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What some people might not know is that my foray into Russia didn’t start with my move to Moscow. Although I had never set foot in Moscow or Russia proper for more than two or three days, I had been to Russia before. When I was just a wee child between my sophomore and junior years of college, I managed to snag a scholarship through the US State Department to further my Russian skills in-country. Being totally free, I obviously went and that’s how my first experience with Russia – strangely – was in Kaliningrad.

Do you see it on the map? Give up?

map of russia

Kaliningrad is that weird part of Russia not actually connected to Russia, wedged between Poland and Lithuania. Yup, it was an area that the Soviet army won in World War II from the conquered Germans and just never gave up. Formerly called Konigsberg, the soviet powers-that-be simply Russified the name and imported a number of Russian citizens to populate the new territory. The resulting city is a strange mix of old German architecture, typical concrete block buildings, and one Soviet monstrosity.

I have to say, even though my living situation was pretty terrible (we were supposed to live with families to practice our language skills even at home. I lived with a surly 17-year-old girl and no one else and it was… unpleasant), I really liked Kaliningrad. The cushion of a stipend may have really sweetened my memory, but that summer was far more than just the obvious, grammar-heavy lessons all day. Our motley crew of Americans, Russians, and the odd German tourists still managed to sit for hours in the central square, drinking beer and enjoying each other’s company. The hours always managed to slip away as the city’s northern location meant it was suddenly 3 AM, still sunny, and we hadn’t managed to sleep before our next lesson.

There were negatives, though, and it’s only fair to address them. Whether because of more vigorous testing procedures or just a high-level of needle-drug users, the rates of HIV/AIDS are (were?) much higher than in the rest of Russia. I don’t have much comment on that except that I did see many needles all over Kaliningrad which I’ve never seen in Moscow. Also, if you come from a neighboring EU state, expect quality to decline. Kaliningrad and its citizens can’t interact freely with its neighbors, leaving it depended on help from Moscow: it’s just a sad fact of this little, isolated Russian outlier.

That all being said, there was something about the city (or the people?) that were so charming and utterly irresistible. It helped that just a short distance away were small towns that were so typically Russian (even though they were only half a century old) and sandy beaches with some of the coldest water I’ve ever tried to enjoy.

If you ever want some traveler cool points for going to a (relatively) cushy place that tends to be off the beaten path, get yourself a visa and head over to Kaliningrad.