November 2014

Notes from Kaliningrad – Monday 3rd November


The Polish group travel west through the lakes from Suwałki towards Bartoszyce and then turn north into this enclave of the Russian Federation, the Gothic brick structures we pass by are reminders of the past when this area was part of Eastern Prussia. As we cross the border, leaving behind the fields of dairy farmers, the flatland here is mostly uncultivated, a little worn at the edges. We pass houses with gardens turned over to growing vegetables; an abandoned airfield, the old silos for fighter jets overgrown and graffitied; bus stops that look the same as anywhere else in Eastern Rurope; decorative concrete fences marking the edge of newer more well to do dwelling places (many painted green and white); a group of women in headscarves standing a round an apple tree, deep in discussion, the arm of one stretches out, her hand caressing the bark. Other younger women adorn the sides of trucks, in red leather mini-skirts, advertising something to do with automobiles. Two stacks of a power station in the distance, belching white smoke. On the outskirts of the city now, a long street of garages and tyre adverts, an unfortunate reminder that the group from Kėdainiai are delayed with a burst tyre. The van has come from Kaliningrad without a spare tyre – they blame the Germans for modification of the vehicle, leaving no room for a spare. It takes several hours for a spare vehicle to arrive, and then it is a smaller van, fitting eight instead of nine person, so they have to go find a tyre in the end. As Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying: So it goes…

On the edge of the city, graffitti on the cream wall of an apartment block. It reads: stop stop stop stop stop stop. It’s a message we ignore.


Still, we drive past over river, along the elevated highway and onto Moskovskiy Avenue to meet our hosts at Hotel Baltika. Workshops are reorganised over lunch, as we lack one group of participants and venues must be changed as well as the make up of the groups. So the first workshops begin..


For the first sessions, one group went to Liceum 23, a local school for a workshop on local mythology and comics. First we met Aleksander Popadin (culturologist), by the riverside, overlooking the Cathedral (here where the Prussian kings were once crowned). He said: It is difficult to talk about this place, because there is really nothing here to see. Nothing is left of the old city. It is like trying to describe a ghost.


Walking in the vicinity of this ghost city, he shared some local myths – such as the story of the Honey Bridge. This bridge, connecting the two islands of Kant (originally Kneiphof, on which sits the Cathedral) with Oktyabrskiy (originally Lomse) was completed in 1542. According to the legend, the town council of Kneiphof gave a large barrel of honey to the mayor of Altstadt in order to obtain permission to construct the bridge. The bridge was thus christened Honigbrücke – the Honey bridge. On this bridge the custom of leaving locks as love tokens has taken hold. The group then went to the school where Olga Dimitrieva invited them to create a comic image based on the stories they had recently heard.

The second group were based at the hotel, with a brief introduction to the history of the city. They were then invited by our guides Artiom Zajtsev and Maria Neznanova to work with photographic materials to create a collage to represent the past and future of Kaliningrad.

While there were Romans and Vikings here long ago, according to Artiom “everything interesting happened after the 13th century with the arrival of the Teutonic Knights” who founded the city in 1255. As part of the Hanseatic League, it became an important trading port. Though the inhabitants increasingly spoke German, the city was a remarkable centre for Polish language literature and of Polish Lutheranism, as well as being the publisher of the first book in the Lithuanian language. Allied bombing of the city and the siege by the Soviet army destroyed much of the city by the end of the Second World War. After the final defeat of the Nazis, Eastern Prussia was divided into three parts, which ended up as parts of Lithuania, Poland and Russia.

Artiom: “Is it a German city with Russians, or a Russian city with a German past? No one knows what the identity of the city is. Everyone is looking for a way to develop the city, wondering what to do.”


The group looked at various photographic materials, such as a really great book by Max Popov called ‘Parallel Memory – 150 years of Konigsberg and Kaliningrad history in photographs.’

These workshops will be repeated the following day for different participants.

