Changing Planet

Geography in the News: Kaliningrad

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Russia’s Kaliningrad’s Westward Look Now Questioned 

Kaliningrad, a small Russian exclave, is frequently in the news in Eastern Europe, as it has become more and more westernized and increasingly a tourism destination. Most Americans probably never heard of Kaliningrad, but Russia’s recent support for ethnic Russians in Ukraine has drawn world attention to Russia’s extraterritorial influences. Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea certainly worries the governments of Eastern Europe, none more than Kaliningrad’s neighbors.

The small exclave of Kaliningrad is located between Lithuania and Poland, separated from Mother Russia by 225 miles (362 km). The Russian military hid nuclear weapons there following the devolution of the Soviet Union and many feared that the weapons might be stolen or sold on the black market.

Map by Geography in the News
Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society.

Most students of European history recognize present-day Kaliningrad as the former Königsberg, capital of East Prussia. The U.S.S.R annexed Kaliningrad in 1945 after the Potsdam agreement between the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union ceded the city to the Soviets following World War II.

Königsberg, situated on the Baltic Sea, was a potential commercial and military treasure for the Soviets. The Soviets desperately wanted a port on the southern Baltic Sea, despite already having access in the northern Baltic on the Gulf of Finland at St. Petersburg/Leningrad.

Year-round water transport access to the north Baltic had long been problematic for Russia. Russian Czar Peter the Great sought a window on the Baltic Sea by building St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, a narrow and northern arm of the Baltic. However, harsh winters often iced in this famous port. Königsberg’s coastal location adjacent to Poland’s northeast coast made it more reliable in the winter.

The Soviets made the region of Königsberg a Russian oblast (an administrative unit), an exclave of the Soviet Socialist Republic, and renamed it and the city Kaliningrad. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and Lithuania and Belarus became independent countries, Kaliningrad became a true Russian exclave, isolated from Russia proper. That meant Russians had to cross international borders to reach the oblast.

The Kaliningrad oblast contains 5,830 square miles (15,100 sq km) today, only about half the size of Connecticut. Three-quarters of its 940,000 inhabitants are classified as urban, living in Kaliningrad city.

Kaliningrad’s population and culture are distinctly Russian. Toward the end of World War II, most of the Germans who occupied the city abandoned it. Rather quickly, Kaliningrad was overwhelmed through “Russification,” the process whereby people of Russian culture flooded in. Over the past 55 years, first the Soviets and then the Russians made the port city a major naval complex, mostly off limits to Westerners until recently.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor (Dec. 9, 2012) called Kaliningrad a “Russian island encircled by Europe,” with strong European cultural influences and loosening Russian influences. Kaliningrad’s citizens are easily able to visit Gdansk, Poland, and Berlin, Germany, bringing home both western culture and western goods. Few other parts of Russia approach the high quality of life found in Kaliningrad today.

It is interesting to see landscape, economic and cultural changes occurring in Kaliningrad. As the city’s history is being showcased and tourism is encouraged, Kaliningrad continues, at least until recently, to look ever more westward and away from Russia. The political trajectory of this Russian enclave seems to portend an increasingly progressive future, unless Russia’s new aggressive nationalism dials back Kaliningrad’s westward leanings.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM

Sources: GITN #1180 Russia’s Kaliningrad Looks Westward,,Jan. 11, 2013;  GITN #557 Russia’s Hot Exclave: Kaliningrad,, Feb. 2, 2001; and Admundsen, Michael, “Kaliningrad: A Russian Island Encircled by Europe,” Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 17, 2012.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.


Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • Nick Lott

    It should be pointed out that the German abandonment post WWII was not voluntary.

    • Neal Lineback

      Yes, indeed. I thought we inferred that in our article. The Germans did not go willingly. Thanks for your comment.

  • :Lin Garber

    I was startled to read that “5,830 square miles” is only about half the size of Connnecticut. Did you mean Massachusetts? Connecticut’s area is 5,543 sq. miles.

  • Neal Lineback

    Yes, Lin Garber is exactly right. We did NOT mean for the word, “half” to be in that sentence. Kaliningrad Oblast is about the size of Connecticut–NOT half the size of Massachusetts. Kaliningrad has 5,830 square miles and Connecticut has 5,543. Thanks for the correction.

  • Hot spot

    According to your article i may say that you think that Russians are aggressors. Maybe we need to forget old points of view about them? I was lived in Russia for a while. And they are people too, not beasts

  • Axel

    several World Cup matches are to take place in Kaliningrad; I might go there next year

  • Mr. Markus Zachary Xavier Hunter-Vrooman

    Kaliningrad has taken leaps and strides to become a beautiful European city. It has embraced it’s Prussian heritage (Slavic & German). Prussia was first a European country with a multicultural, multifaith, multiethnic composition. The Germans, Poles and Lithuanians lived together as Prussians. The post-East Prussian Soviet period attempted to eradicate those characteristics. The post-Soviet, Russian period, like Post-Communist Polish East Prussia has reversed this course and embraced the Prussian, not German heritage of East Prussia. East Prussia or Ostpreußen never wanted to be apart of Germany to begin with. Kaliningrad looks majestic thanks in a large part to tourism which has reinvigorated it’s abysmal economy. I hope the Russian leadership does not isolate the Kaliningrad Oblast from the world again. I hope to visit in the summer of 2017.

  • Neal Lineback

    Excellent update of this article on Kaliningrad below. We too hope that Russia does not isolate the Kaliningrad Oblast from the world again. Things are uneasy all across Eastern Europe as a result of the new nationalism by both Russia and the United States.

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