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New Europe

Day Ninety-five: Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad 
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With Olga in Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, which became part of Russia after the Great Patriotic War (as the Russians call the Second World War). Behind us the red-brick Gothic fourteenth-century cathedral, just about all that survived the Allied bombings.
Michael Palin - New Europe'We are Russians. It's in our souls, in our heart, it can't be otherwise.'

Olga Danilova is a small, bright, voluble woman. In her fifties I should think, with a taut, well-toned physique that makes me wonder if she were ever a dancer. She is a child of the USSR, her parents among those Russian settlers who took this city over from the Germans at the end of the war. With her is her daughter Anastasia, a pencil-thin teenager. She, like her mother, is a Russian patriot. She'd once come home in tears of frustration when a poll she'd run amongst her friends at school showed that seventy per cent would rather work and live abroad. Olga admits that the proximity to Europe makes the people of Kaliningrad very different from what she calls the 'mainland' Russians to the east. The break-up of the Soviet Union only emphasised the isolation of Kaliningrad from her neighbours, but Olga thinks that, with the accession of Lithuania and Poland to the EU in 2004, the situation is changing. The Germans are increasing their interest and investment in the rebuilding of the city, and the prospect of a united free-trade Europe on its borders has reawakened Moscow's interest in their distant colony.

'Because in the Soviet past they didn't care much. There was some Kaliningrad somewhere. Now it's quite a strong involvement. We have a governing team, just for us, in Moscow.'

We're talking beside another memorial to the Soviet dead. In this case to those who lost their lives in the taking of the city in 1945. An eternal flame flutters in the wind. Powerful figures strain forward brandishing rifles and machine-guns. Olga is proud of the memorial.

'It was the very first memorial erected in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War as we call it in Russia.'

All the more surprising then that the celebrations marking sixty years of Soviet 'liberation' seem deliberately to avoid military bands, march-pasts or rattling of sabres. The first uniforms I see consist of stiletto heels, pleated white miniskirts, ultramarine tunics and white air force-style caps, and the first weapons are white plastic batons with red and blue pom-poms, wielded by a squad of sexy long-legged cheerleaders who seem to be the closest thing to an army I can see in Victory Square this morning.

Nearby, a gleaming new Russian Orthodox cathedral is nearing completion (in the 1940s and 1950s the Russians went about systematically destroying the churches of old Königsberg) and the red marble Victory column has been donated by Yukoil.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-five: Kaliningrad
  • Country/sea: Russia
  • Place: Kaliningrad
  • Book page no: 223

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