Is There Truth to Czechia’s Claim on Kaliningrad? (*Hint – Yes.)

In October 2022, Russian forces held a sham vote on annexing parts of Ukrainian territory to Russia. In response, the Czechs invented a claim to the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea. Its basis was simple: Kaliningrad, formerly known as Königsberg, was named after the Bohemian king.

Czech supporters of Ukraine have ideas about how to handle Russia's recent land grab: annexation of the Kaliningrad District of Russian Federation into Czechia.

History has a custom of repeating itself, and organizing sham referenda as a basis for future annexation of an illegally claimed piece of land is nothing new. In October 2022, Putin’s Russian regime just reached for a tool not dissimilar to the German annexation of Czech Sudetes in 1938.

The devil is in the details, though: in 1938, the Nazi empire was rising, and its grim shadow had just started casting over the whole of Europe. Meanwhile, half a year after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, its army looks puny and is defeated with all kinds of weapons. Including memes.

Krtek claims Kaliningrad

Russian plan to escalate deterrence by annexing Ukrainian land, thus bringing the war to the territory called its own, was met with the same humor as previously major losses in tanks, soldiers’ under equipment, or Russian citizens’ exodus in the face of the draft. But in this case, the main credit goes to Ukrainian supporters in Czechia.

Their reaction? Annexation of the Kaliningrad District of Russian Federation.

Not a military one, obviously. Famously landlocked countries didn’t have any armada to send to the Baltic Sea. (Though if it had, opening another front in the Russian war could prove a profitable business). But with their unique sense of humor, Czechs claimed Kaliningrad based on the exact mechanism Putin used in Donbas, Crimea, and Zaporozhe: the region has Czech heritage, so we’ll call it part of Czechia based on votes we just fabricated.

The internet exploded one of those (daily) memetic explosions. Kaliningrad was renamed in Czech as Kalningradiček. Czechs rejoiced with their newly gained access to the sea. In one of the memes, Vladimir Putin is seen on a telephone call, captioned: “How are things there in Kaliningrad? What? What does it “ahoj” mean!?

Another is a conspiracy theory: perhaps the whole Russian war on Ukraine was a Czech plot to gain sea access? On yet another photo manipulation, President Biden officially hands over Kaliningrad to Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský.

Czechs proudly proclaim their most famous cartoon character, the Little Mole (Krtek), and his fellow mouse, riding a funny car, as their ground forces. For the lack of the Baltic fleet, they picture another one, gallant robber Rumcajs riding a dolphin as their flagship.

Kralovec, the Czech Kaliningrad

And a @KralovecCzechia account launched on Twitter. But why not Kaliningrad? Is there any truth behind the Czech version of the name?

In fact, there is, and a lot of it. Needless to say, Kaliningrad was never Russian before it was claimed after World War Two. In 1945, the city was ceded to the Soviet Union under the agreement of the Potsdam Conference. In the regular winner-takes-all manner, former citizens – primarily Germans, but also Poles, Lithuanian and Latvian citizens were expelled.

Königsberg was dead – long live Kaliningrad. The last name wasn’t even given until 4 July 1946 upon the death of Soviet head of state Mikhail Kalinin, an activist in the Bolshevik revolution. Kaliningrad became the Soviet war port of the Baltic and “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” projecting power – including nuclear warheads – far to the west.

The previous name was much more pleasant: the King’s Mountain. German Königsberg, Lithuanian Karaliaučius, Polish Królewiec, and even previous Russian names relate to a historical king. And that was… (wait for it!)

Ottokar, the founder of Kralovec

Ottokar II of Bohemia, so, technically a Czech king and a member of the Czech indigenous Přemyslid dynasty in the 13th century. Back in his time, there was no Königsberg yet, but the Teutonic Knights were already north of Poland, establishing their own country and gaining territory by conquering Pagan tribes in the north.

Those raids were considered part of the holy wars as the Middle Eastern crusades, and taking part in them was a good Christian deed (to which Polish lawyers of the period famously opposed, formulating the idea of just war, a pillar of international law to this day.) When pagan settlements were captured, they could be turned into European cities.

And such was the fate of Twangste, turned in 1255 by Teutonic Knights to Kralevec. This name, derived from the Czech word for King, was obviously not the first and foremost, as German Königsberg was mainly used. But the connection is clear: Ottokar II of Bohemia led two Prussian expeditions (the name refers to the Old Prussian pagan ethnos, not the later Prussian Germans who took their name). The first of them was the one that led to the establishment of Königsberg.

The rest is history. The Teutonic Order state remained a powerful actor in its part of Europe throughout Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, the state was secular and became a vassal of growing Poland, which later turned into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This latter entity was devoured by the three modern empires: Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian), Prussian (later German), and Russian.

Kralovec remained Königsberg until World War Two, after which it became Kaliningrad. In 1990, Germany decisively resigned from any claims to the city. But under Putin’s current logic, the claim came back – from the Czechs. Because why not?

Update, October 7th, 2022: the story is developing dynamically. The Czech city of Kralovec, aka former Königsberg, now has its own tourist authority at visitkralovec.cz. Unfortunately, the Twitter account announcing Czech trains to their newest city was only an “unofficial” one, as was an offer to sell American aircraft carriers from US Embassy in Prague (good luck to the Embassy’s Twitter moderators!)

But the project to build Beer Stream 1, connecting Kralovec through the Polish capital of Warsaw to Prague, with connectors to all major Czech breweries, knowing Czechs, may be closer than we think.

Update, October 8th: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki might be the first politician to “recognize” Kralovec at his official twitter account:

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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