At the 1945 Potsdam Conference, the Western allies acceded to Josef Stalin's demand that the northern third of East Prussia be awarded to the Soviet Union. He provided two justifications for the transfer of the territory that would be renamed Kaliningrad: The USSR needed an ice-free port on the Baltic Sea, and, through the annexation, the Germans would compensate the Soviet people for the millions of lives they lost at the hands of the Nazi invaders. The American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, said in the Potsdam Protocol that the transfer of territory was contingent upon a final peace treaty; this treaty was never signed by the Allied and Axis powers.
The Prussians, who originally occupied the area, lost their lands after the Teutonic Knights invaded the southern shores of the Baltic littoral in the thirteenth century. By the seventeenth century, the Prussians—cousins to the Latvians and Lithuanians, all of whom spoke a closely related language—disappeared as a nation, and the German invaders henceforth adopted the name "Prussians."
Russians never lived in East Prussia, although in 1758, during the Seven Years War, Russian troops briefly occupied the capital Königsberg and some surrounding territory. After World War I, the German province of East Prussia was created on this territory but was separated from the rest of Germany by the Polish Corridor. Poland was awarded the southern two-thirds of old East Prussia after World War II, and the Soviet Union took control of its northern third, about the size of Northern Ireland. Henceforth most of the German residents fled, or were forced from the area, and their farms and cities were occupied by migrants from other areas of the Soviet Union. Most were Russians and by the mid-1990s this westernmost Russian region had about 930,000 residents. About 80 percent lived in urban areas, the rest in the countryside.
During the Cold War, Kaliningrad was a closed territory with a heavy military presence: The USSR's Baltic Sea fleet was located there along with contingents of ground and air defense units. It was the first line of defense against an attack from the west and could be used simultaneously for offensive operations in a westward coup de main.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kaliningrad became an "exclave" of the Russian Federation (i.e., a geographical anomaly, since it was a political entity of Russia but surrounded by Lithuania, Poland, and the Baltic Sea). All land and rail routes to and from Kaliningrad to Russia henceforth had to traverse foreign borders.
In the 1990s Kaliningrad was perceived simultaneously as a flash point of conflict with its neighbors and a gateway to Europe. The first perspective was based on the presence of large numbers of Russian troops, and on Russian fears that foreign interests (in Germany and Lithuania) claimed the oblast. By the late 1990s none of these latent points of conflict became manifest. According to U.S. government estimates, there were 25,000 Russian military personnel in the oblast, and no foreign government had claims on it.
But Kaliningrad did not become a gateway to Europe either. On the contrary: Afflicted by daunting economic, political, and social problems, Kaliningrad was described by Western observers as a "black hole" in the center of Europe. Today the oblast no longer receives the heavy subsidies it enjoyed during the Soviet era, and it has experienced greater dips in its agricultural and manufacturing sectors than other Russian regions. To make matters worse, the region's residents and political leadership complained that the authorities in Moscow have ignored them, or have adopted conflicting policies that have exacerbated the oblast's economic problems.
To attract domestic and foreign investment, first a "free" and then a "special" economic zone was created. But Moscow's failure to enact enabling legislation, or to change existing laws, have undercut the zones. After Russia's August 1998 fiscal crisis, Kaliningrad's economic situation deteriorated further. By 2000 the European Union indicated that it was prepared to address the "Kaliningrad Question" through its Northern Dimension—a development plan for Russia's northwestern regions—but they received mixed signals from Moscow.
Russian authorities expressed concern that Kaliningraders would suffer once Poland and Lithuania entered the EU and adopted stricter border controls. Also, while President Vladimir Putin indicated that he desired closer ties with Europe, his representatives in Moscow and Kaliningrad were slow to adopt a common approach toward the oblast's problems. By the fall of 2002, however, the EU and Russia reached an agreement on providing transit documents (and a sealed train) to facilitate travel to and from Kaliningrad to Russia through Lithuania.
Many European and American analysts believe that Kaliningrad can serve as a test case and demonstrate how the West might help Russia in its drive to build a democratic and capitalist society.
See also: economy, post-soviet; prussia, relations with
Fairlie, Lyndell D., and Sergounin, Alexander. (2001). Are Borders Barriers? Helsinki: The Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Joenniemi, Perti, and Prawitz, Ian, eds. (1998). Kaliningrad: The European Amber Region. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
Krickus, Richard J. (2002). The Kaliningrad Question. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Richard J. Krickus