How Russia came to own Kaliningrad, an enclave on the Baltic Sea

Formerly called Königsberg, Kaliningrad is a Russia enclave sandwiched on the Baltic coast between Lithuania and Poland, both NATO members, and has no land border with Russia.

The region of Kaliningrad, formerly known as Königsberg, came under Russian control as a result of historical events following World War II (WWII). Prior to the war, Königsberg was part of East Prussia and was under German control. However, after Germany’s defeat in 1945, the region was captured by the Soviet Union.

As part of the post-war settlement, the Allies agreed to transfer the area to Soviet control, primarily because of its strategic location and proximity to the Baltic Sea. The city of Königsberg was heavily damaged during the war, and the German population was largely expelled or fled as a result of the conflict. The Soviet Union subsequently annexed the territory and renamed it Kaliningrad in 1946.

Kaliningrad remained under Soviet control throughout the Cold War period and continued to be an important military and naval base for the Soviet Navy. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kaliningrad became an exclave, separated from mainland Russia by the territories of Lithuania and Poland.

Today, Kaliningrad is an autonomous region of the Russian Federation. It holds strategic significance as Russia’s westernmost territory and provides access to the Baltic Sea. The region has its own local government and is an important economic and cultural center within Russia.

When was the first settlement of modern-day Kaliningrad founded?

The settlement of modern-day Kaliningrad came to being in 1255. It was founded on the ancient Old Prussian settlement called Twangste by the Teutonic Knights. The Teutonic Order were a group of Catholic knights created to aid Christians during their pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

The establishment of the settlement came during the Northern Crusades (i.e. the Baltic Crusades), a religious campaign in the 13th century embarked upon by Catholic Christians to Christianize the pagan Baltic, Old Prussian, West Slavic and Finnic peoples.

Therefore, from the 13th century onward, the enclave became part of the territory of the Teutonic Order. It was named Königsberg in honor of the King Ottokar II of Bohemia. In the centuries that followed, the area became predominantly German-speaking, although it did have some Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian minorities.

Heinrich Walpot von Bassenheim (died 1200), also known as Henry Walpot, was the first Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights

The name Königsberg came from the name of King Ottokar II of Bohemia (reign: 1253-1278)

King Ottokar II of Bohemia, also known as Ottokar Přemysl, was a prominent medieval ruler who reigned from 1253 until his death in 1278. He belonged to the Přemyslid dynasty, which was one of the most influential noble families in the Kingdom of Bohemia.

Ottokar II significantly expanded the territorial holdings of Bohemia during his reign. He engaged in numerous military campaigns and skillfully negotiated political alliances to strengthen his position. His successful military campaigns allowed him to extend Bohemian control over neighboring regions such as Moravia, Silesia, and parts of Austria, making Bohemia a significant power in Central Europe.

However, Ottokar’s ambitions eventually led him into conflict with other European powers, particularly the Holy Roman Empire under the rule of Rudolf I of Habsburg. Ottokar’s desire to secure the imperial crown for himself brought him into direct opposition with Rudolf, leading to the Battle of Marchfeld in 1278. Ottokar’s forces were defeated, and he lost his life in the battle.

Ottokar II’s death marked the end of an era of expansion for the Kingdom of Bohemia. His territories were gradually incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, and the Přemyslid dynasty faced a period of decline. Nevertheless, Ottokar II’s legacy as a strong and ambitious ruler has left a lasting impact on the history of Bohemia.

Königsberg after the Prussian Crusade of the 13th century

Construction of the Königsberg Castle began in the 13th century. And between the 16th and 18th centuries further works were made on the building. The castle served as the residence of the Grandmasters of the Teutonic Order and later residence for Prussian rulers. Image: Königsberg Castle before World War I; demolished in 1968–1969 on Soviet Union leader Brezhnev’s orders

After the Prussian Crusade, quite a number of Germans settled in Königsberg and the surrounding areas. This made the enclave a predominantly German area, although it had Latvian, Polish and Lithuanian minorities.

German colonialism would continue for many centuries. It is said that many of the German colonist farmers and merchants took up residence in the southern part of the Teutonic State (i.e. the State of the Teutonic Order).

Beginning around the mid-15th century, the Teutonic state became a vassal of the Kingdom of Poland. It was also around the 15th century that the Königsberg became the capital Teutonic state.

In the early 16th century, Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg of the Prussian branch of the Teutonic Order managed to make himself the ruler of the Duchy of Prussia.

