This is part of a new series of posts, separate from the main blogs, in which More Than Arshavin will profile the teams which make up the wonderful world of Russian football. Teams from every league will eventually find themselves here, with the pieces shifting between historical narrative, present situation and future prospects whilst trying to capture the essence of each club. If you have a club you would like to see featured, either leave a comment or contact me via Twitter – I’d love to hear your ideas.
The world of the enclave is an unusual one, and in many cases dangerous – a region of one country surrounded by foreign, sometimes hostile lands, some of the most vicious conflicts in recent memory having spawned a result of these unusual situations. You only have to look at the devastated mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh, for years a battleground between Armenia and Azerbaijan, to see the consequences.
Yet while most of these anomalies are geographical, Russia has its own enclave problem which is entirely of a political and strategic nature. Having defeated the invading German army and met their Western allies in Berlin, the Soviet leadership insisted on the region surrounding the city of Konigsberg, formerly in East Prussia, being including into their territory. Unable to resist in the face of huge Soviet losses during the war, the deal was agreed.
What followed was a rapid de-Germanisation of the region. The city of Konigsberg became known as Kaliningrad, named after original Bolshevik Party member and Supreme Soviet chairman Mikhail Kalinin, who died in 1946. For the rest of the decade, the German citizens who had not managed to flee back into Germany were forcibly expelled from what was no longer East Prussia but Kaliningrad Oblast, with Soviet military personnel, their families and other Russian citizens relocated in an attempt to repopulate the area.
Cut off from Germany, located between Poland and Lithuania, the plan worked – today, the population Kaliningrad is estimated to be only 2% German. As the only warm water access to the Baltic Sea, the area was deemed essential to Soviet strategic interests, and therefore rapidly closed off to foreigners, military families soon coming to dominate the local population. Although the fall of the Soviet Union caused problems, creating the enclave and forcing the new Russian government to establish a special form of visa specifically for citizens of the oblast, the western-most part of the Russian Federation has opened up its border with no ill effect, a refreshingly peaceful enclave on the Baltic Sea.
Part of the Russification process was, of course, to establish a football team in the city, and in 1954 Pishchevik was born. Just four years later it was decided to change the name of the team from a standard industrial marker to something more unique to the region, and so the Baltic Sea itself would give the side its name as they entered into all-Union competition. Baltika entered the Russian footballing world, and has not left it ever since.
For a club on the outskirts of the Soviet Union, travel was always going to be a blessing and a curse for Baltika. However, the extreme regionalisation of the lower divisions meant that they were no more hampered by distance than any other club, unable to either blame their travel-weary legs for poor performances, nor take advantage of opponents’ tiredness at home. Nevertheless, after less than a decade of existence they moved up the ladder, moving from purely Russian competition to a Union-wide league, before the re-organisation of the system gave them a place in the Soviet Second League in 1971. Although their zone was occasionally changed thereafter, a complete absence of promotion or relegation ensured they stayed in that Second League for the rest of the USSR’s existence.
For so many clubs based in Russia, the collapse of the Communist order meant promotion by default, the many teams representing the other republics disappearing to form their own national leagues and leaving spaces for Russian sides lower down the ladder to step up to. For Baltika, this was not the case – the reshuffle saw them remain in the regional third tier. This time however, there was no question of them being satisfied with their place – a league win straight away earning them a place in the First Division.
At this point in their history, their extreme geography began to work in their favour. Used to awkward travel arrangements for every away game since the fall of the Soviet Union, other teams understandably found it more difficult to deal with their trips to Kaliningrad. A 4th place finish in a still regional competition was outdone by a single place the following year when regionalisation ended, and in 1995 Baltika picked up 92 points from their 42 games – enough for the title, and a shot in the Top League.
The next year still represents the pinnacle of Kaliningrad’s sporting achievement, surpassing all expectations to finish 7th at Russian football’s top table, outperforming established clubs such as Torpedo Moscow and Krylya Sovetov to comfortably avoid relegation. Although goals were never in abundance – just 114 in 98 top flight matches – a strong home record and mean defence meant that their first top years in the top flight were successful, even earning them an Intertoto Cup berth in 1998. As their European adventure began however, so did their newly-renamed Top Division adventure end – finishing three points behind Shinnik Yaroslavl and in 15th place, the First Division beckoned once more.
That is where they have stayed ever since, with the exception of two brief forays into the regional Second Division which were ended with instant titles and promotions. Comfortably the strongest side in their western zone, promotion back to the second tier has been easy on both occasions, but Baltika risk finding themselves in limbo between the increasingly competitive and chaotic First Division, and the hugely varied quality of the regional tiers.
For financial reasons, the third step on the footballing ladder would no doubt suit the Kaliningrad club – who now have as their president former international referee Alexander Gvardis – far more, with the team able to save a fortune on travel and salaries in the Second Division. However, Baltika are one of increasingly few teams in Russia to genuinely represent their city and their region, and with the upper echelons of the nation’s game beginning to close in around a band stretching from Moscow to the Urals, there is an increasing urgency on the outside to see more teams from the periphery try and climb back up into the big leagues.
In the long transitional year, Baltika narrowly avoided the drop, staying up only on head-to-head results against Gazovik Orenburg – if they do eventually end up a permanent fixture in the Second Division, yet another region on the growing list of Russia’s regions will be left outside the party looking in. With the money in the centre already dominating, it would be a great shame to see the fringes slowly eroded away. Even having a top referee in charge would be no use to them then.