Journey to a Homeland Lost in the War
By Christian Neef in Sovetsk, Russia
The Russian city of Sovetsk tried for decades to repress its past as the East Prussian town of Tilsit. But now it is embracing its history and has made its most famous son, popular German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, an honorary citizen. For Mueller-Stahl, returning to his birthplace after 73 years was an emotional journey into his own past.
The situation probably wouldn't have been very different in the Middle Ages if you had wanted to enter a town in the evening through one of the city gates. A grumpy man, in this case wearing the uniform of a Russian border guard, casts one last glance at the passport, grabs a large bunch of keys, shuffles off the bridge that spans the Neman River between Lithuania and Russia, and walks down to an iron gate, where he inserts a key into the lock and pushes both sides wide open.
Suddenly the newcomer finds himself in the center of what must be the ugliest square in all of Russia, even though it was once the finest square in the East Prussian town of Tilsit, now known as Sovetsk.
The splendid Church of the Teutonic Order once stood at this very spot, its spire resting on eight orbs, so beautiful that Napoleon wanted to take it back to Paris. Right behind there is Deutsche Strasse (literally: German Street) -- now called Gagarin Street -- where Czar Alexander stayed in 1807 when he visited Tilsit, as it was known then, to sign a peace treaty with the French. The small house inhabited by the Prussian queen consort, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, no longer exists.
http://www.spiegel.de/international/eur ... 55,00.html
But perhaps the vodka loosens the tongues because, suddenly, the eldest honorary citizen of Sovetsk, a 92-year-old man from Siberia, stands up. He says something like "Young whippersnapper" to the 81-year-old Mueller-Stahl, kisses him and welcomes him to the circle of honorary citizens.
Then the next man stands and admits that, for decades after World War II, none of them believed Sovetsk would remain Russian. "That's why we destroyed everything that was German, everything that didn't have a roof anymore. In 1988, representatives of the cities that wanted their old name back held a meeting. That was already in Gorbachev's time. They also decided Sovetsk should be given its old name back," he explains. "When I told the town council here about the decision, they thought I was crazy."