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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kaliningrad Digs Up Its German Past

KALININGRAD -- Avenir Ovsyanov was only 20 but can still recount in exacting detail how in 1957 he helped destroy this city's German soul.

Following orders from local Soviet bosses, Ovsyanov's military engineering class bored hundreds of holes in the ruins of Kaliningrad's 13th-century castle, packed them with dynamite and began blasting away 700 years of history.

It is perhaps a fitting twist of fate that now, as director of the region's historical preservation department, Ovsyanov's job is to protect -- or recover, as is more often the case -- the art, culture and history lost first by war and then by Soviet rule.

"Many years have passed, and I am different," said Ovsyanov, who is now 65. "Now I protect old ruins. This is my penance for the misdeeds of my youth."

A joke used to make the rounds here before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991: In Kaliningrad, people said, there was no history between Adam and Potsdam, referring to the site of the Allied conference in 1945 that ceded the formerly German territory to the Soviet Union.

Now, half a century after the Potsdam conference, Kaliningrad, with its surrounding undulating hills and marshlands, is gradually beginning to recover its past.

In so doing, it is raising questions about whether this region of 900,000 inhabitants is Russian or German at heart. Some have even suggested restoring the old German name of K?nigsberg.

Until April 9, 1945, when the Soviet Army seized it, this region was German territory, part of East Prussia.

Its capital, K?nigsberg, had long been a center of German commerce and culture, best known as the hometown of the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant.

After the war, the Soviet authorities sought to erase all traces of German history that had not been destroyed by British air raids in 1944 and Soviet shelling a year later.

In 1946, they renamed the city and the region after Mikhail Kalinin, the former senior Soviet leader, who had just died and happened to be next on the list to be honored. What Germans remained were expelled, and the region was repopulated with Russians, many of them refugees of destruction elsewhere.

For 46 years, Kaliningrad was a restricted military zone, the home of the Baltic Fleet, but the collapse of the Soviet Union opened it up and the city's old character has slowly begun to emerge.

Kaliningrad's main cathedral, first built in 1333 and badly damaged during World War II by British bombs, has been undergoing a renovation and now looks much as it did before the war.

On the site of the old castle, which was not finally leveled until 1968, archeologists sponsored by the German magazine Der Spiegel are excavating the foundations to see what, if anything, can be saved.

Alexander Papanin, a writer and cultural historian, said Kaliningrad, like all of Russia, had to come to terms with history after the end of the Soviet Union. Only it was different here. "In Russia, it was like a return to prerevolutionary history," he said. "Here, it was like a return to prewar history." The question now is where to stop.

Efforts to restore the old castle or at least preserve its ruins in some sort of historic park have clashed with plans for Kaliningrad's most famous Soviet monument: the concrete block known formally as the House of the Soviets.

Most people simply call it "the Monster."

Begun in 1972, the building stands unfinished, a decaying hulk visited by addicts and drunks that overshadows the drab concrete plaza where the castle once stood.

There have been several attempts to turn it into a hotel or business center, but none have progressed. Its very ownership is a matter of intrigue. It is jointly owned by the city, the region and a shadowy company registered in Panama, MIDI PHI Holding Corp. The possibility of a lucrative redevelopment seems to have halted any talk of simply tearing the Monster down.

"It is a part of our history, too," said Tatyana Kondakova, the city's chief architect.

Then there is the city's name. In July, a local activist began an Internet campaign to restore the old one, K?nigsberg. The notion has support, including from people like Ovsyanov and some elected officials, who note that other places once named after Kalinin have since changed their names back, like the city of Tver, northwest of Moscow.

But the campaign prompted furious protests, including from the region's governor, Vladimir Yegorov.

"True patriots of their country, those to whom this amber land is dear, will live and work in Kaliningrad," Yegorov was quoted by Interfax as saying. "Those who do not like this name, which has already become a part of Russian and world history, may go to other places."