Baltiysk

Baltiysk (Pillau before 1946) is the westernmost town in Russia, situated in the northern part of the Vistula Spit on the Pillau Peninsula, on the shore of the Strait of Baltiysk, separating the Vistula Lagoon from the Gdansk Bay. It is 50 kilometres from Kaliningrad to Baltiysk. It takes approximately 1 hour 10 minutes to drive there, taking Route А193. The alternatives are bus #107 or electric commuter train. 

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Ploshchad Baltiyskoi Slavy, or Baltic Glory Square, was created in 1975, replacing a neighbourhood that had been largely destroyed in the battle of Baltiysk during the Great Patriotic War. The entry to the square is lined by the statues of a soldier and a sailor. There are two B-132 ship’s cannons a little further on, and a torpedo boat, which is now a monument.  

The first documented mention of a populated community in the area of the modern Baltiysk dates back to 1258. An epic storm in 1510 changed the fortunes of this place, forming a navigable strait, separating the Vistula Spit from the Sa.m.land Peninsula. From then on, Pillau would develop as a major shipping port.   

The Prince-Elector of Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm I, visited Pillau twice in the mid-17th century. The Russian Tsar Peter the Great visited the town on three occasions, in 1697, 1711 and 1716. Peter studied the art of bombardment and fortification here. Pillau received its urban credentials and a coat of arms in 1725. The town got its local newspapers and telegraph in the 1850. The Pillau-Koenigsberg railway opened in 1856.

Pillau saw several wars in the course of its centuries-old history. During the Polish-Swedish war of 1626, in which Prussia was involved, Swedish forces captured Pillau and founded a pentagonal fortress, the Pillau Citadel, which was completed after 1635 by order of Elector Georg Wilhelm. Russian forces occupied Pillau from 1758 to 1762 during the Seven Years’ War. The town was also occupied by the French army for six months in 1812. Battles raged here during the First and Second World Wars. Pillau was captured by the Soviet Army on April 25-26, 1945, following an intense battle.

Pillau was renamed Baltiysk at the end of 1946. Russia’s largest naval base on the Baltic Sea was inaugurated here in 1952. On account of this, Baltiysk remained a restricted-access town until the early 2000s.  
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The architectural centrepiece of Baltiysk is this fortress, founded by the Swedish army in the 17th century. The fortress is a pentagon, each side being 80 metres long. Each bastion has a name: Albrecht, Prussia, Koenig, Koenigen, Kronprinz. They are surrounded by a moat. The outer defence perimeter consists of five ravelins: Ludwig, Storchnes, Valwinkel, Kronwerk, Schinken-Schanz.  

The Swedes built the citadel with an eye on using it as Europe’s most secure bank vault. Its cellars, where stable air temperature and humidity was sustained, would be ideal for the storage of cash. However, defence remained the primary intent of the citadel.

When the Soviet Army stormed Pillau in 1945, the Nazi garrison was able to escape via the labyrinthine tunnels underneath the citadel, mining the tunnels as they retreated. After capturing the town, the Soviet command decided to keep the fortress intact, but most of the underground tunnels were conserved.

The citadel became an affiliate of the Baltic Fleet Museum in 1999. It is open to the public, but you have to sign up for a tour.

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The westernmost lighthouse in Russia, built in 1813, stands on the scenic Morskoi Boulevard embankment, guiding the ships making their way in the harbour of Baltiysk. The lighthouse is 33.2 metres tall. Its light can be seen from 16 nautical miles away.   

Historians seem unable to agree on whether the Pillau Lighthouse was designed by the architect Karl Schinkel, or hydraulic engineer Schulz. The stone lighthouse, which replaced the wooden tower with a torchlight at the top, used oil in the beginning, then started using kerosene in 1874, and used gaslights later on. It was eventually switched to electricity in 1913.  

The lighthouse sustained only minor damage during the storm of Pillau in 1945, but the Nazis had put it out of order before retreating. The lighthouse had to be fixed promptly as the plan was for Baltiysk to became a major naval base of the Baltic Fleet.

The Pillau Lighthouse was placed under government protection as a cultural heritage site in 2011.

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It takes about thirty minutes to walk the length of the Baltiysk Esplanade. This esplanade is different from a regular seaside resort esplanade, offering an elegiac yet austere view of the channel and the warships. Swans and seagulls harass tourists for food all year, so you might as well bring some raw cereals or chopped carrots.   

At the end of your promenade, you cannot possibly miss the Empress Elizabeth statue at the base of the Northern Seawall. This monument, sculpted by Georgy Frangulian, was unveiled in 2004. It celebrates Russian war victories during the reign of Elizabeth. The empress is depicted wearing the uniform of a Preobrazhensky Regiment Imperial Guard colonel, mounted on horseback. The monument is 14 metres tall with the pedestal. The statue weighs 12 tonnes. The pedestal is a stylized fortification of huge boulders, arranged in a cruciform shape.  

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The international memorial cemetery north-east of the Northern Seawall was reopened after restoration in 2000. The memorial is a complex of memorial name-plates with three steel crosses, nine by seven metres, in the middle. The total weight of the crosses is two tones.   

History itself picked the site of this memorial. This is where Nazi soldiers and Eastern Prussia civilians killed in the first months of 1945 were buried, as well as POWs from the member nations of the anti-Nazi alliance. According to German archives, over 3,500 bodies have been identified. Their names are immortalized on the name-plates. Another 1300 victims of the war, whose bodies were found in and around Baltiysk, have been interred at the cemetery since 1997.

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The journey to the abandoned Luftwaffe airfield of Neutif begins with a ferry ride to the Vistula Spit, which takes no more than ten minutes.  

The Vistula Spit (or Frische Nerung in German) is a thin strip of land separating the Vistula Lagoon (Kaliningrad Bay) from the main part of the Gdansk Bay. The spit is 65km long. Thirty five kilometres in the north-east are Russian territory. The rest is Polish territory. The spit is 300 to 1800 metres across in the middle and southern parts, and 8 to 9 km in the north. The Vistula Spit is famous for its snow-white sandy beaches, forested dunes and, certainly, its a.m.er. It is easy to find some a.m.er here simply strolling at the water’s edge.

The Nazi airfield of Neutif on the Vistula Spit was built in 1937–1939. The airfield had two heated runways, a hydro-harbour, three ferroconcrete warplane hangars, and two metal hangars for ancillary machinery.  The airfield was a Luftwaffe base for Аг-196, Не-59, Не-60 and Не-114 warplanes.

The Nazis had abandoned their airfield shortly before the Soviet Army stormed Pillau in 1945. They fled in haste and, contrary to their own plans, did not destroy the hardware and facilities. After the war, the airfield was used as a Soviet naval airbase until 1995. 

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The Western Fort, built in 1869–1871, was part of Pillau’s system of fortifications. The fort is an irregular pentagon with a securely enclosed courtyard in the middle. A moat filled with water protected the fort from the rear. Only the moat and parts of external walls have survived. In some areas, you can walk right onto the Baltic Sea shore through some hole in the wall. The building bricks of the fortification bear their producer’s seal: Gr. Steinort. W. Schulz.

The Western Fort was listed as a regional cultural heritage site in 2007.