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Chronicle of Higher Education
May 16, 2003
Special K: Kant, Königsberg, and Kaliningrad
Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, is currently a Fulbright professor of philosophy at St. Petersburg State University, in Russia. Kaliningrad, Russia

In a nod to the 279th birthday of hometown-boy Immanuel Kant on April 22, the daily newspaper in this Baltic city (pop. 418,200) known for centuries as German-speaking Königsberg, until the Soviets seized it in 1945 and totally Russified it, decided to ask some prominent citizens a fun question: "Does Kaliningrad Need a Street Named After Kant?"

Tatyana Kondakova, the city's chief architect, said she'd seen scant public demand for one. Given the philosopher's local German-era tomb, statue, and plaque, mused Kondakova, his name had "probably been immortalized enough." Leonard Kalinnikov, a Kaliningrad State University professor and chairman of the interregional Kant Society of Russia, understandably sounded more gung-ho, urging both the street and creation of an international institute in town. Inna Korneluk, director of the university's press center, gamely offered to live on "Kant Street" if it came into being from, well, nothingness. So did Svetlana Andreeva of the university's philosophy department, backing the idea by noting that Kaliningrad already had a lot of "foolishly named streets."

Then Tatyana Kandiaba, the journalist who reported the article, let readers and contributors in on the joke: Kaliningrad, it turned out, already possessed a Kant Street near the philosopher's tomb, but no one in town seemed to know it. Talk about folks needing a critique of judgment.

For a visiting professor enjoying the ultimate cheap philosophy thrill -- delivering a pair of philosophy lectures at Kant's old university (founded 1544), now Russian from top to bottom despite the ancien "Albertina" in its e-mail addresses -- the newspaper's gambit perfectly caught Kaliningrad's bizarre ongoing relationship to its most famous son, not to mention the rest of the world. The official Kaliningrad tourist pamphlet welcomes guests to "the city of unusual destiny." To be sure.

Nestled between Lithuania to the north and east, Poland to the south, and the Baltic Sea to the west, the 5,830-square-mile Kaliningrad Region (about half the size of Belgium) endured as German territory from its chief city's 1255 founding by the Teutonic Knights, through its glory days as East Prussia's capital, to the final weeks of World War II. But half a century before "ethnic cleansing" became a gruesome phrase in Europe, the Red Army swept in on its way to Berlin in April 1945 and took revenge for 20 million Russians killed in the wake of Nazi aggression.

After British bombing and Soviet artillery largely flattened the central city, Königsberg's remaining residents either fled to Germany, were shot, or were deported by Stalin to Germany or Siberia. Of the region's German-speaking residents before the war, 139,000 survivors received a one-way ticket from the Soviet leader. In turn, he ordered thousands of Russian and other Slav families to move to the newly annexed oblast (regional state), which he named after Mikhail Kalinin -- the U.S.S.R.'s longtime figurehead president. Kalinin's loyalist credentials included looking the other way while his wife perished in a Soviet labor camp.

As the chief port of Russia's Baltic Fleet, packed with what Western intelligence estimated as some 200,000 military personnel during the cold war, Kaliningrad remained closed to outsiders from 1947 to 1991. The Kremlin sought to make it a laboratory for new Soviet society and systematically destroyed leftovers of its German past. It blew up, for instance, Königsberg's beautiful 700-year-old castle. It then erected on the site an enormous 22-story House of Soviets that Lonely Planet's Baltic States guidebook declares the single ugliest work anywhere of Stalinist architecture.

Kaliningrad became, in effect, a Russian colony in Eastern Europe, the ultimate in postwar perestroika (restructuring). After it reopened for non-Russians, older German tourists, including former residents, streamed in. But that stream, Kaliningraders say, has slowed to a trickle as Germans who remember Königsberg die off, the German government officially denies any irredentist ideas, and young Germans ignore it. Say what you will about ethnic cleansing and repopulation, it silences the spirit of revanchism pretty effectively. Just as the United States, if it embarked on an "exceptional" national guilt trip, would have a hard time finding the right Native Americans to whom to return land, Russia now presides over a territory with only a few thousand indigenous Germans.

Still, Kaliningrad's profile rose this past year as Russia and the European Union struggled to reach agreement over new visa procedures for Russians going to and from Kaliningrad. Vladimir Putin's insistence that the EU treat Kaliningrad as 100-percent Russian territory left little doubt that he's not planning on letting it become a fourth independent Baltic state. Two recent publications, Richard J. Krickus's The Kaliningrad Question (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and The EU and Kaliningrad, edited by James Baxendale et al. (Kogan Page, 2001), offer a broad picture of the area's peculiar issues.

