The Croydon-Kaliningrad connection

By - Tuesday 31st July, 2018

Drawing comparisons between our borough and this unusual Russian city

Photo author’s own.

I suspect many people in Croydon will not have even heard of the city and region of Kaliningrad. Yet for this particular Croydonian, it will always have a special place in my heart. Twenty-seven years ago, a few months after this then-Soviet city was opened up to foreigners, I married my dear wife. This June, tempted by the prospect of being able to see a couple of World Cup matches, I returned to see how much it had changed. Instead of the drab, grey, Soviet city that I remembered, it had changed into a far more colourful, prosperous modern European city with a pride and vitality that couldn’t be solely attributed to its World Cup City status. As I wandered the streets of this transformed town, I couldn’t help comparing it to my dear adopted home town of Croydon.

The first thing I couldn’t help noticing was how clean the streets and parks were. In contrast to the litter-strewn streets of Croydon, here was a place that people had respect for, and wanted to keep looking good. People wouldn’t just drop their cigarette stubs on the pavement, but would look for a bin, make sure the cigarette was stubbed out and deposit it in the appropriate container. I do not remember seeing one cigarette stub during my three-week stay, and the number of pieces of litter could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. As regards keeping their city clean, the people of Kaliningrad seemed to be way ahead of Croydon.

Clearly Kaliningrad had benefited from its geographical location, and from being a city of special economic status. Whereas twenty-seven years ago, it had been hard sometimes to get even the basic necessities, and there had been hardly any choice of produce, today the shops were full of a wide range of the products of western European consumerism. Separate from the rest of Russia and situated between Poland and Lithuania, the city had been German and known as Konigsberg before the Second World War. Much of its elegant architecture had been destroyed, but now some old German houses had been renovated or rebuilt in a similar style, and now the city – like Croydon – was an interesting mix of the old and the new. Unlike Croydon though, the city had invested in two tourist offices, one of which was invaluable for this ignorant foreigner. They were certainly keen to build on the interest and attention that had come to the city through the World Cup, and the guides, maps and suggested walks were invaluable. It seems to me that Croydon is not willing enough to build on its interesting history, dynamic present and wonderful transport connections to attract more tourists to our fascinating borough.

The town square had been rejuvenated, with plenty of seats and spaces for people to relax in

Another notable difference was the amount of public space in the city compared to Croydon. The town square had been rejuvenated, not merely by its lavish new cathedral, but also by a fountain and plenty of space and seats for people to relax in. It was in the bars and cafés around the edge of the square that many of the football fans congregated. Yet it was not just in the centre where resources for the community were made available. There were still many old blocks of flats and some new ones, but the Russians seemed to realise that if you have a number of families in an area, the very least you should offer should be a children’s playground nearby. With Croydon’s ever-expanding population and construction boom, this is a lesson Croydon could surely learn from.

It will probably always remain a mystery quite how a fairly mediocre second-division team managed to persuade the authorities that they should be able to stage World Cup matches, and be given the funds to build a new stadium which looked a bit similar to a huge spaceship in an enormous empty field. However, it gave the people a sense of pride and vitality, and Kaliningrad was a very hospitable city. Unlike Croydon, I did feel that almost the whole community had benefited from the rise in living standards, and if you were a young couple with jobs, it would be much easier to at least rent a flat of your own. I was told that the council did listen to the views of its people, and it did seem willing to invest in resources that would be of benefit to the whole community.

Government control still keeps a firm grip on the city’s culture

Yet although Kaliningrad may be geographically separate from the rest of the Russian state, the tentacles of government control still keep a firm and restrictive grip on the city’s culture and politics. It would be hard to imagine a paper like the Croydon Citizen, which encourages a wide range of views and debate, provided by Croydon’s own citizen journalists, being allowed to flourish in such an atmosphere. I was lucky enough to attend a charming classical concert in the courtyard of Kaliningrad library, but the fear of offending those in power means that you are far less likely to find such weird and wonderful cultural events as you might in Croydon.

At this time though, when our two governments are not, to put it mildly, on the best of terms, it seems more important than ever, that we realise despite possible different political opinions, that what we share is more important than what divides us. Croydon could learn a lot from Kaliningrad, and Kalingrad from Croydon. Both towns have a rich heritage and a culture of dynamism and innovation, and I would like to play a part in developing links between two different, fascinating places that I am very fond of. I have therefore set up a Facebook group called The Croydon Kaliningrad Connection and am planning in the next few months to enlist the help of each town’s citizens to produce an unusual innovative guide book for each city. I was sorry while I was away in Russia to miss both the Croydon Peace Festival and the second Croydon Summer of Love. If you are a Croydonian with an interest in Russia, and who would like to encourage a bit more peace and love between our two peoples, please consider joining the Facebook group. Who knows, you might even make a new and valuable friend in Kaliningrad.