In the evening, we visit the Kaliningrad Art Museum for an open evening, with performances in the ‘Future Perfect’ exhibition of contemporary art from Germany. Then Aleksander Popadin gave us a super tour of the ‘Heart of the City’ exhibition, a long-term town planning project aiming to provide a solution to the problem of the historic centre of Kaliningrad.

The exhibition shows the results of an international architectural and town planning competition that considers “the historic and cultural context of the area and shape the architectural image of the place – its cultural identification, which at the same time would be a part of the global world, the Baltic Sea Region and Russia”. As one entry put it: Re-interpreting the past, to intensify the present. The competition aimed to develop a new centre for the city with an important aspect being the ‘meeting point of Russia and Europe’. It also stated that there should be no large commercial centres in the competition area.  It’s a hugely ambitious scheme. As one entry put it: Re-interpreting the past, to intensify the present.

In the short film above, Aleksander explains the winning entry (in Russian). You’ll find a comprehensive web site about this process here -

You’ll also find a fascinating historical and analytical review (in English) of the architectural development of the centre of the city – Koralevskaya Gora (King’s Mountain) – over the past few hundred years, which Aleksander Popadin authored along with architect Oleg Vasyutin. This was prepared in 2008, in advance of the architectural competition and provides a context to the city.

In September 2014 at the Kaliningrad Art Gallery, the competition results were announced with the first prize going to the Architectural Bureau Studio 44 and Institute of Territory Development of St Petersburg (Russia). All the competition entries are available for download here:

Tuesday 4th November

A Long Walk around Kaliningrad.
It’s a good day for a walk, surprisingly warm. Our guide is Boris Bartfeld, the President of the Association of Kaliningrad writers. From the Brandenburg Gate to the railway station, around the 19th century Prussian defences, the Friedland Gate, along the river, over bridges with love tokens attached to the cathedral on Kant Island, to the King Gate on the north side, the old military barracks, across one of the two lakes in the city to visit the statue of Immanuel Kant, past the Botanical Gardens to the centotaphs to the dead of two world wars. You’ll find a full description of this walk, with photo galleries here:

In the evening the Kaliningrad group shared some of their personal family history in a presentation called ‘The city of arrivals’. They explained the constant process of populating the city after 1945, as our participants shared their family roots, coming to this city from Almaty, Mariupol, Novosibirsk, Donetsk, Kalin, and parts of Dagestan, Ukraine, Belarus. They explained that  there was no such term as ‘roots’ in the city, as the roots of the inhabitants were always somewhere else. In the past, it was the impression of Nikolay Karamzin, writing (as a kind of tourist guide for Russians) in 1789: “Koenigsberg, the capital of Prussia, is one of the big cities in Europe with circuit of approximately 15 versts. … I saw a lot enough of good houses… generally Koenigsberg is built nearly better than Moscow…” Napoleon also felt for the city, apparently saying: “If I could I would carry away all this miracle in my hands to Paris”. That was then – this is now and the young people of the city are searching for a new identity.

The evening ended with sharing several songs in three languages.

Wednesday 5th November


Wednesday is spent at Kaliningrad Art Museum. There are two workshop sessions here:

1. Amber crafting with Ekaterina Skripko and Tamara Chapkina who are members of ‘Prussian Honey’, an association of artists who create jewelry with amber, souvenirs, clothing and accessories in a traditional ethnic style.

They introduced the history and original of amber in this region, and showed some films about some of their activities in workshops and fairs. The group then spent a few hours making bracelets and necklaces with the materials.

2. Art intervention: Artist and curator Evgeny Umansky works made a presentation about work in public spaces – ‘public art’ – showing a wide range of examples of work. This included street art, graffiti, recreations and responses to existing sculptures, using technology with lights and projections on buildings, using street hoardings, making additions to the sides of building, reconstructing landscapes, photographic collage, temporary installations, text and sound work as well as performative work. Evgeny spoke about the different ways you could engage with an audience, or provoke a response in a public. Two examples: one Dutch artist, Onno Dirker, who used a fork lift to stand close to the faces of monumental Soviet sculpture and ‘make faces’; a Polish artist, Ryszard Górecki, who made a poster based on the Edvard Munch painting ‘The Scream’, which he placed on a lamp post on the bridge near the cathedral. The poster simply ‘invited people to scream’.