One rich historical irony is that if Kant returned for a visit, he might well be neither nonplussed nor immediately displeased. As Manfred Kuehn reminds us in Kant (Cambridge University Press, 2001), his doggedly researched biography of the philosopher, Russians occupied Königsberg from 1758 to 1762 after defeating the Prussian army in the Seven Years' War. When, during that period, Kant applied (unsuccessfully and for the second time) for a professorship of philosophy at the University of Königsberg, his application needed approval from the empress in St. Petersburg, not the Prussian king in Berlin.

According to Kuehn, Kant, who spent his entire life (1724-1804) in Königsberg and its countryside, welcomed "the change in the cultural climate" brought by the Russians, who liked everything "beautiful and well-mannered." He thought they brightened up a sometimes somber city too influenced by Pietist ideas. Kant proved quite popular as a guest of the Russians and, writes Kuehn, "became a person of elegance during this period, someone who shone at social events with his intelligence and wit."

The Soviets, of course, rejected Kant's aristocratic social values. But Lenin, who famously concentrated both attention and firing squads on philosophers, "was not as negative about Kant" as about most German thinkers, says Anna Karpenko, who teaches in the Kaliningrad philosophy department. Thus a makeshift Kant Museum persisted during Soviet times, in a few rooms at the university.

After 1991, as appreciation of the German past grew safer and Kaliningraders restored the 14th-century cathedral, newly married couples launched a minor tradition of leaving flowers at Kant's tomb, located just outside the back wall of the cathedral. Designed in 1924 by architect F. Lars, the possible final resting place (see below) of the much-exhumed extoller of Critical Philosophy is topped by an enormous rose-colored porphyry portico. The Kant Museum moved to the three upper rooms of the cathedral.

There, today, one encounters the present Kant/Kaliningrad interface: less chilly than in Soviet times, but still oddly distant, its atmosphere more that of a mock reliquary than a museum. In the top room, whose green oriental rugs, bare white walls, and parquet floors create the atmosphere of a secular church, the main draw is a copy (1945) of a copy (1924) of Kant's death mask, the original of which is at the University of Tartu, in Estonia.

The two lower rooms offer somewhat more intriguing fare, but no personal effects. (Kant's residences are all long gone, though the museum displays a small model of his longtime house on Prinzessinstrasse.) A bright 1880 painting by J. Heydeck depicts scholars digging up Kant's remains -- an undertaking (so to speak) apparently engineered several times, though not for reasons of skepticism.

In one display case, a Königsberg newspaper of 1925 shows that the Germans appreciated Kant's tourist clout more than present Kaliningraders. A printer and bookseller, Bruno Meyer & Company, took a large ad inviting readers to celebrate Kant's birthday by purchasing Kantliteratur und Kantpostkarten. In a smaller ad, a Herr Kurreck hawked Kant Tinte (ink). But today, there's no gift shop in the museum, and no Kant postcards for sale, either at the cathedral or in any Kaliningrad gift shop, including the airport kiosks.

Next year marks the bicentenary of Kant's death, and Vladimir Bryushinkin, chairman of Kaliningrad State University's philosophy department, says the university plans two international conferences. One hopes that there the authentic Kant -- the billiards player, the after-dinner wit, the natural scientist, the lover of Fielding and Richardson -- and not just the skeletal epistemologist invented by 20th-century analytic philosophers will flourish. Maybe participants will even find time to ponder the connections between Kant's theories of justice and the anomalous status of his hometown, a place where the safest maxim in regard to sovereignty is: "Don't mention it." Something like a "What Would Kant Think?" panel.

One also hopes the entrepreneurial juices of the New Russia flow fast. Even philosophers like tchotchkes. Seeing German-era Kant postcards under glass just isn't the same as being able to rush one to a grad-student pal who co-suffered through the Transcendental Analytic. A little "Kant Ink" or a few walking sticks couldn't hurt, if not T-shirts ("I Visited Kant's Tomb and All I Got Was This Silly Object in the Phenomenal World"). Maybe a few Kant bobbleheads, like those puppies in the back windows of cars. Kant wasn't much taller.

Kaliningrad, in any event, certainly needs to mint more golden Kant medals, which make good paperweights. So far as I can tell, I scored the only two in town.

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