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Kaliningrad Struggles With German Legacy

As the Russian city of Kaliningrad, formerly a Prussian enclave called Königsberg, celebrates its 750th anniversary over the weekend, residents still have mixed feelings when it comes to accepting the city's German past.

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Kaliningrad was seized by Moscow after World War II

Russia's Baltic outpost of Kaliningrad, notorious as a hotbed of crime and social problems in recent years, will shed its gritty image over the weekend as it plays host to world leaders during celebrations marking its 750th anniversary. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac have both accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin's invitation to attend on July 3.

But, beyond the formal festivities and celebrity shoulder-rubbing under the motto "Our city - 750 Years," the city's past still remains a contentious issue in Russia.

Immanuel Kant Denkmal in Kaliningrad

A Kant statue in Kaliningrad

One example of that is the city's most famous son, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant was born in the city when it was known as Königsberg, the eastern hub of the Prussian empire and the seat of the Teutonic knights.

The city was seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War II and came under Moscow's control in the 1946 Potsdam accords.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the city and surrounding region of Kaliningrad have become a Russian exclave, with the main train link running through former Soviet republics Belarus and Lithuania -- the latter a NATO and EU member.

Poland, once part of the Warsaw Pact, but now another NATO and EU member, borders the Kaliningrad region to the west and south.

Name change a loaded issue

Kant's legacy is visible in several parts of the city. Russian newlyweds traditionally pay their respects to the famous German by visiting his grave after exchanging vows.

The University of Kaliningrad was also recently renamed after Immanuel Kant. The building, which is now undergoing a facelift, will see Chancellor Schröder and Putin unveiling a memorial plaque in the courtyard.

But the name change is a politically charged issue on the university campus. Students are divided about the decision to name a Russian university after a German.

"It's unnatural to name a Russian university after a foreigner. They really can't be serious," said one. But, another was more relaxed about the move. "I'm not bothered by the fact that Kant was a German. He lived here a long time, which makes him one of us. He's a countryman of ours."

Uneasy relationship with past

The city's uncertain relationship with its German past is also illustrated in its quest for new symbols to reaffirm its identity.

Dom von Kaliningrad

The cathedral in Kaliningrad

For instance, central Kaliningrad's towering new landmark is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the second-largest church in Russia and is taller than the old German cathedral built when the city was Königsberg.

Cornelius Sommer, the German consul general in the city confirmed that there has been criticism of the celebrations planned for the 750th anniversary.

"I haven't heard any critical voices here in Kaliningrad itself, but I have heard such voices in Moscow," said Sommer. "There they're saying 'What's there to celebrate? 750 years: it was the Teutonic knights who expelled the native population' and so on. 'Our history,' they say, 'only begins in 1945.'"

Bildgalerie Kaliningrad Lenin Denkmal in Kaliningrad

The Lenin statue was removed from the city center

It's a view that's shared by the Communist Party. It's been some years since a memorial to its ideological hero, Lenin, was removed from the city center. But there are rumors that the monument is to return to Victory Square after the anniversary celebrations.

The party repeatedly underlines Kaliningrad's Russian heritage. "The Communist Party's view on the history of the city, its affiliation and future is clear: Kaliningrad is Russian, was Russian and will always be Russian," said Alexander Pushetshnikov of the Communist Party.

"Both German and Russian components"

At the same time, there's a resigned acceptance of the city's history in certain quarters.

The local cultural council in Kaliningrad has restored three headless statues of Bohemian King Ottokar, Prussian King Friedrich and Duke Albrecht which adorn the western façade of the city's King's Gate -- a remnant of Königsberg that escaped relatively unharmed from the ravages of war.

Russland: Kaliningrad - Entlang des Pregel

Ships on the river Pregel in Kaliningrad

"Today it's important that we build a new city," said Mikhail Andreev, the city's cultural administration director. "At the same time we must not forget individual segments of our city history. The history of Kaliningrad and Königsberg has both German and Russian components."

Nowhere is that more evident than among the group of ethnic Germans living in the city, almost all of whom arrived during the 1990s from other parts of the former Soviet Union -- particularly Kazakhstan and southern Russia. They are seeking to build a bridge between Russian residents and Germans.

"We don't have any problems here. We try to familiarize the locals with German traditions," said one who performs folk dances for a living. "We perform German dances and show traditional folklore. We want to unite people."

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