After his many examples he invited to think about how they might make public intervention in the city.

One proposal: Our idea is to paint the only foot tunnel in the city, near Lenininsky Prospect. We propose to make an underground city, after listening to all these legends, with trolls, ghosts, perhaps even our own Amber Room. As people journey through the tunnel they will learn about the underground legends of the city.

Another proposal: to create a large paper ship to sail on the river, the port being an essential ingredient of both the past, the present and the future.

Another proposal: to add mirrors or projections to the House of the Soviets. (You will find something similar proposed here: Or here is an example from artist Geoff Broadway in Birmingham, UK, who projected onto the surface of a cathedral at Christmas:

In the evening we gather at Café Capucin Dark for an evening of poetry readings, ‘3 by 3: Miłosz Brodsky Donelaitis’,  shared by both our guides and travellers, along with a couple of originals from Sergey and Leonid.

Thursday 6th November 

One day we travelled to the border, to the village of Chistye Prudy in the Nesterovskiy Region, to the east of the Kaliningrad Oblast. Here in 1979 a Memorial Museum of Kristijonas Donelaitis was established in the church. Donelaitis is ‘the father of Lithuanian literature’, the first to write poetry that did not have a religious topic. The church was built over 200 years ago under his patronage and he served as a parson. His remains were reburied in 1979 in the crypt set inside the church. The stained glass windows of the church, made by artist Grabauskas, are based on his best known poem “Seasons” – Metai in Lithuanian – which portrays the scenes from everyday life of peasantry.

The rectory, which stands next to the church, is where he lived for 37 years in the second half of 18th century – and where “Seasons” was composed. The rectory was restored in 1998 as a museum dedicated to his memory, and contains artifacts and materials from his life and times.

A few kilometres away, near to the Polish border is Krasnolesie, the ‘village of stones and gnomes’. Краснолесье in Russian and formerly Hardteck, ex. Gross-Rominten.

We’ll present a little more detail shortly, but our guide Aleksey Sokolov from the Ecological Historical Museum of Viestieniec (the lake shares the border with Lithuania).  Starting at the German First World War Memorial at the centre of the village, he leads the group on an exploration of the village itself, the woods and fields and former quarries around, using the legends of gnomes to explain the geology of the area and how it has shaped life locally. On the outskirts of the village, restoration is being undertaken of the Lutheran Church of 1895. The walk ends in the basement of the museum house with a detailed examination and identification of stones we have all collected during the walk.

In the museum rooms there are a variety of items relating to the natural history of the area. Once it was a huge hunting forest for the Prussian aristocracy, and we spot a photograph of Hermann Goering admiring his kill.

You’ll find a description of the exploration with additional images here:

Friday 7th November

Friday is devoted to ‘Life of the Modern City’. We convene at Liceum 23 and meet Aleksej Milovanov and Aleksandra Artamonova, two journalists who work for an online news service, New Kaliningrad, who invite the group to consider what ‘reportage’ is.

They speak about their work as journalists and share their experiences and thoughts on what it is to be a reporter in the modern multi-layered media environment. In Kaliningrad there are two daily newspapers, ten weeklies, three TV channels, and audio stations which have some news but mostly just play recorded music. New Kaliningrad was set up some years ago with a stuff of three, now they operate with a staff of fifteen, generating income from mostly advertising.

Their web site is:

Aleksej, the editor of the portal,  felt that the job of a journalist is to report the facts and nothing else. This stimulated a heated discussion about what truth is and how easy it was to manipulate the truth because of the political situation, how media and government were intertwined and how difficult it was to be an independent reporter.

