My first teaching experience in Eastern and Central Europe was in 2006 and the venue was Herzen State University, St. Petersburg, Russia. St. Petersburg is one of the great cities of the world and after three weeks, my wife Rufus and I felt we had only scratched the surface. Even for the most jaded museum goer, the Hermitage is worth several days.
My students were extremely bright and enthusiastic, but they almost all felt that in order to achieve anything they would have to move to the West. I was particularly curious to see if the student attitude about leaving Russia had changed. In the past 10 years and in spite of what we think of him in the West, Russia has been dynamically led by Vladimir Putin. We know how he has outmaneuvered the West diplomatically, but for Russians, real income has increased threefold during his presidency and the country has projected a sense of confidence that did not exist in 2006. Had this affected the attitude of those who were 9-11 years old in 2006?
There were several teaching opportunities available in Russia in 2015, but the best fit for my schedule and the course I teach was at the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad in October, 2015. Why was a Russian University named after a German philosopher and where in Russia is Kaliningrad? The answer to the first question is that Kaliningrad used to be Königsberg, East Prussia. The answer to the second is that it is located between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea and is several hundred miles from the rest of Russia. How this came about, indeed the entire history of Kaliningrad, is one of the more interesting in a region full of interesting stories.
The first dilemma about teaching in Kaliningrad is “how do you get there?” The simple answer is “you can’t get there from here and you can’t get back here from there.” Of course, that is not quite true since we did both, but it is not easy. The options were: 1) fly to Warsaw, spend the night and fly to Kaliningrad; 2) take an occasional (non-daily) flight to St. Petersburg and then fly to Kaliningrad; 3) fly to Gdańsk, Poland and take a bus to Kaliningrad. We later learned of an occasional Air Berlin flight to and from Berlin but it was ending in November. We were eventually able to fly Washington–Zurich-St. Petersburg–Kaliningrad, which took 20 hours, but the trip was flawless. The last leg was on Aeroflot. The plane was a modern airbus and the service was as good as, if not better than, any comparable service in the U.S. (although no business class was available).
Like our first trip to Russia, we arrived but our bags did not. Unlike our first trip, the baggage and customs personnel were friendly, helpful, and minimally bureaucratic. At any rate, the bags arrived and were delivered to our living quarters in two days. We later learned that although our bags were checked through from Washington to Kaliningrad we should have checked them through customs in St. Petersburg and rechecked them. Rather obvious in retrospect and that is the procedure when returning to the U.S. from abroad and transferring onward.
The first thing we noticed was the St. Petersburg Airport. In 2006, it was small, old-fashioned and seemed more suited to a mid-size city than an important world city. It is now large, modern, and architecturally interesting, comparable to any new airport in the world. It is certainly better than most U.S. airports. Immigration is speedy and polite. There is a full range of services and numerous international franchise outlets, e.g., Starbucks. This was accomplished in less than 10 years as nothing had been started in 2006.
The people at the University and the others we came to know were hospitable, kind, friendly and generous. There is little apparent joy on the faces of people as you walk around the street, but if you form even the slightest attachment, the warmth and generosity surface. For example, the fare on the city trams is 18 Russian Rubles (about USD .30) person. We jumped on a sparsely populated train one night and held out 36 rubles. The fare collector just smiled and waved us off. When it turned out we were on the wrong train, she did her best to explain how to retrace our route and get on the correct train.
It was also a good feeling that on our first night, there was a magnificent fireworks display readily visible from the windows of our quarters. We chose to regard it as a personal welcome.
Kaliningrad – Its History
To understand Kaliningrad and its physical appearance, it is necessary to piece together its history. It was founded by the Teutonic Knights who came from Germany to convert the heathen Lithuanians, Poles, and Sambians to Christianity. The choice was simple, “convert or die.” This approach did little to make the Knights popular so they had to protect themselves by building a fortress in the Sambian town of Twangste (Sambians were the original Prussians), which was around 1255. The Sambians were eventually assimilated into the German population and after approximately 1500 were no longer an identifiable group.
The city and surrounding territory remained in the Teutonic Order until 1466 when it became a fiefdom of Poland. This came about because the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth defeated the Order at one of the largest battles of the 15th Century – the Battle of Grunwald or the first battle of Tannenberg (the second battle of Tannenberg took place in the fall of 1914 when the German Army defeated a Russian Army of more than 1,000,000). The Teutonic Knights stayed on in Königsberg as a Polish fiefdom until 1615 when it became a separate Duchy. In 1701, it became part of the Kingdom of Prussia and in 1773 was recognized as East Prussia. All of Prussia was merged into and became the dominant power in the German Empire in 1871. Thereafter, its history was the history of Germany.
