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A Baltic province's story, in one man's life

German Königsberg, later Russian Kaliningrad, would be isolated again in the EU's expansion east by 2004.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2002



KALININGRAD, RUSSIA

Pieter Eugen was born and raised in one country, lived most of his adult life in a second, and is eking out a pensioner's existence in a third. Yet he has lived his entire life – 74 years – in the same town.

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Mr. Eugen's life is not a riddle, but one man's piece of a 20th-century tragedy. He is one of the original German inhabitants of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, an area where changes on the map have left people stranded.

Now history is eerily repeating itself. When the European Union makes its planned expansion east by 2004, Kaliningrad will be encircled by the new superstate, and cut off from Russia. How Europe and Russia negotiate this situation will be a test case for integration – and could offer an indication of Moscow's future relations with the West.

In the past, the area's isolation brought grim consequences. In Eugen's boyhood, this territory was East Prussia, an ancient German region cut off from the main body of Germany by the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. It's capital, Königsberg, was considered one of Europe's loveliest cities, a cradle of German culture and lifelong home of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. But in the 1930s, the region became a bastion of Naziism. Adolf Hitler railed against East Prussia's isolation and demanded that neighboring Poland cede territory to create a "corridor" to reunite the province with its fatherland. The issue became one of the causes of World War II.

"We were very proud of our führer, because he spoke on our behalf," says Eugen. "Of course, we didn't understand then what a disaster he would lead us into." Just 17 when the war ended, Eugen says he "somehow escaped" serving with the German forces. He remembers the night early 1945 when British RAF planes firebombed the leafy boulevards, spired churches, and medieval university of Königsberg into rubble. Soon the Red Army moved in and finished demolishing the old town. Under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the city's ancient castle, where Hitler put finishing touches on Barbarossa – his campaign against the USSR – was dynamited to make room for a still-unfinished massive concrete Palace of Soviets.

The USSR seized the territory, with Allied consent, after World War II. In 1947 Moscow expelled almost all the German inhabitants, replaced them with Soviet settlers, and turned the territory into a heavily fortified military base, closed to outside visitors until 1991. The city and region were renamed Kaliningrad, to honor the Stalin-era Soviet president.

Fewer than 1,000 Germans managed to avoid forced relocation to East Germany, most of them due to the intercession of Russian relatives. All were compelled to renounce their German origins and adopt Russian names and lives. "I had to live incognito for many years," Eugen says. "I had to deny who I was." He adds: "Take the past events here as a warning. A whole culture died in this place, and now there is almost nothing left."

After the USSR's collapse in 1991, the Long Island-sized region of about 1 million was cut off from the rest of Russia by the newly independent Baltic state of Lithuania and by Westward-leaning Poland. Those two countries are slated to join the European Union and NATO within a few years, leaving Kaliningrad, a tiny sliver of Russia, separated by about 500 miles from the nearest city in "mainland" Russia.

Over the past decade, with the opening of their region to the West, many Kaliningraders have found personal ways to make peace with the past.

Alexander Poprov is a private farmer in Tolpaki, about 25 miles north of Kaliningrad. A few years ago, he restored an old German farmhouse on his land and moved into it with his family. One day in 1997 an elderly German tourist approached him. "He was very nervous at first, but he explained that he'd been born and raised in this house," says Mr. Poprov. "I invited him straight in; we sat down together and talked. Now we're friends. He visits us every year."

Few here believe that ugly passions like those that led to World War II are likely to erupt anew. "People here want to integrate with the EU as much as possible," says Vladimir Sazanov, a political columnist with the independent daily Kaliningradskaya Pravda. "They expect [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to find a solution that doesn't isolate us. Everyone wants to build relations with our neighbors, expand trade and tourism, so we can become fully part of Europe."

The Baltic Republican Party, a group that favors semi-independence for Kaliningrad, even wants the capital city's historic name of Königsberg restored, as a gesture of reconciliation to Europe.

"This region's future lies in relations with its immediate neighbors, including Germany," says the Party's leader, Sergei Pasko. "Giving the city back its traditional name will show that we are serious about returning to the European fold."

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