by Lisa Piergallini
Tightening the protective thickness of my long coat, I began to question whether or not coming here was a good idea. A crisp wind stung my cheeks and challenged the tree branches around me, as the gray wool of the sky stretched itself over the oblast of Kaliningrad, Russia. This tiny exclave of the enormous Mother Country is nestled in between Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea. Originally the great capital city of East Prussia (then called Konigsberg), it was overtaken by Soviet brigades in 1945 and renamed Kaliningrad after the Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin.
I developed a fascination with this oddly located province as a result of its connection to Immanuel Kant, but as I looked around it seemed to more resemble a moribund Communist territory rather than the native soil of a great thinker.
Yet I would soon learn that Kant’s spirit was more alive here than is apparent at first glance. While the legacies of Prussia and the USSR still permeate like specters of the past, it is Kant’s legacy which looms about most clearly in the region. This philosopher and professor, often referred to as the “Sage of Konigsberg,” turned the philosophic community on its head in the mid-1700s with his critiques of metaphysics and epistemology. He formulized the theory that correct philosophy does not speculate on the world around us, but rather looks inward on human mental capabilities to determine what we can know and what is beyond the limits of our knowledge. He concluded that everything is filtered through our own individual perceptions, and that we can never objectively know what is actually “out there” in reality. “All our knowledge begins with the senses,” wrote Kant, “proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason.”
During his long and prolific life, Kant never traveled more than 50 miles from his birthplace of Konigsberg, so it is only fitting that his tomb is located in the heart of the city. After a lengthy and chilly trek over a gusty bridge, I passed manicured squares of grass and tress until I reached the charming and idyllic image of the Konigsberg Cathedral.
I felt transformed back in time seven centuries or so as I gazed up at the structure which rose from the greenery, now lush with spring, like the edifice of some gothic fairy tale. The turret’s tall spire, the yellow trim and red brick facade, and the long, narrow windows gave this 14th century cathedral the look of something like a Dutch clock or Rapunzel’s captive tower. Circling around to the back, past several crude tombstones of carved stone, I found the pillared, rectangular area guarded sternly by iron fencing and headed by the simple identifier “Immanuel Kant 1724-1804.”
After some photos, I pondered this man who exalted experience, stating that “experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play,” but who himself never left his hometown. This region, bitterly cold even in spring and exceedingly barren and dreary during the winter, must still have been a great source of inspiration for Kant, despite the apparent bleakness.
I have to admit that as I explored the city further, I too found myself thrust into a state of rumination and reflection as a result of this enigma. I was beginning to gain a greater understanding of this man who mused: “It is not Gods will merely that we should be happy, but that we should make ourselves happy.” Perhaps Kant viewed the bleakness not as a hindrance to his happiness, but as just another experience to be cherished and applied wherever applicable.
About a quarter of a mile from the Konigsberg Cathedral I came across another tribute to Kant – a strange plaque set within the decaying structure of a wall. This plaque was actually Kant’s original tombstone, but was damaged and displaced during WWII. It was since restored and mounted on this seemingly random wall which borders one of the city’s main boulevards. Much more decorative and evocative of his time, this tombstone displays the inscription of one of Kant’s most hauntingly beautiful quotes:
Two things fill the soul with increasingly new and growing admiration and awe as you ponder on them increasingly deeper and longer: the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.
Just beyond this memorial, I saw the imposing and dismal sight of what has affectionately been referred to as the ugliest building on Russian territory (and possibly the world). This was the House of Soviets, and I had to laugh at the intentionally austere appearance of the building with its harsh lines and inconvenient corridors. It resembled two bluish-gray egg crates fused together by cement blocks. The heavy, looming gray of the sky behind it and the biting lashes of the cold air encircling it only added to the solemnity of the building. Was this meant to inspire confidence in the tumultuous government, or was it meant to dull the spirits and crush the wills of the local residents? For my part, I can think of nothing that would make me question a government more than the sight of a perpetually uncompleted and unused monstrosity such as this on my way to work every morning.