During WWII Königsberg was virtually destroyed by British bombers and the Russian Army. At the end of the war, the area was ceded to Russia, primarily because it had an “ice free” port on the Baltic. It was renamed Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, an early Bolshevik. It became the home of the Russian Baltic fleet and apparently had the largest proportion of military to civilian personnel of any of the so-called USSR republics. All Germans were expelled by 1947. Incredibly, I know a woman who was part of the expulsion. She was about five years old at the time and remembers being in a box car with her family and wearing an old pair of her father’s shoes. She moved to the U.S. in 1960 and became and remains a close family friend.
Today Kaliningrad remains part of Russia, land-locked by Lithuania and Poland, although apparently the Russians tried to sell it back to Germany after 1990. There have more recently been discussions that it should be given back to Germany as a good-will gesture after Russia’s reincorporation of the Crimea.
Traveling in and out of Kaliningrad is complicated. As mentioned above, the air routes are somewhat convoluted and irregular. For a resident of Kaliningrad who wants to travel elsewhere in Russia, the choices are to get a visa from Lithuania (single trip only), drive through Belarus, which adds several hundred miles to the trip, or fly. Trains did not seem to be an option. We did learn that the Government subsidizes airfares between Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg or Moscow. In spite of its physical proximity to the rest of Russia, the trip is comparable to a “Lower 48” visit to Alaska.
Kaliningrad – The Place
Because of the destruction during WWII, there is very little left of the old city. There is a German church and a few surrounding buildings dating to the 1500s. A series of city gates dating from the mid-19th century are still in existence. Some are completely restored and used for various public purposes, e.g., museums. Others are almost completely ruined, but maintained as historical sites. There are many handsome buildings of the late 19th and early 20th century, which of course are of Northern German design. We lived in one of them. Then, of course, there are the ubiquitous Soviet era concrete buildings – some untouched in decades, but some were restored. There also is an effort to maintain at least the façade of some of the pre-WWII build-ings. The business center of town is prosperous and new with everything from the upscale retailers of most European cities to worldwide franchises.
The City is well-served by a tram system, but with a rather daunting system of stops. They do not stop on the curb but in the middle of the street beyond two to three lanes of traffic. When it stops, you dash across the traffic lanes to enter the tram. I asked about this system and whether the traffic was re-quired to stop when the tram did. The response was not entirely reassuring: “well, it is supposed to.” We adopted the best strategy for such situations, which is to “follow the crowd.”
One factor which surprised us was that virtually every public establishment from the trams to the smallest restaurant had a good, free Wi-Fi connection. Everyone has a smart phone. We were never without Wi-Fi.
The restaurants were adequate. One restaurant in particular had an innovation I had never seen before – each table had two beer taps. You are given a glass to pour your own beer so there was no waiting for a refill. What a creative group, although I understand the innovation has migrated to the U.S.
One evening we walked into a pleasant looking restaurant. After being seated, a man approached us and spoke in German. Before I could adjust to this unexpected greeting and deploy my limited knowledge of the language, he spoke in English and said, “I know you are not Russian and my first guess was German.” It turned out that one night a week, the local German community has a “Stammtisch” in this restaurant. (A “Stammtisch” is a reserved table for a group and only members of the group can sit at it unless invited. Some of you may have mistakenly sat at a vacant Stammtisch in Germany and been asked to move). The gentleman explained that the Stammtisch was for the local German population and anyone else who wanted to practice their German. We were asked to join and had a great evening. We were told that the Kaliningrad region is much different from the rest of Russia, as much German as it is Russian. Several of our dinner companions commute regularly between Germany and Kaliningrad for business. One man is a farmer (the seventh or eighth generation) and has large farms (4,000+ hectares) in both Germany and Kaliningrad. He regularly commutes by car between the two. Other Germans work in Kaliningrad and were very complimentary of the hospitable business environment. It was one of those serendipitous meetings where you learn more about a place in two hours of conversation than in a month’s worth of reading.
As most of you probably know, the Soviet system strongly discouraged the practice of religion. The oldest church in Kaliningrad was the German Lutheran cathedral in the old section of town, dating from the mid-16th century. With the fall of the Soviet system, there has been a major resurgence of the Orthodox Church. In Kaliningrad, this was evidenced by the new Orthodox Church; indeed, it is still under construction. Although in use, the prevailing aroma was wet plaster, not incense. Several muralists were working on the interior painting. It was strange to see a centuries old Protestant cathedral and a brand new Orthodox church in Russia and it was another indication of Kaliningrad’s unique character.