The Duchy of Prussia had been created following the secularization of the Monastic Prussia which was under the control of the State of the Teutonic Order. Albert, the Duke of Prussia, formally adopted Lutheranism in 1525. Per the Treaty of Kraków (1525), a treaty which brought to an end the Polish-Teutonic War (1519-1521), the Duchy of Prussia would in turn see the King of Poland Sigismund I the Old as its suzerain.

Before becoming ruler of the Duchy of Prussia, Albert of Prussia was the 37th grand master of the Teutonic Knights. After converting to Lutheranism, he was bestowed upon the title “Duke of Prussia”. He best known for being the first European ruler to establish Lutheranism as the official religion of his lands. Image: Albert, Duke of Prussia (1490-1568)

Did you know…?

Albert, Duke of Prussia, was the nephew of King Sigismund I the Old of Poland.

The German theologian and Protestant reformer Martin Luther is said to have been the one who convinced Albert to convert to Lutheranism in 1523. Luther was also the one who helped broker the Prussian Homage, a deal which saw Albert granted the title of “Duke of Prussia” by his uncle, Sigismund.

Ducal Prussia, the first Protestant state in Europe, thus became a vassal to King Sigismund I of Poland. The few Teutonic Order knights that refused the Prussian Homage and the conversion to Lutheranism decided to return to the Holy Roman Empire.

The Brandenburg-Prussia union in 1618

Brandenburg-Prussia refers to a historical state that emerged from the territories of the Margraviate of Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia. It originated in the early 17th century and played a significant role in the development of modern Germany.

The state of Brandenburg-Prussia came into being when the Hohenzollern prince-electors of Brandenburg inherited the Duchy of Prussia in 1618. This union of territories allowed the rulers of Brandenburg to hold the title of “Duke of Prussia” and establish a personal union between the two regions. Under the Treaty of Wehlau (1657) and the Treaty of Oliva (1660), Frederick William (reign: 1640-1688), “the Great Elector”, Brandenburg was able to establish full sovereignty over the Duchy of Prussia.

As for Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad), the city served as the residence of the Duke of Prussia. It also served as the capital of the Duchy of Prussia until 1660, when the capital moved to Berlin.

Frederick William (1620 – 1688) was Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia. He ruled Brandenburg-Prussia from 1640 until his death in 1688. Image: Portrait of Frederick William by Venice-born painter Gedeon Romandon

Rise of the Kingdom of Prussia

Under the leadership of the Hohenzollern dynasty, Brandenburg-Prussia underwent a period of significant territorial expansion and political consolidation.

The Great Elector, Frederick William, implemented policies that strengthened the state’s military, centralized administration, and encouraged economic growth. His successors, particularly Frederick I and Frederick II, continued these efforts and expanded Brandenburg-Prussia’s influence in Europe.

The state of Brandenburg-Prussia played a pivotal role in the formation of the Kingdom of Prussia, which later became a vital component of a unified Germany. Through military victories and strategic alliances, Brandenburg-Prussia transformed into a powerful regional power and contributed to the rise of Prussia as a dominant force in European affairs.

From 1701, Brandenburg-Prussia came to be known as the Kingdom of Prussia, with the Brandenburg part of the kingdom part of the Holy Roman Empire, while the Prussia later formed part of the German Confederation.

The Province of East Prussia

Following the breakout of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Königsberg was occupied by the Russian Empire. After the war, the area was returned to Prussia and was reorganized into the Province of East Prussia within the Kingdom of Prussia.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the region, along with East Prussia, became part of the German Empire, an empire formed following the unification of Germany in 1871.

In the early part of the 19th century, East Prussia’s population of about 1 million was predominantly made up of Protestants. Many of the inhabitants were Germans, with Polish, Lithuanian and Latvians making up the minorities. There were also ethnically Russian minorities, who were mostly Orthodox Christians.

Königsberg during the Napoleonic era

During the Napoleonic Wars, French forces run amok in many parts of Europe, including invading the Kingdom of Prussia and even occupying Berlin.

At some point, the Court of Prussia was moved from Berlin to Königsberg, and pleas for support were made by the Prussian monarch to the Russians.

The outcome was a fierce battle (i.e. Battle of Friedland in 1807) between the Russo-Prussian forces and the French. The French won, and a peace treaty (i.e. the Treaties of Tilsit) was signed between Napoleon and Russian Emperor Alexander in July 1807. The Prussian King Frederick William III of Prussia had by then ceded close to half of his pre-war territories to Napoleon. Napoleon thus established his control of Central Europe.

The Germanization of Königsberg

The Germanization of Königsberg began after the Teutonic conquest of the area in the early Late Middle Ages. As a result, the Old Prussian culture and pagan beliefs made way for Catholicism and German culture. German colonialism would continue for many centuries. It is said that many of the German colonist farmers and merchants took up residence in the southern part of the Teutonic State. The area basically became a German-speaking.

