As a result, the commentator says, this “Russian border region has gradually lost its distinctiveness, political, economic, cultural and intellectual;” and thus “the Soviet wild west was transformed not a Muscovite frontier which allowed for only one logic of development, [ever greater] control by the center.”
For many, it appears this process began when Putin, then a young KGB operatchik, married a Kaliningrad stewardess, Lyudmila Skrebneva, after he visited the region during home leave from his service in East Germany. Her mother, recently interviewed by a local journalist, says the region’s residents were pleased at first that the Russian first lady was a Kaliningrader.”
But very quickly, she adds, they were surprised by what this “how to call it correctly – relationship to Putin – brought” their region and themselves.
It may seem strange to recall “but before Putin, no one much noticed [the region] neither in Soviet times nor even more in post-Soviet ones,” Kashin continues. A little piece of Germany handed over to the USSR at Potsdam and then populated by people moved in from the RSFSR and other republics of the Soviet Union.
“In a large isolated country” as the USSR was, he argues, “the periphery always will be the most quiet place, especially if this periphery is in the shadow of three most privileged Soviet republics … and Poland.” Yes, it was the site of a Soviet naval base; but it ports supported only local fishing and did not connect the place to the wider world as ports normally do.
As a result, Kashin says, “Kaliniingrad oblast was no more than a border region of the RSFSR’s Non-Black Earth zone.”
“When the RSFSR became the Russian Federation, the borders of the oblast became state ones … traders, contrabandists and bandits” emerged out of the local population in this case because “except for them, no one was interested in the oblast just as had been the case earlier in the Soviet past.”
“All bandits became local, all traders and contrabandists the same, and those few who weren’t local were Russians from Kazakhstan, the only ethno-social group,” the commentator continues, “which in the first years after 1991 people in Kaliningrad came into contact with and viewed as like themselves.”
There were “not any Muscovites. Perhaps, they weren’t aware that after the departure of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Russia retained something on the Baltic.” But with the rise of Putin and his Kaliningrad wife, that changed. And gradually “one after the other, the political technologists, the businessmen … and others all became Muscovites.”
In 2005, Moscow sent a Muscovite governor to Kaliningrad, and many thought that was as far as the center could go with it “Muscovite invasion.” Over the next decade, he “went native,” and Putin replaced him with someone having an almost German name which seemed to be a concession to local feelings.
But he was followed by four more, only one of which was a local resident, and it became obvious that the only person a Kaliningrad governor must please is Putin.
“Kaliningrad in the second half of the 20th century … was in fact isolated from the center.” It was “a Soviet wild west” which in the course of “natural evolution” ceased to be wild. But “Kaliningrad in the 21st century is a frontier taken over by Moscow,” even though it has a population with a local identity build up over four generations.
Russian beer has replaced German beer, local businesses have been replaced by Muscovite ones, local radio muscled out by federal channels, and “instead of a local governor, a young Muscovite.” Now, Moscow holds conferences devoted to planning for the future of Kaliningrad without much participation on the part of Kaliningraders.
The local journalist who interviewed Putin’s former mother-in-law, Kashin says, now writes articles for Muscovite outlets “unmasking the pro-German attitudes of the local intelligentsia. In fact,” however, these people are hardly pro-German, but Andrey works for the federal press and it loves it when people write about the enemies of Russia.”