Russia will be home to the 2018 World Cup and Kaliningrad will be one of the venues. This was obviously a point of great pride as it was literally spelled out in big RED LETTERS all over the city.
The streets of central Kaliningrad could be those of almost any moderate-sized European city. It is only the Cyrillic alphabet that indicates otherwise. There were many whimsical statues and signs, which indicate both civic pride and a robust arts community. In summary, it is a very pleasant place.
Living & Teaching
One of the more interesting benefits of my teaching experience is that the University provides housing. It is not a five or a four, or for that matter, any sort of “star” accommodation. The benefit is that instead of living as a tourist or even a business traveler’s life, you get to live in and know the local community. So far, all of our accommodations have been comfortable, and Kaliningrad was no exception.
Our accommodation was a hostel, primarily, but not exclusively for the University community. It was on the fourth floor of a late 19th century building and architecturally, rather imposing. There was a beautiful park right outside and in full autumn color for our visit.
It did not have an elevator so the day always ended with a “Stairmaster” climb. It was a single room with a private bath and a shared kitchen and common area. We typically ate breakfast in the kitchen, but other meals were in a restaurant. The other occupants were friendly and generous, e.g., giving us fresh fruit, although the language barrier kept most conversations on a fairly superficial level. It is fun for two to three weeks, but we were both ready for the comforts of home at the end of our stay.
The University was the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University. It is named after the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who was among Königsberg’s most famous citizens. According to legend, Kant was so regular in his habits that the local housewives would set their clocks by his appearance on his daily walks. The University had an excellent reputation through 1945 when it was taken over by the Russians at the end of WWII. It was reopened in the 1960s and pursuant to an agreement between Putin and then German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, restored to its present appellation.
The law faculty is housed in what looks like a fairly generic Soviet-era concrete structure from the outside but is very modern in the interior. Like many other Universities in Eastern and Central Europe where I have taught, the investment is in technology, with every classroom fully equipped with overhead projectors, internet access, and all the other latest electronic gadgets. Likewise, the students are the same as their U.S. counterparts – everyone has a smart phone, laptop, etc.
My students were very bright, but their English language skills were somewhat less than I have come to expect. Fortunately, after teaching the same two courses for many years, I can vary the content to suit almost any group. The assignment was to prepare a detailed Request for Arbitration. The results were excellent.
What Did I Learn?
I always hope that I impart some useful knowledge in the field of international business law and arbitration and the importance of the “rule of law” in commercial transactions. My students are now all post-Soviet era, and the older generations’ stories of the “old days” carries little interest. I would say that the spirit of capitalism, although often exercised in a brutal and self-serving fashion, is the future. Indeed, Russian capitalism at this stage seems to be going through the same developmental process as U.S. capitalism from the end of the Civil War until the early 20th century. At first, totally unbridled with the rise of the oligarchs (read monopolists like Rockefeller and Carnegie) and then gradually harnessed through government regulation. The process may not be pretty and Russia may have its own “Great Depression,” but the process seems very much like other economic transitions.
Finally, how do the Russians feel about their President and themselves? There was no overt bragging, but clearly there is pride in how Putin has revitalized his country. It is my understanding that in spite of the reported effects of the sanctions declared by the West, the real income of the Russian population has increased threefold during Putin’s period in office. I will confess a certain degree of admiration for Putin. The reincorporation of the Crimea into Russia (it was given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956) and the current divide between the Eastern and Western parts of Ukraine are less a resurgence of a renewed Russia imperialism than an alignment of the preferences of the population. When I taught in Ukraine in 2010, the topic of the cultural split between Eastern (more Russian) and Western (more European) Ukraine was a major issue. That a split is happening should have come as no surprise to Western diplomats. Finally, I can only see more commonality between the U.S. and Russia than differences. Both countries have energy independence, neither needs “more territory,” and radical Islam is a common enemy, perhaps even more threatening to Russia than the United States. Okay, enough politics.
The answer to my question as to whether students still see a move to the West as their best option for a successful life is less clear. I believe I could best characterize it as they now see Russia, in spite of recent tensions, as integrating into the world economic order in which they have a chance to participate.
For 2016, the most interesting opportunity appears to be the University of Pardubice in the Czech Republic. Although we have visited the Czech Republic as tourists, we are looking forward to the more intimate knowledge gained through living and teaching there.