World Cup on a Swamp

Construction as Destruction

The decision of where to build Kaliningrad’s 2018 World Cup stadium was the subject of heated debate; indeed, some had argued against the original building site but were overruled in 2014. Rosprirodnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage) observed that the soil on the island where the stadium was to be constructed contained dangerous substances, such as benzo(a)pyrene and radon, but this observation went unnoticed in the general euphoria of big-money expectations.

Stadium on Lomse Island in Kaliningrad
Teaser Image Caption
Stadium on Lomse Island in Kaliningrad

Unlearned History Lessons

The name Lomse Island (now Oktyabrsky Island) is probably of Old Prussian origin and means “a swamp,” or “marshy land.” It is a natural island located in the eastern part of Kaliningrad, between two arms of the Pregolya River. It is about 10 square kilometers.

Before the construction of the stadium started, the eastern part of the island — the largest part — was a watery, reedy, marshy area with boggy soil and a complex water and near-water ecosystem with numerous inhabitants (mostly birds). The soil here is typical for a floodplain area, made up of silt and peat. This part of the island was never used for commercial purposes, even in the time when the buildings were erected in the western part of the island. People who lived in the city mostly used the wasteland for pastures; their stalls, warehouses and cellars remained the only buildings on the island that reflected its primary use.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, when the bridges were built, trade routes heading south went through Lomse. In the 18th century, King Frederick II of Prussia, a thrifty ruler, was obsessed with the idea of developing Prussian silk farming and planted mulberry trees to breed silk worms. However, because of regular floods and water saturation, the silk trade in the region never really flourished.

The first homes were built on Lomse Island only in the 19th century. Nearby Königsberg was cramped by the circle of fortifications and experienced rapid population growth, thereby suffering from a housing deficit — homes were built even in the free spaces between the fortifications! In 1894, the city municipality created a plan of building the western part of the island up. For building on the marshy soil piles, special fixators were required — oak trunks 12–13 meters long were used, inundated areas were covered with more ground and drainage canals were created. A synagogue and an orphanage were built at that time, and in the early 20th century a residential settlement appeared — five streets, small businesses, banks and an Evangelical church. Most of these buildings were destroyed during World War II.

Soviet architects then made a second attempt to build the island up. In the 1980s, additional residential quarters appeared on the island. However, it did not go further than that. The reason remained the same — soil plasticity: the houses’ foundations started to sag, their walls cracked and they started to tilt.

Lost Opportunities

The island as a filter. The decision to build a new stadium on the Lomse island means, first of all, that the island will no longer remain a natural filter. The reedy and marshy island at the mouth of the Pregolya River in the city of Kaliningrad played an important role from ecological standpoint. Peat absorbs toxic substances (as before, benzo(a)pyrene), binds carbon dioxide and prevents greenhouse gas emissions; at the same time, swamp vegetation adds oxygen to the air. Wetlands and forests are among the most important oxygen generators we have, and swamps improve water quality.S

Since the early 20th century, the river stretch between entering Kaliningrad in the east and its influx to the Vistula Lagoon has been severely polluted by domestic, agricultural and industrial effluents. Therefore, the Helsinki Commission included the mouth of the Pregolya River in its list of significant sources of pollution in the Baltic Sea. Wetlands could purify polluted effluents. Technologies exist that are aimed at creating artificial reedy and marshy areas, which could serve as filters to purify polluted waters. For Lomse Island, Kaliningrad is already in possession of a 10-square-kilometer natural filter area.

The island as an urban protected area. Before the construction of the stadium started, Lomse Island was a kind of urban wetland; the unique river island could have become a specially protected natural area and a worthwhile visiting place for both locals and tourists alike. The Kaliningrad region has few protected zones — only 4.5% of its overall area.

Water and swamp areas are of great significance for the conservation of rare and vulnerable species and biological diversity, and could lay a foundation for a regional network of specially protected natural areas, taking the whole system to a new level. And some of the most important inhabitants of swamps are water birds; the birds ensure the overall unity of wetlands when migrating from one part of the world to another. Therefore, the protection of swamps contributes to the protection of water birds. On Lomse Island, numerous aquatic, semiaquatic and marsh plants grew, and dozens of aquatic and semiaquatic birds nested, fed and stopped over: greylag geese, tufted ducks, little crakes, western marsh harriers, Eurasian coots, sedge warblers, common reed buntings, and more.

Protected areas with pile-supported paths, observation decks and information boards serve to protect the environment and educate visitors, and are well-developed in many countries. This specially protected natural area could in the future be unique because of its nearness to the city — and even its integration into it.

Construction as Destruction

According to geologists, there are no stable hard soils on the island: the ground consists of soft soils — high-plastic silts and peat (i.e. soils with low holding power). Soil like that requires special preparatory measures, drainage, soil consolidation, and putting up buildings on piles. The primary measure for preparing the construction site was a delivery of sand: according to the technical assessment, more than 2 million cubic meters of sand were brought in, and the construction site was covered with a 6-meter-high layer of sand.