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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  • Andrew Dickinson

    How, what, why is there very to no litter. Are there huge fines? I’d be interested to know more solely on this issue. Do you think the FB page could bring this out?

    • Charles Barber

      My own opinion is that Russian people are trained from a young age to take a more responsible attitude to their own waste and the appearance of their physical environment, and so disposing of their litter responsibly is the natural thing for them to do. However, it would be good to know more and so a discussion on the Facebook group is a good idea. Kaliningrad is though not as good at recycling as British towns so they could possibly learn something from us in that respect.

  • Ian

    Maybe we need a dose of Putin! Seriously though, I showed a Spaniard around Croydon last week and I was embarrassed by how dirty the streets are. He said there are no bins anywhere.

    • Charles Barber

      No, we certainly don’t need a dose of Putin (far worse than the clap), and neither does Kaliningrad but sadly at present they don’t have much choice in the matter. It is not Putin that is responsible for the lack of litter, but I suspect a more ingrained attitude regarding personal responsibility and civic pride.

      • Ian

        Yeah, I think you’re right. The council has a role to play too and in Croydon the council is failing in this respect.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      I share your embarrassment. This subject is beyond depressing.

      I’m not sure what more the council could do, though – at least not without entirely unrealistic expenditure on street monitoring. As a regular user of the fly-tipping app, I can attest to fast council response times. Key staff are committed and hard-working: the last time I saw CleanStreetStu, for example, was a few weeks back in my very-far-from-clean street with an iPad, taking pictures of areas which Veolia claimed to have cleaned – but it was clear that they hadn’t – to raise a complaint with the contractor.

      But it doesn’t work. My area is a disgrace and the problem is now spreading south.

      Training the young, Russian-style, would be great, although I suspect the Kaliningrad solution has a little more to do with anxiety about being caught than we would be comfortable with. I might be wrong and I’d like to hear more.

      We must in my opinion separate responsibility from blame. It’s the people of Croydon who make this mess. Without Big Brother style surveillance, the council can’t stop them. Some flytippers arrive in vans at night and dump large items – furniture, white goods. It regularly happens in my road, so I know that large items appear between midnight and 6am. This is crime and should be punished.

      But blaming the majority of residents for the mess is like blaming those on low incomes for eating badly – senseless. We have to consider the context of littering – the anger, alienation and despair that it expresses. Who trashes their own home? Someone who’s given up and believes that nobody cares.

      • Ian

        I agree it’s depressing but the amount of litter in central Croydon is far worse now than a few years ago and I don’t think that’s because of a sudden rise in anger, alienation and despair. More bins and more regularly cleaned streets would help. When the council fails, which it seems to be doing on this issue, I guess we need to try to work with neighbours to clear up our individual neighbourhoods and regain some pride.

      • Ian

        I get you, Liz, about the fly tipping and I know CleanStreetStu works hard on this, but I’m on about the general litter and filthy streets we see as we walk around Croydon town. I know the litter is about personal responsibility, and this could be why Kaliningrad looks so clean, but I don’t think the worsening litter problem in Croydon is due to a sudden increase in anger, alienation and despair.

        I think it’s more about poor education, increasing fast-food and throw-away items, lack of bins in public places, lack of litter pickers, infrequent bin collections etc. On my estate, residents have clubbed together to take it in turns to clean up the local public areas. But when I walk into town, there’s overflowing bins and litter all over the place. Surely the council could do a little more too?

        • lizsheppardjourno

          Sorry I’d missed this reply earlier, Ian.

          I suppose I’d classify ‘poor education, increasing fast-food and throw-away items, lack of bins in public places, lack of litter pickers, infrequent bin collections etc’ as causes of the alienation and despair. The worst-affected areas are the poorest (because that’s where the most alienated and despairing people are) and as social problems such as transient, unstable occupancy and overcrowding spread into wealthier areas, such as south Croydon, these problems spread with them.

          My partner is convinced that increased flytipping and mess is also about cuts in police numbers. He points out that it’s long been a rural problem (because you are far less likely to get caught behaving antisocially away from conurbations) – but now you’re unlikely to get caught here as well. Sounds plausible to me.