Some notable German figures that hailed from East Prussia include the famous Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant and the jurist and composer Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman.

Even after suffering immense destruction at the hands of the invading Russians during WWII, East Prussia was still able to remain a significant portion of its German architecture.

During the Nazi march in Europe, many names of areas in East Prussia were changed from Old Prussian and Lithuanian names to more German-sounding names.

Königsberg and East Prussia during World War I and World War II

In 1914, as France became concerned of an increasingly militaristic German Empire, the French encouraged Russian Emperor Nicholas to invade East Prussia.

In the ensuing battle, the Battle of Gumbinnen in August 1914, the Russians, led by General Paul Von Rennenkampf of the Imperial Russian Army, managed to overpower the German forces, claiming victory in the battle.

The invasion of East Prussia was meant to occupy the German forces on the Eastern Front. France and many of its European allies were concerned that Germany was planning to seize Paris. With the needed reinforcements, the Germans successfully drove out the Russians from East Prussia. However, Russian forces chose to remain in the Eastern Frontier for some time.


Königsberg in 1938, during the Nazi era

Similar to the First World War, World War II also saw Russian forces launch a major attack on East Prussia. Beginning around August 1944, Russian troops needed less than six months to take all of East Prussia except for the area around Königsberg.

Russia’s invasion of East Prussia caused many Germans to pack up and leave the region. Many of them fled west. It’s estimated that more than 2 million people fled during Russia’s attack of the region.

Bombing of Königsberg in WWII and the Battle of Königsberg

The bombing of Königsberg between September 1941 and April 1945 destroyed many iconic structures of the German city. The air raids were mainly carried out by the RAF Bomber Command (i.e. the Royal Air Force’s bomber forces).

Soviet Air Force also carried out ruthless bombing of the city as part of a retaliation attack against Nazi Germany who had bombed Moscow in 1941.

By the end of the bombing, more than 90% of the city was ruined. The German garrison in Königsberg threw in the towel on April 9, 1945, bringing an end to the Battle of Königsberg (also known as the Königsberg Offensive or the the Soviet storming of Königsberg). The city was subsequently occupied by the Soviets.

It’s been estimated that more than 42,000 German soldiers lost their lives in the Battle of Königsberg.


In the aftermath of WWII, the Soviet Union did everything in its power to change the demographics of the area by the expulsion of Germans. The goal was to populate the area with Soviet citizens. Image: Refugees fleeing from Königsberg before the advancing Red Army of the Soviet Union in 1945

How the Soviet Union annexed Königsberg for the Russian SFSR after WWII

Again, similar to the Treaty of Versailles (1919) which saw Germany lose quite a lot of territory as well as the ruling Prussian dynasty, the Potsdam Agreement of 1945 resulted in Germany losing territories. In 1919, Germany had managed to keep Königsberg even though it lost many territories in East Prussia.

However, in 1945, and per the agreement of the allies concerning the military occupation and reconstruction of Germany and its borders, Königsberg was transferred to the Soviet Union as Germany’s borders were once again redrawn by the Allies.

The region of East Prussia was divided into three parts:

  • The southern part went to Poland
  • The northern part went to the USSR; however, it was seen as a part of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic
  • The central part, which included the city of Königsberg, was transferred to the USSR’s Russian Soviet Republic.

It was also agreed at the Potsdam Conference that the final determination of Königsberg be made at an anticipated peace settlement. That peace settlement did not take place until September 1990 when the Treaty of the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany (aka the Two Plus Four Agreement) was signed. That treaty helped in the reunification of Germany; however, the status of Königsberg was finally concluded as the enclave was incorporated into the Russian Federation.

Read More: Holodomor – the Soviet-Era Famine that Killed Over 3 Million Ukrainians

How Russia came to own Kaliningrad

Name change: from Königsberg to Kaliningrad

After the Allies transferred Königsberg to the Soviet Union, the name of the enclave was changed from Königsberg to Kaliningrad in 1946. The renaming was in honor of Mikhail Kalinin (1875-1946), the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Kalinin, an Old Bolshevik revolutionary, served as head of state of the Russian SFSR and later head of state of the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1946.

For his involvement in the decision to execute (i.e. the Katyn massacre) more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war at Katyn, Kalinin has not been remembered too fondly by history. There were even some members of the Polish government that proposed having the name of Kaliningrad changed to the Polish name Królewiec. That name was predominantly used for Königsberg in the 15th century when the region was under the rule of the Kingdom of Poland.