Kant wrote that “a city appears differently from the east than from the west,” and the Russians in the east must have foreseen a much different path for the city than the Germans and Prussians in the west had done. Kalinin, the namesake of the city, once stated that:
The best way to eliminate nationality is a massive factory with thousands of workers . . . which like a millstone grinds up all nationalities and forges a new nationality. This nationality is the universal proletariat.
When I hear this, I cannot help but contrast its stoic harshness with Kant’s lyrical quotes, mentioned earlier, on making one’s own happiness and on connecting his own moral law with the integrity of the stars above.
These different perceptions, I imagine Kant would argue, are represented in the different architectural styles planted throughout the city.
I thought of this as I examined the frightful disaster of planning and design of the House of Soviets. I was struck by the great disparity between this stern, icy image and that of the romantic, picturesque Konigsberg Cathedral.
The House of Soviets, originally intended to be a Communist housing project, was begun in the 1960s and has only recently been completed. “The Monster,” as locals call it, is situated squarely on the ruins of the once-great Konigsberg Castle, and is a true monument to Soviet architecture and destruction.
Surrounding it, and scattered throughout the city as well, are piles of rubble varying in size – more mementos of the Soviet days. These remnants of the crumbling structures which pepper Kaliningrad resemble miniature graveyards, haunted by the past and seemingly forgotten, or at least overlooked, by the present. I wondered what history, what stories and what lives were embedded within these mounds of debris.
One of the largest of these piles was located where I had expected to find a music store advertised in a brochure picked up at my hotel. Of course, I could not read the Cyrillic words on the ad, but the point was clear enough. So I tore the page out and acquired a taxi.
When I arrived at the corresponding address, all that stared back at me was a tall chain link fence and an ominous heap of bricks and gravel. Still optimistic, however, I decided to do a little exploring; perhaps it was just around the back? Stepping over potholes and fragments of cement, I discovered the other side was a hollowed-out brick building, serrated and ghostly, with some indolent construction workers idling about. I didn’t bother to ask them about the store, nor did they bother to ask me what I was doing there.
It is possible that this music store was in the process of being built, and that the ad was of a “coming soon” nature, for there is a prominent youth culture emerging in Kaliningrad. The night we arrived happened to be May Day, and there were concerts and events going on all along the main streets. Bright and colorful lights adorned stages whose foundations were rattled by their own music. Primarily attended by college-age kids, these festivities exemplified the growing youth culture that you would not have seen here in Soviet times.
May Day (May 1st) is a celebration of the end of winter; it has Germanic pagan origins, but is also associated with International Workers’ Day, which is originally a U.S. holiday commemorating the eight-hour workday, but which was later appropriated by the Soviet Union for its obvious Marxist connotations. Thus, the May Day celebration in Kaliningrad is doubly influenced by its own dualistic history.
My first interaction with the enthusiastic, music-loving youth came when I first stepped into the Kaliningrad airport on May Day. When two college students approached me and offered to help me get through security and collect my bags, I was slightly confused but also pleasantly surprised by this “welcoming committee” which greeted me. Eventually, I asked one of the young men if it was his job to help tourists in this manner, or if he and his companion were simply good Samaritans. He looked at me perplexed and informed me that he was there “for the artist.” Naturally, I asked “What artist?” He then looked very disheartened and said, “You are not the pop-singer…from London?”
Though the thought of following along and using these helpful locals to their maximum potential did cross my mind, I had to inform them of their mistake. They were good-natured and laughed with me over the misunderstanding before they rushed off to find their real performer. It seems that a 25-year-old English-speaking woman tourist is somewhat of a rarity in this rather remote locality.
I had to admire the exuberant revelers that night, for they were truly following Kant’s interpretation of God’s will being “that we should make ourselves happy.”
Though the loaded, gunpowder-gray sky never allowed itself to be pierced by sunrays during my entire stay there, and though my first impression of Kaliningrad was that it was simply a territory still laden with Soviet yoke, what I discovered was a vibrant, blossoming city which possessed living connections to Kant and his immortal words.