Letter from Kaliningrad: A World Cup venue where no one cares
England play their final group game in the Russian enclave which has a strange history
Fans attend Kaliningrad Fan Fest ahead of the England v Belgium Group G clash at the 2018 World Cup. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters
The locals are perplexed. On Tuesday afternoon, Russia’s national team is playing its final group game in Samara and here in Kaliningrad, 2,300km away in the remote Baltic exclave, the local organisers are trying to coax the city into party mode. They do this by turning the volume up on the gigantic screen at the Fan Fest to maximum. It’s as if Kaliningrad’s hard-of-hearing grandad has taken the remote, lashed the sound up to 100 so he could hear the match and then went and lost the thing down the sofa.
So the city centre is flooded with a commentary on a match that nobody seems to care that much about. The fan zone is deserted: a torrential burst of summer rain hasn’t helped, but even before that, there was nobody around.
Kaliningrad’s site for the fans already runs away with the reward for the strangest in World Cup history. They set it up around the House of Soviets, an extravagantly ugly 21-storey building that was conceived as the headquarters of the local communist party but remained unfinished and derelict when the USSR broke up. The House of Soviets replaced the previous building, the extravagantly beautiful Königsberg Castle, a stronghold of Prussian rule dating from the 1700s whose walls were sufficiently sturdy to withstand the aerial onslaught that levelled whole swathes of the city centre in the closing weeks of the second World War.
The castle might have been rebuilt but in 1968 Leonid Brezhnev ordered that it be erased from sight as it represented the last vestiges of‘Prussian imperialism. Work began on the House of Soviets two years later. This week, the spiritual heart of Prussian and Soviet rule is festooned with Fifa’s major sponsors, and volunteers are doing their level best to persuade locals to wander into the square, drink beer and watch the World Cup through the afternoon drizzle on the specially installed, deafening television. There aren’t many takers.
Of all the cities chosen to host the World Cup, Kaliningrad was the most peculiar. Vladimir Putin’s most direct association with it is through his ex-wife, Lyudmila, who was born and grew up in the city. Maybe he chose it just to remind the world that it still belongs to Russia.
It’s an absolute oddity of a place. It fell under Soviet control after the second World War, when all Germanic residents either wisely fled or were quickly expelled from the city, which was rebuilt and repopulated with Russians. It remained closed off to outsiders through the Soviet period, when it became a strategically vital stronghold; as recently as 2016, Poland’s defence minister expressed his alarm at the appearance of Russian warships with cruise missiles in the city port.
The city centre was never fully rebuilt and over the decades it began to organically develop into what had been the suburbs, described by Dr Nicole Eaton, a Boston College historian who has specialised in the Sovietisation of a city that had been Germanic for 700 years as “a sort of urban-planning disaster” which became, in the 1990s, “the absolute worst place to be in Russia, with the highest HIV rates, terrible narcotics problems and a poverty rate of over 50 per cent because it was was cut off from its networks”.
Hockey. We play hockey,” a local guy at a bus stop said when asked how come nobody was watching the football
The city has improved dramatically since then but it feels as remote as ever: 1,900km from Moscow and 130km away from the Polish city of Gdansk, where several thousands England fans were reportedly pitching up with the intention of making a day-trip to this part of Russia as though it were Bournemouth, for Thursday night’s game in Belgium. Wednesday morning was beautiful in the city but there were absolutely no England fans to be seen. Someone had, mercifully, turned off the giant telly. The Kaliningrad market was where localised energy was concentrated, while down at the Fishing Village, a revitalised waterfront area, old coins from the Third Reich were among the bric-a-brac on offer.
Nobody much cared about the football or was exercised about England’s impending arrival. “Hockey. We play hockey,” a local guy at a bus stop said when asked how come nobody was watching the football. The World Cup has given Kaliningrad arguably its most explicit state investment in the spanking new stadium, about 5km outside the city, whose local football team, Baltika FC, generally draws about 5,000 fans.
The crowd for England-Belgium may well be the last big crowd it draws. Ever. After Monday night’s game between Spain and Morocco, fans wore scarves and rainjackets and tried to get their heads around the notion they were still in Russia. Less than 30 per cent of Russians own passports but the people of Kaliningrad benefit from special passes that enable them to move freely across the border to Lithuania or Poland and to make occasional trips to the bright lights of Berlin. It’s one of the most glaring advantages of living in Russia’s most western and its loneliest outpost.
There is no direct train out of Kaliningrad to neighbouring EU countries, and the 22-hour overland route back to Moscow requires a visa for Belarus. So the airport got an overhaul for its World Cup visitors while the hourly buses that run from the Kaliningrad station into Gdansk are completely booked up this weekend, leaving dozens of stricken Spanish fans wondering how they could get out of the city on Wednesday afternoon. At the kiosk, the ticket seller was sympathetic but unable to offer a solution. “There are no buses. Maybe try a taxi.”
When in Little Russia, you learn to make your own way.