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Inside the history of the Russian city that best explain why Putin wants to host the World Cup

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Over the next few days, traveling England supporters in Russia will load onto airplanes to head to the Three Lions’s final group stage match against Belgium. At some point, a few of the less soused supporters will check their in-flight maps and wonder why their plane is flying west towards Lithuania. The answer is simple: The decisive Group G match will be played in Kaliningrad, a Russian “exclave” completely isolated from the rest of the country and sandwiched between Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania.

The story of how Kaliningrad, one of the world’s greatest geopolitical oddities, became a World Cup host city, however, is more complex. Located on the shores of the Baltic Sea, the city is a symbol of Russia’s long-simmering tensions with the West, and has often tilted back and forth between the sway of the two. It is these tensions that have made the exclave the perfect vessel to understand how Russian president Vladimir Putin is using the World Cup to develop his brand brand of expansive Russian nationalism this summer.

“Enforcing a renewed Russian identity is very much a part of what Putin has done” says Zachary Witlin, an analyst at the Eurasia Group. This “New Russia” form of nationalism, Witlin says, is especially pronounced because of the city’s turbulent history. “In the case of a place like Kaliningrad, whose history extending back a long period is European, I can understand that there would be an effort to emphasize the ‘New Russia’ angle.”

Kaliningrad wasn’t always a Russian exclave. The original German name for the city was Königsberg, which might conjure up memories of university philosophy courses. For almost 700 years, Königsberg was a German city in the region of East Prussia, and it was where Immanuel Kant lived, worked, and wrote the books that helped start the Enlightenment.

With the outbreak World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin saw a chance to claim Königsberg for the Soviet Union. Stalin wanted the city to serve as a geopolitical buffer between Russia and Germany, and — more importantly — he wanted the city’s port. Königsberg was one of the few Baltic cities with a port that could stay open through the winter, and this point made it a key target for Stalin since the lack of year-round port access had historically dampened the Russian economy. After a drawn out period of fighting, Soviet troops marched into Königsberg in 1945, annexed the territory, and renamed it Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, a high-ranking Bolshevik revolutionary.

Because securing Kaliningrad was so important to the Soviets, they took two steps to solidify their hold on the city. In 1948, the German population that had not already fled were forced to relocate to what was soon to become East Germany. This forced migration was combined with a plan for resettlement that brought approximately 400,000 Soviet citizens, most of them ethnic Russians, into the city.

Kaliningrad also became a closed military zone, effectively barring all but the most select foreign visitors for the entire Soviet period. Not even intrepid Soviet studies majors in Moscow could trek out to Kaliningrad. The city was largely a military outpost, and the main driver of its economy was the Soviet Navy and its Baltic fleet.

With the the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad again became a point of tension between Russia and the West. Cut off from the rest of Russia, the city struggled in the 1990s, suffering from rampant poverty and drug use that spurred an HIV epidemic. This economic downturn made the exclave ripe for investments from the European Union, which was quickly expanding into the Baltic states next door newly released from Soviet control. A number of tax breaks from the new Russian government (the region was designated as a “Special Economic Zone”) made it profitable for European companies to import goods into Kaliningrad, modify them slightly, and then ship them off to the rest of the Russian market.

Nicole Eaton, a Boston College professor who specializes in the immediate post-World War II history of the city, says that many in Europe saw Kaliningrad as a “new Hong Kong,” a small pocket for capitalist investment in a country whose government is otherwise resistant to foreign involvement.

Europe’s enthusiasm for the Kaliningrad exclave fizzled in the mid-2000s, however. A 2012 report by the Center for Eastern Studies argues that many European investors found that it was easier to focus on Russian Special Economic Zones closer to the rest of the country and its more established markets.

At the same time, a movement to re-energize Kaliningrad’s Russian identity was gaining strength. The Kremlin — under president Vladimir Putin’s leadership — began a series of investments meant to link Kaliningrad to Russia and to encourage national pride in the city. These initiatives ran from attempts to boost tourism, such as designating the city and its nearby Baltic beaches an official resort town and creating a legal casino zone to a program called “We, Russians” that allowed Kaliningrad teens to travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“And this was all before the World Cup,” Eaton says, “The idea was that [Kaliningrad] was going to be a tourist destination for casinos, relaxation, and the natural resources with the beach.”

Eaton says that hosting the World Cup fits into Moscow’s two-pronged goal for Kaliningrad: To make it feel more wholly connected to Russia and to stimulate its economy. “I see the World Cup as being part of both the identity formation, sort of a showcasing of Russia both for the people living there and abroad, and as part of an economic development plan,” she says.

But while Kaliningrad scores Putin a number of political points at home, it also helps him diplomatically. Witlin says that since around 2007, Putin has tied his political reputation to his ability to project Russian strength into the rest of the world. But as Russia’s foreign policy has become increasingly aggressive, Kaliningrad has made the nearby Baltic NATO members increasingly nervous. Those nerves were not helped by a recent report that Russia appears to have upgraded a nuclear bunker in the exclave. Witlin believes Putin is also using the World Cup assuage Western fears and show Kaliningrad in a different light.

Being able to invite World Cup fans to see the city and to welcome guests is a rare chance to associate the city with something positive in the international media,” Witlin says. In the same vein, after years of being an aggressive rogue state in the eyes of the international world, in this World Cup Russia gets to play the friendly host.

After centuries of complicated and contentious history, Kaliningrad has become a key piece in the diplomatic game of chess Putin is playing with the World Cup. So this is why England is heading west, not east for their final group stage match. And even though Harry Kane and Eden Hazard’s eyes will be on the top spot in Group G, Putin will be happy that the soccer world’s eyes will be on Kaliningrad.

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