The town of Zheleznodorozhnyi, known as Gerdauen before 1946, lies in the center-south of Kaliningrad Oblast, just a few kilometres away from the Polish border. It is less than 3,000 inhabitants big. In the late nineteenth and and early twentieth century it developed into a local centre thanks to construction of a railroad, a watermill and a brewery.
Gerdauen was severly affected by both world wars. First, in 1914, the town was destroyed by advancing Russian forces. It was then reconstructed with the help of partner cities (Patenstädte) from Budapest (Austria-Hungary) and Berlin-Wilmersdorf (Germany). The recultivation works lasted until 1921 so long after the war ended. Thanks to favourable infrastructure Gerdauen grew quickly. Its population increased by 60% in just 20 years (between 1890 and 1910) and exceeded 5,000 people shortly before World War II broke out.
The 1939-1945 conflict, however, brought an end to the idyllic, a little drowsy life of Gerdauen and its citizens. Apart from military actions and Germans fleeing the town, what slowed down any reconstruction was its unclear post-war political fate. Initially, it was meant to become the capital of the Gerdauen county (powiat gierdawski) within Poland’s shifted borders. As it turned out in 1946 and subsequent years, Stalin had other plans for the whole Polish-Soviet borderland, moving the frontier some 15-20 kilometres southwards. Gerdauen found itself on the latter’s side, having been renamed to Zheleznodorozhnyi (Railroad Town).
Being not a municipal centre and rather remote from regional capital, Zheleznodorozhnyi was one of the most depressive spots on the map of Soviet Kaliningrad Oblast. As fields were nationalised and kolkhozes were established, local agricultural tradition was replaced with centralised planning. It meant no attachment to the land and rapid decay in crops efficiency. There was also almost no industry here. This is why already in late Brezhnev times Zheleznodorozhnyi suffered from outflow of people. Just between 1979 and 1989 it lost 15% of its population, barely exceeding 3,000 souls.
Collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 made things even worse. Rapidly deteriorating economic situation forced people to search for jobs either in Kaliningrad or elsewhere in Russia. Many of those who had relatives in the West migrated to Germany. Those who stayed had to deal with even deeper pauperisation, high unemployment and alcoholism. Regional authorities have other challenges to face and focused their attention mostly on Kaliningrad and its immediate surroundings. I wrote about this phenomenon in New Eastern Europe bimonthly earlier this year.
Only late 2020s brought a cardinal change of this attitude. There were two main factors for that. First, preparations for hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018 by Kaliningrad Oblast aligned with attempts to increase the region’s tourist attractiveness and stimulate its more remote parts to grow. Second, consequences of the war in Ukraine made Russian authorities invest in domestic agricultural production. Although the Oblast largely benefitted from the so-called importozameshcheniye (imports substitution), it did not prevent the east of the region from depopulating weven further. Thus, regional government came up with the idea of renovating Zheleznodorzhnyi to see if it would improve the quality of living there.
Reconstruction, known as kapremont (capital renovation in Russian), began in summer 2019 and lasted for a year. They resulted in renovating a number of living houses in the town. Yet they were neither aimed at restituting the exact old look of the town nor carried out in a fully organised way. In fact, they stopped less than halfway. Major attractions of Zheleznodorozhnyi, such as the medieval church, mill, town hall and neo-Gothic castle, were left untouched.
It is striking to observeall these monumental buildings falling into decay especially when looking just a hundred metres away. On a little hill nearby, there is a brand new Orthodox church, drawing attention with its gold-plated cupolas. Its existence is very emblematic for all towns and cities in Kaliningrad Oblast. It points to a broader phenomenon of building typically Russian/Eastern Orthodox objects at the expense of the pre-war Gothic and neo-Gothic architecture.
Does it mean that the kapremont failed? The answer is somewhat multi-faceted. For one thing, Zheleznodorzhnyi has not attracted serious investments offering new workplaces to the inhabitants. In this sense, it remained a sleepy town in the outskirts of the Oblast. For other thing, on sunny autumn days you could see tens of people from all over the region in Zheleznodorozhnyi. Visitors enjoy walking here, admiring the ruins and showing some interest in neat brickhouses in the centre. Oddly enough, Zheleznodorozhnyi strikes a balance here between what seems to be gone and what seems to be still here. The town’s uniqueness is that it offers both at the same time, wrapped in a rather accessible package. That is already solid ground to build upon.
All rights reserved. All photos were taken with Sony A7R Mark III.