The Polish committee’s (Committee on Standardisation of Geographical Names Outside the Republic of Poland) proposal came in the aftermath of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The committee concluded that the current name of the enclave evoked some kind of “emotional and negative” feeling in Poland.

Senior Moscow officials called the Polish decision as “a hostile act” which was influenced by Poland’s “hatred towards Russians”.

Similar to the names change done by Nazis in the WWII, the Soviets also had the names of many districts, towns, and rivers in the region changed to Russian names.

Mikhail Kalinin

Königsberg was renamed by the Soviets Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the senior leaders of the Bolshevik revolution. Image: The monument to Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin on the Kalinin Square, built in 1959

The Russification of Königsberg

Throughout the late 1940s, the USSR embarked on a campaign to forcibly drive out as many Germans from Königsberg. The annexed Königsberg was then populated with Soviet citizens, who were mostly ethnic Russians. Ukrainians and Belarusians were encouraged to live there.

Steadily, a region that was once German-speaking and German dominated became Russian-speaking. To put into perspective the huge stride the Soviet Union made in the Russification of Königsberg one needs to take a look at the population census figures of the 1950s. It was found out that by 1950 half of Königsberg’s 1.2 million inhabitants came into the area after World War II.

In the post-war years, there were conscious attempts to remove every vestige of German culture from Königsberg by Soviet leaders. For example, in the 1960s, the ruins of the Königsberg Castle were razed to ground on the orders of then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Demolition of the ruins of Königsberg Castle with explosives, 1968.

The Soviets also converted a number of Lutheran Church buildings into Russian Orthodox Church. However, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, some German cultural heritage sites were restored, with the most famous of them being the Königsberg Cathedral. Located on Kneiphof island in the Pregel River, the cathedral, like many of the buildings of the former city of Königsberg, were severely damaged and/or destroyed during WWII.

Königsberg Cathedral in Kaliningrad, Russian Federation

The 14th-century Königsberg Cathedral

The time when the Soviets offered all of Kaliningrad to the Lithuanians

In the 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev offered the entirety of Kaliningrad to the Lithuanian SSR. This came despite the immense strategic and geopolitical importance of Kaliningrad. However, the offer was turned down by then Lithuanian communist leader Antanas Sniečkus because the Lithuanians did not want to have more than a million ethnic Russians added to their population.

There were even some claims that Kaliningrad was offered to Germany in 1990. However, the Germans declined because their priority at the time was to see to the reunification of Germany.

Kaliningrad following the collapse of the dissolution of Soviet Union


Königsberg was added as a semi-exclave to the Russian SFSR, becoming Kaliningrad Oblast (i.e. Kaliningrad Province). The oblast is seen as the westernmost federal subject of the Russian Federation.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the status of Kaliningrad became very confusing as the region was now situated further away from the Russian Federation, the successor state of majority of the lands of the USSR. Those countries in between Kaliningrad and Russia were independent. The fact that many of those Russian neighbors – particularly the Baltic states and former Warsaw Pact states – decided to align themselves with the West, in the form of the European Union (EU) and NATO made the situation even more dicey. Regardless Russians believed that Kaliningrad was indeed part of Russia; and so, the region stayed firmly as an oblast (province) of the Russian Federation.

Poland and Lithuania erected very strict border controls on Kaliningrad after their accession to the European Unio in 2004. Additionally, those two countries had already joined NATO in 1999 and 2004, respectively.

In the nutshell, mainland Russia had been cut off, in terms of land links, to Kaliningrad. Russia’s proposal to have a visa waived for travels between the EU and Kaliningrad was rejected by the EU. However, there have been some travel agreements between Russia and the EU in order to reduce Kaliningrad’s geographic isolation, which has had a negative effect on the economy of the province for quite some time.

Following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Lithuania collaborated with the EU to restrict the transportation of certain goods [mostly metals, construction materials, coal and machinery] into Kaliningrad by rail. Lithuania also shut down its airspace to flights from Russia to Kaliningrad. In response, Russia described the actions of the Baltic state as “openly hostile”, stating that Moscow would begin increasing shipments via the Baltic Sea into the semi-enclave.

Nuclear weapons deployment in Kaliningrad

In the late 2000s, as tensions between Russia and the West mounted, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov stated that were the US to deploy missile defence systems in Poland, Russia would respond by deploying nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad. Since then many Russian politicians have pushed for the deployment of nuclear weapons in the semi-enclave, with Russian former president Dmitry Medvedev being perhaps the most vocal of voices for the nuclearization of Kaliningrad.

