Kaliningrad is the World Cup's (and maybe Russia’s) most unusual city، an exclave whose location means you need to leave Russia، then pass through at least two (and maybe three or four) other countries، just to get to it.
It is nestled right in the heart of central Europe – to the north of Poland – and as soccer’s biggest tournament heads toward the end of its first week، it shares none of the patriotic excitement that can be found in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
“Moscow is like a party،” Croatia fan Ivan Sedjevic، who watched his team beat Nigeria at Kaliningrad Stadium on Saturday، told USA TODAY Sports. “Kaliningrad is like a library.”
Aside from hosting World Cup games، Kaliningrad also made headlines recently when the Federation of American Scientists reported that Russia has cranked up its renovations of a vast nuclear weapons storage bunker in the region – already one of the most militarized areas of the country.
Given Kaliningrad’s proximity to Western Europe – sandwiched against NATO members Poland and Lithuania – the development has raised eyebrows around the world.
This news is hardly surprising، as Russian president Vladimir Putin has a history of using sports as a distraction while he gets other things done that may not be particularly popular.
In 2014، the Kremlin launched an attack which resulted in the annexation of the Crimea just days after the conclusion of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
In the week since the World Cup started، Putin raised the national retirement age and has overseen an order for crime reports during the event to be withheld from the public and media.
“Vladimir Putin sees the World Cup as another opportunity to advance his campaign to restore Russia’s rightful place in the world،” said Brian Taylor، a Russian politics expert at Syracuse University and author of "The Code of Putinism."
Kaliningrad’s location is a bit of a misnomer، as it doesn’t make any more effort to assimilate with its neighbors than the rest of Russia. It was a closed city under Soviet rule and was previously part of Germany، known then as Konigsberg، until it was allocated to the Russians at the end of World War II.
England fans who make the trip to Kaliningrad for their team’s clash with Belgium next week will find themselves barely halfway to Moscow from their island nation. There aren't many ways to get there either.
Tim Rich، a British sports writer for the Independent، found that to fly to Kaliningrad from Manchester، he would have to go via Amsterdam and Riga، the capital of Latvia. When the final leg of that journey was cancelled، he was redirected via Prague and then Moscow.
“It is definitely the weirdest city of the World Cup،” Rich said. “There are some lovely echoes of the past، the old Germanic railway station and a cathedral situation on a lovely island. There are parts of it that look more Western than any other Russian city، but it doesn’t always feel that way.”
Kaliningrad is only the 40th most populous city in Russia and has no great soccer pedigree; local team FC Baltika is outside of the top tier Russian Premier League. Yet the World Cup is here، whether the locals are thrilled about it or not، and the reasons are rooted in geography، politics... and Putin.