How was Koenigsberg Russified so quickly?

History in the flow. Rivers as European places of remembrance

Uwe Rada

Uwe Rada, born in 1963, lives as a journalist and publicist in Berlin. He last appeared in 2010 in the Siedler publishing house The Memel. Cultural history of a European river. 2013 appears The Elbe. Europe's history in flux. Uwe Rada coordinates the online dossier History in the flow the Federal Agency for Civic Education.

Since 1991 the Memel has been the border between the Kaliningrad region and independent Lithuania. But in contrast to the Lithuanians, the river remains foreign to many Russians. This also has to do with a politics of history that ignored the cultural heritage of East Prussia for a long time.

The bridge at Tilsit, today Sovetsk, is reminiscent of Queen Luise. (& copy Inka Schwand)

Russian Volga, Un-Russian Memel

If you talk about the Volga, everyone in Russia knows what it is about. Europe's largest river is a national myth. After the battle for Stalingrad, some consider it to be the stream of fate in Russia. For others he is the "Russian mother Volga". How mythically charged the Volga is can already be seen at the source in Volgowerchowje, 450 kilometers northwest of Moscow. Every year in May hundreds of believers make a pilgrimage to the village to experience the spiritual blessing of the Volga spring. The Memel is completely different, although it has basically also become a fate of the Russians. Two and a half years after the Battle of Stalingrad, which is now called Volgograd, northern East Prussia became Russian, and Memel, known since Hoffmann von Fallersleben from the first stanza of the Deutschlandlied, became the Neman in the Kaliningrad region.

But that was about it. Hardly any Russian can say where the source of the Memel is, no song sings about "Mother Neman", no excursion steamers operate on the lower course of the river, which forms the border with Lithuania here. Russia and Memel, that has been the story of a blank spot in collective memory since 1945.

But where does this strangeness come from? After all, in Kaliningrad there is talk of Königsberg again and in Sovietsk of Tilsit. Only the river is not part of the search for the cultural heritage of a region that supposedly started from scratch in 1945. Is it because of the Memel’s past, which was never Russian, but German, Lithuanian, Belarusian, Polish and Jewish? Do the Russians only love the currents that are Russian enough for them? Or is the Memel being ignored because it forms the border with Lithuania and thus, from the perspective of Kaliningrad, the insignificant periphery of the area?

“No, my home stream! Where are the waves? So much happiness with you and imagining bliss. Where did my childhood lust go? "

Adam Mickiewicz, 1826

“The Dzimken, the raftsmen who come downstream from Russia with the timber, sit in their long, gray shirts on the edge of the raft and bathe their feet. Behind them the kettles smoke for breakfast bread. "

Hermann Sudermann, 1917

"The white coast is beautifully curved, you could think you are in North Africa."

Thomas Mann, 1929

“You come from the darkness, my river, from the clouds. Paths fall to you and the rivers, Jura and Mitva, young, out of forests, and heavy with clay, Szeszupe. "

Johannes Bobrowski, 1961

“I started to write at Lake Ilm in 1941, about the Russian landscape, but as a foreigner, as a German. This has become a topic, roughly: the Germans and the European East. Because I grew up around the Memel, where Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Germans lived together, among them all Jews. "

Johannes Bobrowski, 1961

“These boundaries are temporary boundaries. Sooner or later the river will bring us back together. "

Krzysztof Czyzewski, 2009

The Zero Hour"

When the Red Army forced Otto Lasch, the commander of the Königsberg Fortress, to surrender on April 9, 1945, there was no timetable for the integration of the city into the Soviet Union. Even Stalin was not sure whether Königsberg, in official Soviet parlance the "cradle of Prussian militarism", would benefit him in the long term or harm him. The city on the Pregel was 1,275 kilometers from Moscow, with Lithuania in between, where thousands of partisans fought against the Soviet regime. In contrast to Silesia, where there was a similar population swap in Breslau as in Königsberg, the decision on East Prussia was not made until August 2, 1945 at the Potsdam Conference.

Shortly afterwards it became clear that Stalin had a strategic rather than an economic interest in Koenigsberg. Instead of integrating it into the Soviet Union as an oblast, he initially made northern East Prussia a restricted area and a special military district. The message was clear: the Soviet military base on the Baltic Sea should be a warning to the neighbors in Lithuania and Poland not to abandon the Soviet Union or the alliance of communist satellite states.

