2009 TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant.
Author: Stephen Gandolfi
On visiting the Cathedral I was lucky enough to meet a local student who was more than willing to lead me to the Dom and answer what questions he could understand, as his English lacked fluency. The route of which we approached the Cathedral was interesting and was no doubt a unique way for a tourist to explore the area surrounding the iconic location. The abundance of flats that had clearly suffered from neglect for at least 20 years contributed to the non existent urban design which included streets without pavements or roads and only presented sections of tramlines covered by grass as evidence of previous transport use. All the time I walked through this un-sociable area I could see the Cathedral, and it was not until the residential area suddenly ended when I past an old disused German building that was dated ‘1899′ and approached a main road that I understood the lack of continuality in the city.
Crossing the road it was immediately apparent that this area had been regenerated for a tourist focus. There were a number of war memorials and relatively decent paving alongside the river bank, and a clear continuation led one to the cathedral’s island where this urban design continued. On entering the island the fact a mere five minutes previous I had stood in the middle of what looked like a rough estate, I was now in a picturesque area. Many people were celebrating marriages as it was Saturday and the love bridge was covered in padlocks which signified the love of those who were tying the knot. Before, venturing to the Cathedral area itself I walked along a small promenade that felt more Mediterranean than Russian or German, and briefly considered how this area fitted into the landscape.
For those who had ventured down the main street to the Cathedral and did not venture away from the attractions it may not be seen as a shock, but after my journey through ‘real Kaliningrad’ I felt that this photographic area portrayed a wrongful image of the settlement and almost demonstrated a feeling of desperation and desire to become an overall beautiful city, which all cities even the beauties of Paris and Rome seize to enjoy.
The Dom itself was an impressive building and of course my previous feelings of window dressing the city of Kaliningrad cannot take away the fantastic history and architecture evident on this island. The museum within the Cathedral was very well maintained and did provide a useful and affordable insight into the history of the site, yet it did demonstrate weaknesses. For example most of the artefacts were accompanied by text that informed the visitor of its origins, but despite being a tourist site they were only in Russian which signified a lack of desire for external knowledge of the site to be understood.
The previous knowledge gathered from the provided articles helped build a picture of the area, and therefore I decided to read them after the visit to the site. I had already learnt about the brief history of the city and the cathedral from previous research yet the articles supplied greater historical depth and vital political actions that are very influential when portraying ones impressions of the site.
One of the main issues in relation to the Cathedral is who was responsible for the reconstruction of the building after the destruction of World War Two, the Russians or the Germans. Both groups within Eder and Spohn’s in 2005 piece take credit for the regeneration, yet one may see this as a wider issue within European politics. Russia after the Cold War presented itself as a paranoid nation and has therefore ignored outside influences and transformed ‘strangers into enemies’ (Bauman, 2009) without considering the real issues. This attitude almost suggests that those who travel outside of Russia are liars and seek to interfere or manipulate with the Russian Federation, and the Don displays a perfect example of this attitude being implemented.
It could be said that Russia wish to take credit for what German money had provided in order to portray that the Government are actively promoting cultural and historical pasts. Yet in reality the Russians do not feel that capital should be spent on such issues and therefore must propagandise scenarios which could demonstrate they are actively engaging in public restoration projects. I believe that Russians did not publicly want to take financial assistance from the Germans in reconstructing the Dom, but they were willing to do so as long as they were able to take credit. Therefore, it could be suggested that the Cathedral in Kaliningrad is a sign of Russia holding onto its power, without being sucked into European politics. Power is not in close reach to politics in contemporary Europe and the current Russian Government is unwilling to lose power through its politics; resulting in a national crisis that the ‘old are dying and the new cannot be born’ (Gramsci.1971).
However, projects such as the Dom do offer some signs of change with the Federation, as one would definitely not have seen any level of assistance from external nations prior to the end of the Cold War. Kaliningrad may be the Russian laboratory where testing areas of integration with Europe can take place. Collaboration with Germany in restoring the Dom may not have just helped Kaliningrad gain popularity as a tourist resort, but may have produced an iconic successful partnership project which could trigger other similar schemes.
I feel the Dom portrays a positive tourist site, despite the hidden politics of its restoration. Yet I cannot seize to believe that the Dom is an iconic feature for the city of Kaliningrad in providing an attraction, but also a landmark relationship project that has increased (if only slightly) Russia’s integration into Europe.
One does not think about breathing until stuck in a stuffy room, and the same can be said for Russia in Europe.