The problem is that there is some evidence to the fact that not all of this sand has been extracted legally.

Illegal sand extraction

According to the data provided by local authorities, in the fall of 2014 there were 38 illegal sand pits in the Kaliningrad region situated on agricultural and wooded lands. About 2.5–3 million tons of sand gravel mix is quarried illegally every year. The problem became particularly acute because of the upcoming World Cup. The extensive building activity in the region requires a large amount of construction material — including sand. And that sand is frequently mined by people and organizations without the necessary permits. Since 2014, monitoring authorities have been catching illegal procurers and suppliers of sand on a regular basis; however, these suppliers often get off with a fine and do not hesitate to start up again. It is apparent that illegal procurers do not take charge of land remediation; instead, they hinder improvement. Sometimes their actions even pose a threat to dwelling houses and cause the threat of flooding.

Legal sand extraction

On agricultural lands in the Ushakovo village of the Guryevsky district there is a large sand pit that was specially designed for the construction of the stadium. The company excavating the quarry holds a government contract, and according to the contract more than 1.5 tons of sand were delivered for the construction of the stadium and for the beautification of the surrounding area before the 2018 World Cup.

Unfortunately, the extraction of sand was conducted with severe violations — the company did not possess the whole list of documents required. Sand quarries and the extraction of other widespread mineral deposits could not be situated on agricultural lands. At first, land use was to be changed to industrial use. The company did not have a project for exploration of the deposit, and geological exploration work had not been carried out. Also, a project for the development of the field was not prepared and the technical design of the field was not completed. The company lacked practically all the documents required for exploitation of this quarry.

In 2016, the environmental prosecutor's office of Kaliningrad filed a lawsuit against the company. In mid-March 2017, the court declared that the sand extraction had violated conditions stipulated in the extraction license.

Stolen Money, Smoke and Mirrors

Over the last six years, many of Kaliningrad’s inhabitants have become less euphoric about the 2018 World Cup. “Big money” did not contribute to the beautification of the city; the city was just mired in graft. First, the Mostovik company was paid 850 million rubles for the stadium project and then declared bankruptcy, then the GlobalElectroService company, which was in charge of the organization of the territory, embezzled 750 million rubles supplying low-quality sand. The building costs for the stadium increased from 11 billion rubles to 17.3 billion rubles. In fact, it would be reasonable to double the amount — at a rough estimate, almost 30 billion rubles were expended on the construction of the stadium and infrastructure, if we count two projects, the construction of bridges, preparation and beautification of the surrounding areas, reconstruction of the heating main and development of the traffic network on the island. As a kind of parallel, the region badly needs an oncology center (malignant tumors are the second-most-frequent cause of death in the region); with 30 billion rubles, the region could have four oncology centers built.

A billion goes to one company, another billion goes to another. In this way the 200 million rubles that were set aside for a “Hanseatic fence” (as journalists euphemistically called the cosmetic repair of a dozen Khrushchev-era houses on Ulitsa Lenina, Kaliningrad’s main street) do not seem so exorbitant anymore. If residents had hoped for the beautification of Kaliningrad because of “big money,” their hopes remained behind this same Hanseatic fence. The tenants who live in these houses were likely particularly disappointed when they got decorated plaster facades while their entrance halls remained unrepaired and utility systems stayed rotten to the core. In some cases, the tenants even lost what they had: roofs, gas and hot water.

One of the stories became an anecdote that appeared even in the national media. The anecdote was connected to the reconstruction of one of the old bridges across the Pregolya River which cost the public 1 million rubles: “forged” cast-iron lanterns imitating historical lanterns turned out to be made from plastic flowerpots bought in a hardware store and painted black.

The hope among Kaliningrad’s residents — that they would get to participate in discussions about beautification projects before the World Cup — did not come to fruition either. Ridiculous and expensive projects dealing with the reconstruction of streets and construction of new public spaces dictated from above can only serve to frustrate people: rapidly laid-out parks, collapsing quays, flooded bike lanes, cardboard facades and plastic bridges. The barbarian attack on historical green areas, including the destruction of huge parts of parks for the construction of approach roads to stadiums deserves a special mention.

However, the keenest disappointment awaited the governor of the region. Only in 2017 did the FIFA hosts realize that they had no idea what to do with the World Cup buildings when it was over. We won’t find the new stadium and the area surrounding it in the program of social infrastructure development of Kaliningrad (where the development of the city is planned until 2035). This should come as no surprise — the later use of the stadium will cost 200 million rubles per year, which will likely become an impracticable amount for the Kaliningrad budget. The governors of the regions hosting the 2018 World Cup tried to ask for federal aid to maintain the stadiums, but the Kremlin reminded them that “the initiative to host the championship came from the regions” and that the stadiums would become the property of the regions after January 1, 2019. We have only the regional budgets to thank for that.