There’s something odd about the Baltics. It’s not Tallinn—or the rest of Estonia—the city that gave you your first glimpse of the region on a day trip from Helsinki. Neither Latvia nor Lithuania, which you started exploring after that, are the issue either. So what’s left? Poland lies on the Baltic Sea, but it’s always been considered part of Central Europe. While Belarus, to the southeast, is 100 percent landlocked. But there’s still uncharted territory on the map.
Kaliningrad Oblast sits in between Lithuania and Poland along the Baltic Sea. It’s a Russian state, even though no part of it touches Russia. The territory used to be part of Prussia, the massive empire that ruled the Baltic coastline. It was part of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union after that. Few people have ever heard of, much less visited, the region, though. A visa is needed to cross into it from any of the European borders. Therefore, most visitors arrive by air or sea from Russia. While you’re left wondering about the long, wide beach along the coast.
That beach, on the Sambian Peninsula, is part of Yantarny. Many Germans know the small city by its original name, Palmnicken, or its tumultuous history. Palmnicken was occupied many times—by Sweden, the Russian Empire, and Nazi Germany—after being founded in 1234. During the latter’s rule, concentration camp prisoners were forced to march into the cold sea and their deaths in the winter of 1945. As a result of the Potsdam Conference, Palmnicken became part of the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Then the Germans who lived there were expelled; it was resettled with Soviets. It was renamed Yantarny, the Russian word for amber, since it’s home to the largest amber mine in the world. Plus easy access was cut off. It remains so today.
So why are you so curious about Yantarny? A monument, dedicated to the victims from the concentration camp, was unveiled a few years ago. A music festival is held on the beach each summer. There’s the beach itself, which is known as the best in Kaliningrad Oblast, if not all of Russia. But, more than anything, it’s the fact that it’s unexplored. Add it to the list of Russian puzzles you hope to eventually solve.