World Cup Postcard from Kaliningrad with England in a Russian enclave

Wed, Jun 27 2018

Kaliningrad Stadium Credit: Macdara Ferris (ETPhotos)

Macdara Ferris reports from Kaliningrad

On my bookshelves, I have guidebooks from every place I have traveled to and they are in alphabetical order in sections by publisher as basically I’m showing off. The Rough Guides literally go from A to Z (Australia to Zanzibar) but I don’t have quite so many Lonely Planets; they go from B (Belgrade) to W (Western Balkans) but there are some non-Balkan guidebooks in there too. 

In between I have a guidebook for Molvania by Jetlag Travel. It gives guidance on traveling to a place they call ‘a land untouched by modern dentistry’. In case you were wondering, it is a fictional land and to be honest I thought Kaliningrad wasn’t a real place either. 

I’m obviously showing up a certain amount of geographical ignorance and certainly geo-political ignorance given the strategic importance of this location for Russia – giving it a port access to the Baltic Sea.

Having watched the US TV series the West Wing during the 2000s, I remember an episode where President Barlett had to negotiate with the Russian President for the return of an unmanned US spy plane that has crashed in Kaliningrad. 

The TV show used fictitious places like Qumar and Equatorial Kundu but Kaliningrad is definitely non-fiction - an enclave of Russia surrounded by Poland and Lithuania a mere 150km from the Polish city of Gdansk. 

Tomorrow the city will host the final of its four World Cup games, concluding with the Group G clash between England and Belgium as the group stages come to a conclusion.

1,235km from Moscow, Kaliningrad is Russia’s most westernmost region. Formerly a German city, Konigsberg as it was then known was the capital of East Prussia. 

It is now home to the Russian Baltic fleet located in Baltiysk. As that port is ice-free you can understand the strategic value of the city. A tourist destination for me tomorrow morning will be a visit to the World Ocean Museum. I’ll be humming the theme tune to ‘The Hunt for Red October’ as I make my way through the B-413 submarine – a centrepiece of the museum.

After both Belgium and England won their opening two games and have already qualified for the knock out stages, there isn’t as much strategic value being put on a win tomorrow evening. 

Having come from St. Petersburg, Kalingrad city seems very small. I’m staying a ten minute walk from the UNESCO Kaliningrad Cathedral which is adjacent to the ‘FIFA Fan Fest’ which sits below the horrible Dom Sovietov (House of Soviets).

That building, an empty white elephant, sits on the former Castle built when the city was founded in the 1200s. It was dynamited to destruction by the Soviets in the mid-1960s to erase some of the cities Germanic past.

England hadn’t sold out their ticket allocation for their previous two games but a sizeable England travelling contingent will be in the city this evening. 

At the pre-match press conference in the Kaliningrad stadium, Gareth Southgate was asked about the small England support compared with other travelling fans such as Argentina, Colombia and even Panama.

“The (England) supporters who are here have been brilliant. In the ground they have conducted themselves well and have been good ambassadors for the country.

“The fears have been unfounded about travelling in Russia. We have been warmly received here. We feel the support that we are getting from back home even if we haven’t had as much support in the ground.”

Hopefully for his team they don’t get too loud as England, having travelled from their base outside of St. Petersburg, are staying in the city centre on the eve of the match. They didn’t train at the stadium as Gareth Southgate explained. 

“We train in the morning and it gives us a longer recovery time,” said Southgate who went on to assure the Russian questioner not to “take it as a slight on what is a brilliant stadium!”

For a full report on the views from each camp, check out our England and Belgium articles.