After the presentation the participants worked in three groups. They were invited to spent a few hours exploring the area and to report back 15 details of the city. What did they notice about life in the city, what data or responses could they collect, what little symbols of modern life were there, how might they represent this as a story or an idea for a story?

After lunch they spent the afternoon presenting these back and discussing their findings.

For example:

“…old car wheels (tyres) filled with flowers… a kind of public style, beauty as seen by the people… they want to feel beauty in even the trash…”

“… a city of dark colours, mostly grey, the colours only in advertisements but then we find bursts of blue… blue coloured fences, blue post boxes, blue cars, blue walls…”

“…a city of contrasts… the church and the city offices placed opposite each other made me think of how in Soviet times the state was anti-religious, but the buildings are directly opposite each other…”

Saturday 8th November

Saturday morning was an opportunity for an exploration of the streets around the new commercial centre at the central square, Ploshchad Pobedy -Victory Square. Behind the Orthodox Cathedral, the largest church in the city, we find the markets, fruit and vegetable, fish, meat, cheeses, clothes – where most of the fruit and vegetables seem to come from Uzbekistan, the fish from the Baltic and Norway. We spot some very large carp and flounder and we are reminded of the Baltic writing of Gunther Grasse.

In the afternoon, we visited one of campuses of the University of Kant for an entertaining lecture by Ilya Dementev, who led us through the centuries to share the story of the university and those associated with the university over the centuries. (You’ll find one of those stories here…) We started with Prince Albertina Albrecht (1490-1568), last Grand Master of the Order of Teutonic Knights, who – after converting to Lutheranism  – created the world’s first Protestant state in 1525, the Duchy of Prussia, with Königsberg as its capital.  The Albertina Unversity was founded in 1544 as a purely Lutheran place of learning, drawing to it men of science and culture, poets and philosophers from all over Poland, Germany and Lithuania. (It was in this city that the first-ever books were printed in the Lithuanian language.)

Along the way we met with Johann Poharder (1487-1541), Stanislaus Rapagelanus (1485 – 1545), Simon  Dach (1615-1652), Kant (1724-1804), Christian Jakob Kraus (1753-87)Hoffman (1776-1822), Theodor Goltieb Von Hippel (1741-1796),  Johanna Ambrosius (1854-1939), Otto Rossbach (1858-1931).

After the lecture, we attended an organ concert in the Cathedral on Kant Island and then had a discussion about the next stages of the project, which will gather the data from the three locations to create a cultural guide. Next year there will then be training workshops with teachers and tourist guides to consider how best to utilise the materials created during the project.

Sunday November 9th


On the final day of the residency, we visited a world heritage site, the Curonian Spit. This is a long narrow sand dune which stretches from Klaipeda in Lithuania in the north. It has the highest moving (drifting) sand dunes in Europe, some as high at 60 metres. It is particularly important to bird migration as a resting place, as it falls in the path of the East Atlantic Flyway, Between 10 million and 20 million birds pass over the Spit every year during the spring season migration and the autumn season migration, many stopping to rest or produce offspring. The Spit is nearly 100 kilometres long, the sea on one side, a lagoon on the other, forests of trees twisted and contorted by the sea winds.

You can find out about the rationale for World Heritage status here:

Thomas Mann had a summer house here (in what is now the Lithuanian part), later seized by the Nazis and used as a recreational holiday home for Luftwaffe officers. In the 1920’s there was a flying school here at the village of Rybachy (formerly Rossitten).


The Treaty of Versailles banned Germany from having an airforce, so young men interested in aviation gathered here to fly gliders. Consequently, Germany founded sport flying clubs and gliding clubs wherever it could.  The Nationalsozialistisches Fliegerkorps – the National Socialist Flying Corps – had a program for training teenagers to fly, involving basic primary gliders, which were manually launched down slopes using teams of young men and a ‘bungee’ tow rope.

The Curonian Spit is a popular tourist site, but today the sea mists rule and visibility is poor.

Sunday photographs by Valeria Bartfeld.