Strawberry buns at The End of the World Café: thoughts on the Polish-Russian border
- July 25, 2023
- Juliette Bretan
The border between Poland and the Russian Oblast of Kaliningrad has an especially eerie resonance in these troubled times.
There’s a kind-of coffeehouse geopolitics at play in Krynica Morska, the last town in Poland before the Kaliningrad Oblast, the westernmost federal subject of Russia, which sits between Poland and Lithuania. One can, as I found, stop for light refreshments at the wittily-named Koniec Świata (The End of the World) café.
Krynica Morska is a particularly strange place to visit. Strange, partly because of the history of boundary changes and ongoing political tensions in the area – on the way, we drove over what had once been the interwar border of the Free City of Danzig (one border marker from the Versailles Treaty still stands in the local woods) and across the newly-created, and controversial, Vistula Spit canal, opened in 2019 to allow ships to enter Polish ports without passing through the Russian Strait of Baltiysk. It was also strange because of the distinct feel of geographical isolation on the Vistula Spit. It’s a lengthy and secluded journey to Krynica Morska along headland – more than 50 kilometres long, but only a mile across at its widest point – which is sequestered from the Polish mainland by the Vistula Lagoon, and by dense woodland. The road is narrow and twisty. There is little public transport.
Yet the area mostly felt strange because, at first glance, it didn’t look like a borderscape at all. Krynica Morska, along with many of the other towns and villages on the Vistula Spit, is no barbed-wire, guarded, peripheral no-man’s-land, but instead heaves with the standard, happy-go-lucky amenities of high summer: spa hotels, al fresco restaurants, bars, pizzerias, and ice-cream shops. Yes, it might demarcate a heady (particularly in recent times) frontier on a map – a closed border between states, and between Europe, the EU, the West, and Russia; between peoples, languages and government systems; between values of freedom, democracy and openness, and of repression, violence, and authoritarianism. But there is so much more to it than that.
For Krynica Morska is also a place of multiple and shifting ideas about borderlands themselves; a place which opens up questions about what it means to be on a border, or live with a border, or near a border. What assumptions do we have about borders, and why? What do borders signify, and what do they demand of us, do to us – epistemologically, emotionally, legally – and how might this be especially pertinent in a contemporaneously-hot border area, with Russia, and in East-Central Europe? And, conversely, how far do borders shape human experience – how might our own lives and interests conform, intersect with or supersede the bordered world? The Polish-Russian borderland is a place which might simply be described as happening to exist on a border; for the border here appears, in fact, of very little significance in the day-to-day, except as a cultural curiosity. The emphasis in Krynica Morska is more on vacation and respite, quintessential beach tranquillity and fun, than geopolitical concern and military checkpoints.
And, of course, isn’t this what freedom is all about? The border is undoubtedly present in Krynica Morska, but here it is made light-hearted, transformed and commercialised into a tourist attraction; reflexive perhaps of the changed significance of the Polish-Russian and east-west border since the fall of Communism, and Poland’s entry into the EU. The End of the World café is one example. Indeed, the name appears even more playful on its sign: half emoji-fied, with the ‘o’ of ‘Koniec’ designed to look like a building, and the ‘a’ of ‘Świata’ rendered as ice-cream.
But it would be wrong to suggest the border functions only in Krynica Morska as an attraction, triviality, or joke – for there’s metaphoric and poetic depth in that café name, too. The End of the World seems to carry a certain degree of pathos, or emotional weight, functioning as a shortcut to ongoing – and worsening – political pressure. On the ground near Kaliningrad, tensions are ramping up, and the physical landscape of bordering west from east is being reasserted once more. The Polish government is currently building a fence, which, it is hoped, will ultimately extend along the entire Polish-Kaliningrad border. Poland has even reverted to using its historical name of Królewiec for Kaliningrad: a title last used when the city was ruled by the Kingdom of Poland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
When we reached Krynica Morska, we walked into the woodland, and then took striding steps across the sands towards the sea, squinting towards the actual border between Poland and Russia. Kaliningrad was only up the beach – and it felt close. You could see the swerve of the coastline that marks the beginning of the Oblast; an empty white caesura in the dunes marking the actual border between the countries. I was told that, on the beach itself, the border is marked by a small wire fence, splitting the gold-white sands in two. Even where we were standing, a couple of miles into Poland, away from the border itself, a friend’s phone received a message from their data provider which would not have been out of place in a thrilling 1930s novel about travelling west-to-east. ‘Welcome to RUSSIA.’
Before I left Krynica Morska, I bought a strawberry bun from the Koniec Świata café to eat on the long bus ride back to Gdańsk. I have the receipt in my bag, still, from my journey to the end of the world. It is place which feels so far away – and yet somehow, in current times at least, so near.