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Monday, 16 September, 2002, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Kaliningrad rediscovers its history
Excavation site in Kaliningrad
Many historic buildings were simply paved over

A Russian engineer who blew up a historic castle in Kaliningrad has returned to the site four decades later - to help archaeologists and historians resurrect it.

Avenir Ovsyanov is leading a project to unearth the city's history that has been hidden for almost 60 years.

While the future of the tiny Russian territory, torn between Europe and Russia, remains uncertain, its past is becoming more clear.


Our final goal is to uncover and conserve the whole castle

Avenir Ovsyanov
In 1944, what was then the German city of Koenigsberg, an important commercial centre and port, was devastated by allied bombing. The following year the Soviet Army seized the area.

Instead of rebuilding the old city, they decided to build a new one over the top of it. Koenigsberg became Kaliningrad.

The city's German past proved to be incompatible with the ideas of the USSR, and nearly all traces of it were destroyed or literally buried in concrete.

The Cathedral is one of the only original structures left standing. It holds the grave of Koenigsberg's most famous son, Immanuel Kant.

Now Kaliningrad's archaeologists and historians are beginning to unearth the Germanic heritage that lies beneath the Russian exterior.

Military history

In 1957, Avenir Ovsyanov was a military engineering student in Kaliningrad. Under the orders of his superiors, he and his classmates blew up the remaining parts of Koenigsberg Castle, already partially destroyed by allied bombing.

The castle was built in the 13th Century and was the centre of Koenigsberg's cultural life. It also housed the great wealth of the Museum of Prussia.

"It was the cultural and spiritual centre of Koenigsberg", said Mr Ovsyanov
Old  Koenigsberg
Old Koenigsberg was devastated in the war

"Here there were very many museums, picture galleries, archives, exhibitions."

The Soviet authorities claimed it was a centre of fascism.

In its place they built the House of Soviets - a gloomy monstrosity intended to house the offices of local bureaucrats.

The building stands unfinished to this day. It casts a foreboding shadow over the site where the magnificent castle once stood.

Restoration project

Mr Ovsyanov is now the director of a centre for the conservation of historical sites. He is leading a project to restore what is left of the castle, now several metres underground.

He believes that if the remains of the castle are renovated and preserved then the site can serve as a much needed tourist attraction.

"Our final goal is to uncover and conserve the whole castle, so that there will be a real tourist site."

Cathedral
The cathedral is one of the only original buildings still standing
The irony of Mr Ovsyanov's position is not lost on the former soldier. He sees his work as a sort of penance.

"Of course I am sorry about this time. But I was a soldier, a young lad."

"When they tell you that it was a bastion of fascism and you have lived through the war and the hunger, fascism isn't just some hollow word.

"I think you'll understand."

Gaping hole

Along with other local experts he is now striving to re-establish some of the wealth and splendour of Koenigsberg.

Anatoly Valuev is chief archaeologist at the Museum of Kaliningrad. He and his colleagues are planning to open an exhibition dedicated to the old Museum of Prussia.

They will exhibit artefacts found during a excavation of part of the castle. And they will try to fill a gaping hole in the city's history, a legacy of the Soviet Union.

House of Soviets
The House of Soviets was built where the castle once stood
"Up until the 1990s of course, ancient history was banned."

"In all official publications about the Kaliningrad region and about the city, history began in 1945."

All funding for projects such as these come from abroad, principally from Germany.

But this is not always enough and at present the dig at the site of the castle has ground to a halt.

Another issue is the future of the House of Soviets, a constant reminder of the more recent fate of the city.

'Eyesore'

Some want the eyesore to be pulled down. This would be a great relief to Kaliningrad's skyline.

But many see this building, ugly as it may be, as a part of the city's history, and like the castle, it should be preserved.

Kaliningrad's chief architect, Tatyana Kondakova, sees the importance of the building as a reminder of the past.

"If we destroy this memorial to our recent past then we can't get on with things," he said.

"We have to get on with life, we have to breathe life through this building again."

"If life breathes in it again then we can sigh, 'Yes, we survived that difficult period. We survived and started to live again'."

See also:

09 Aug 02 | Europe
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