Oblast. Launching of the Polish-Russian Local Border Traffic in mid-2012 (suspended by the Polish authorities in mid-2016) helped considerably to overcome the problems which take its roots in the Cold War period. It has been so despite tensions at interstate level.

According to the research project, there is a genuine, considerable interest among Kaliningraders in the situation in Poland and in the everyday life of Poles (especially in the area covered by the LBTA). It is therefore important to continue follow the identity-related processes on both sides of the border, as well as the state of cross-border cooperation and the impact of the broad political and cultural context on Kaliningrad Oblast. Its social reality remains one of the least known among all neighbouring regions of Poland and the European Union.

Miłosz J. Zieliński

 The project entitled “Identity of the Kaliningrad Oblast since 1991 to present day: constitutive factors and direction of ongoing changes” was financed by the National Centre of Science of Poland under the auspices of the PRELUDIUM programme (2014/13/N/HS6/04214). It was carried out from 2015 till 2017. The opinions expressed in any publication related to the project and written by the author are the author’s own and reflect the view of no institution that the author is affiliated with.