Even after the area was renamed Kaliningradskaya Oblast on July 4, 1946, development was anything but smooth. Kaliningrad was now part of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR), and the clocks at the main train station indicated Moscow time. For the Soviet capital, however, Kaliningrad remained abroad and, as Per Brodersen did in his study The city in the west put it, "an unloved child. Moscow did not pay much attention to him."

That may be an understatement. The traffic planning of the time shows how fuzzy even the geographical knowledge of the area was from Moscow's perspective. In the "Scheme of Car Transport Roads of the Kaliningrad Region" published by traffic planners in Moscow in 1947, Moscow's spoils of war are correctly limited in the north by the Memel. On the other bank, however, the planners did not draw the Lithuanian, but the Latvian SSR.


The Tilsit Bridge was once meters wide. It was destroyed in World War II and then rebuilt. In the meantime, the hammer and sickle have disappeared from the bridge portal on the Russian side and the building bears its old name again: Queen Luise Bridge

That wasn't the only mistake. Instead of Sovetsk, the border town on the Memel, the transport scheme shows Tilsit. Sovetsk is located a few kilometers to the east on the map, in the place of Ragnit, which, like the river, had been renamed Neman by the Soviets. So Tilsit continued to exist, if only on the map. The chaos was so great that the new residents of the area were still in the area in 1948 Kaliningradskaya Pravda complained that "the old place names are still used today at the points of sale for rail tickets. (...) The passengers get into complete confusion when they find out that the cities of Sovetsk, Pollesk or Bolshakovo are not on the timetable."

In any case, it was not the settlers that were the focus of Soviet policy, but the exploitation of the region. Industrial plants were dismantled, drainage pipes torn out, the most important valuables went to Moscow, among them, of course, tons of bricks.

At a time when the Germans had not yet completely left the former East Prussia, the authorities responsible were not sure whether and how long Russia would keep the Kaliningrad area. So it was better to dismantle than to build. The looting was so obvious that the acting regional party leader Pëtr Ivanov wrote a letter to Stalin personally. It said: "Representatives of various ministries and agencies in the area consider East Prussia an occupied area, dismantle equipment, transport valuable materials from factories," while the local leadership "did not explain to the population and members of the Soviet army that the Kaliningrad region was a Soviet one Territory and that all businesses, institutions, material objects of value are considered socialist property, as property of the Soviet state ".

When Moscow then sent a commission to Kaliningrad, which shortly afterwards made the regional administration responsible for the grievances, Pëtr Ivanov committed suicide.

Future instead of past

As little as Moscow was interested in the economic development of its booty, it was consistently driven by its history policy. Basically it was a politics of lack of history. Nothing was to remind of the East Prussian past - and as always at the moment of such caesuras, the place and street names were the first to hit.

But that was more difficult than expected. In contrast to Silesia, where Polish geographers and historians could fall back on old Polish place names and field names, East Prussia had never been Russian. So what should one call Königsberg, Tilsit and Ragnit?

And like the Memel and its estuary soot and Gilge? Should you just translate the names into Russian or add Russian endings to them? Or was it better to find completely new names in order to stamp out the German past once and for all and establish 1945 as the zero hour - and thus as the actual beginning of what is now Soviet history?

Amazingly, the Soviet authorities first passed these questions on to the new settlers, whose number had risen to almost 50,000 in 1946. They were to discuss the question of name at numerous meetings. The vote was clear. In order to create a bridge between their old and now new homeland, most of them spoke out in favor of place names from their region of origin. This shows, concludes Per Brodersen, "how strong the ties the emigrants had to their old place of residence - they had no connection to Kaliningrad."

Finally, at the end of 1946, the Kaliningrad authorities sent a first list of proposals to Moscow. This contained names that recalled the places of origin as well as names of Soviet origin such as Komsomolskij, Uljanowo or Oktoabrskoe. Those who would like to have a historical look turned to Pushkin or the general of the Patriotic War against Napoleon, Bagration. The goal was clear, says Brodersen: "Kaliningrad should become Soviet, in which its place names could be found everywhere on the Soviet map. All regions of the USSR were Soviet - but Kaliningrad was supposed to be the most Soviet."