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New Europe

Day Ninety-five: Kaliningrad

National Day in Kaliningrad 
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Knights in shining armour at the jousting contest, the fiery finale of National Day.
Michael Palin - New EuropeWe follow the crowds down towards the River Pregel. From a bridge across to an island I can see the two most distinctive, and controversial, buildings in the city. One is the Gothic cathedral, a severe but impressive brick building with tall, unadorned buttresses. Built in the late fourteenth century, it escaped the destruction of the communist years by the skin of its teeth. The story goes that Brezhnev, visiting the city, enquired why this monument to the old Königsberg hadn't been knocked down and was told that it contained the grave of the city's most famous son, the philosopher Immanuel Kant. As Karl Marx had much admired Kant, Brezhnev agreed to a reprieve.

Of course, as Olga pointed out, Kant never went inside the cathedral, and the nearest he got to it was in his tomb, which sits beneath a tree outside. There's a nice story that Robert Motherby and Joseph Green, two grain and herring importers from Hull, had lunch with Immanuel Kant every Sunday for nearly twenty years.

Königsberg's other great building was the medieval castle. Seen as a symbol of Prussian aggression, it was razed to the ground and after much argument a modern concrete block, of huge and lumpen proportions, was built on top of it.

'Why?', I asked Olga.

'Because they called the castle a monument to fascism. And what we got was a monument to communism.'

It's now known, almost affectionately, as the Monster.

There are other traces of the old city. If you look hard enough you might find one of the few remaining Gothic towers. There were twelve of them at one time, guarding the twelve entrances to the city. In most of new Europe they would be tourist attractions, but here they're unlit, neglected and ignored. Kaliningrad is still embarrassed by having been Königsberg.

Olga, broad-minded as she wants to be, is sensitive to slights at her home town. She knows that there are many things that need to be improved. She wants to be able to travel more easily, she can see the benefits of a European Union, and yet she has a deep loyalty to Russia, the country that educated her and brought her up. Whether Russia will reciprocate these feelings is not absolutely clear. At the root of Olga and her daughter's anxieties is that they might yet be sold down the river, and that the Germans may turn out to be better friends to Kaliningrad than the Russians.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-five: Kaliningrad
  • Country/sea: Russia
  • Place: Kaliningrad
  • Book page no: 226

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