The argument Russia always puts forth is that as a sovereign nation it has the right to deploy weapons and military units anywhere it wants on its own territory. The West and EU’s fears in general stems from the fact that such deployment of missiles that carry nuclear warheads places all of Western Europe within striking range, especially Baltic states like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Those NATO countries have called for serious investments to be made into improving air defense capabilities of the military alliance.

The seaport town Baltiysk

Russia enclave Kaliningrad, which is on the Baltic Sea coast, is home to one of two ice-free ports in the region. Image: The seaport town Baltiysk in Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast

Militarization of the enclave

Considering how important the enclave is, Russia remains very tight-lipped about the total number of Russian troops stationed there. It’s been estimated that the number of Russian troops in Kaliningrad could be as low as 10,000 or as high as 200,000. This makes it a very isolated militarized region. The isolation has put a huge drag on the economy over the decades.

HQ of Russia’s Baltic Fleet

The city of Kaliningrad serves as the HQ of the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet. The fleet was established as the Imperial Russian Navy in 1703 by then-Russian ruler Tsar Peter the Great. During the Russian SFSR era, the fleet was known as the Twice Red Banner Baltic Fleet, which formed part of the massive Soviet Navy. However, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Baltic Fleet, like Kaliningrad itself, was inherited by the Russian Federation.

The main base of the fleet is located in the town of Baltiysk (also known as Pillau). Baltiysk and the city of Kaliningrad are often seen as the only two places in which ice-free ports exist.

Population of Kaliningrad

The Russian population census of 2021 showed that the population of Kaliningrad Oblast was slightly above 1 million. According to the census figures, Russians make up about 78% of the oblast population, with Ukrainians and Belarusians having slightly above 1% each. The other ethnic minorities are Armenians, Germans, Tars, Uzbeks, Lithuanians, and Poles, among others. Modern figures show that about one third of the population belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. Roman Catholics make up about 1% of the population of Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad, a Russia enclave, is bordered by Lithuania to the north and east, Poland to the south, and the Baltic Sea to the northwest. Image: Map of Kaliningrad

The “Amber Land”

It’s estimated that more than 90% of the world’s known and extractible amber deposits can be found in Kaliningrad Oblast. The material is often used in making jewelry. This explains why the oblast has sometimes been called “Amber Land”.

City of Kaliningrad – the largest city and administrative center of Kaliningrad Oblast of the Russian Federation

Kaliningrad map

The capital city of Kaliningrad Oblast is Kaliningrad, which was formerly called Königsberg. As of 2021, the population of Kalingrad Oblast was in the neighborhood of 1 million. Map: Location of the City of Kaliningrad in the Kaliningrad Oblast of the Russian Federation

Below are some very interesting facts about the city of Kaliningrad in the Kaliningrad Oblast:

  • Kaliningrad was one of the host cities for the 2018 FIFA World Cup held in Russia. During the tournament, a total of four games were played at the 35,000-capacity Kaliningrad Stadium, which is located on Oktyabrsky Island.
  • The Russian football club FC Baltika Kaliningrad is based in Kaliningrad and plays in the Russian Football National League. The home stadium is the Kaliningrad Stadium.
  • In addition to being the administrative center of the eponymous oblast, Kaliningrad is the city is the largest city in the oblast. Kaliningrad Oblast of the Russian Federation is the westernmost oblast of Russia.
Kaliningrad Stadium

In 2018, Kaliningrad Stadium hosted four games of the 2018 FIFA World Cup held in Russia. The four group stages matches were: Croatia-Nigeria in Group D; Serbia-Switzerland in Group E; Spain-Morocco in Group B; and England-Belgium in Group G.

  • According to Kommersanti, a daily newspaper in Russia, Kaliningrad was the best city in Russia three consecutive times – from 2012 to 2014. Forbes ranked the city as the best Russian city to do business in 2013.
  • According to some estimates, the city has almost half a million inhabitants.
  • It is the second-largest city in the Northwestern Federal District. It comes only behind Saint Petersburg. As of the 2021 official census, the Northwestern Federal District has a population of about 14 million.
  • Kaliningrad is the third-largest city in the Baltic region – a region that includes countries along the Baltic Sea. These countries – Russia, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark – have shorelines along the Baltic Sea.
  • The city of Kaliningrad has sometimes been called König or Kyonig.
History of Kaliningrad

History of Kaliningrad

Did you know…?

The tomb of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, also known as “the Sage of Königsberg”, lies in a mausoleum that adjoins the northeast corner of the Königsberg Cathedral.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s tomb in Kaliningrad, Russia

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