Between the Sea and the Land: the RGS Specialists Clear Baltiysk Fortress

Subscribe to RSS - Secrets of the Amber Region
Pillau Fortress. Photo: Denis Ulyankin
Pillau Fortress. Photo: Denis Ulyankin

From a geographical point of view, Kaliningrad Oblast – a Russian piece of Prussian land – is unique. On both sides of the peninsula of the same name, which occupies most of the region, there are two spits – the Curonian Spit, with rare natural objects; and the Baltic Spit, with historical monuments. One of the key ones is the 19th century Baltiysk Fortress, built in the shape of a star. Experts from the Russian Geographical Society and the Center for Contemporary History will try to clear the rubble and unravel the secrets of the ancient fort.

The RGS specialists began studying Baltiysk Fortress in 2021. Among the main tasks of the expedition, called "Secrets of the Amber Region", are the study of the history of a unique fortification, the cleaning of the territory and the interior from wartime rubble and debris, condition assessment of the fortification, and the creation of a digital model of the fortress.

According to the head of the expedition Andrey Ivanov, a participant in many scientific expeditions and a specialist in the search and identification of historical objects, the fortress with its rich history could conceal many artifacts of various eras that have survived to the present day. Therefore, it is the most valuable study  object.

The star-shaped fortress of the city of Baltiysk (Pillau until 1946) is a rare monument of military defensive architecture, the least studied by scientists. The first studies began only a few years ago, after a branch of the Central Naval Museum had opened in the fortress. The RGS specialists have used the most modern scientific methods in this work: magnetometric and ground-penetrating radar surveying, laser scanning. And the volunteers brought in by the Society significantly accelerated the cleaning of casemates in the ramparts and bastions.


Photo: Denis Ulyankin
Photo: Denis Ulyankin

The construction of Baltiysk Fortress began in the 17th century by order of King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden. The foundation date of the citadel is considered to be 1626. Ten years later, the Swedes handed over the unfinished fort to Prussia, which completed its construction. The construction of the fortress in the Baltic was fully completed in 1700. However, the modernization of the pentagonal citadel would not stop for the next three centuries. Each side of the star-shaped fortress is about 80 meters long. In each corner there is a bastion; around, a moat up to 40 meters wide; from the outside, the paths to the moat are protected by five ravelins. As a result of the defeat of the German group "Zemland" on April 26, 1945, the city of Pillau was taken by the troops of the 3rd Belorussian Front, and a year later it was renamed Baltiysk and became the base of the ships of the Baltic Fleet.

One of the mysteries of the fortress, which the experts of the Russian Geographical Society will try to solve, are the rooms, the entrances to which are bricked up, and they themselves are completely covered with soil. According to one version, this is the work of the German garrison, which thus supported the fortification during the defense. According to another, it was an attempt to hide the entrances to the underground floors of the fortress.

Last year, the RGS volunteers and the employees of the Central Naval Museum completely excavated one of these rooms, which served as a guardhouse. Based on the analysis of the composition of the extracted soil, as well as the study of the upper layer of the rampart, scientists have suggested that the room was most likely filled in after the capture of the fortress by the Soviet troops. Apparently, the explosion of an aerial bomb or a large artillery shell pierced a several-meters-thick layer of earth on the rampart and tore up the complex vaulted ceiling of the guardhouse. In such a situation, it was easier to fill it in than to repair it.

However, an analysis of the location and purpose of other buried rooms and communications suggests other reasons for their concealment. This year, the participants of the expedition will have to unravel more secrets hidden underground.


Photo provided by the participants of the expedition
Photo provided by the participants of the expedition

In addition to scientists and volunteers, military engineers will be engaged in the study of the fortress. They will be the first to explore the newly discovered rooms. The military arsenal, once located in the fortress, was subjected to intense shelling during the assault in 1945, so all the objects found will be carefully examined by the specialists from the Mine Action Center.

In addition to the ramparts and indoor areas, the water-filled moat surrounding the fortress is also being carefully studied. Magnetometric and sonar surveys of this artificial reservoir were conducted last year. As a result, a bottom relief map was compiled and the locations of large metal objects were determined. The next stage will be a diving survey and the extraction of these objects to the surface. Thus, the moat will be freed from the large debris cluttering it. In the future, the possibility of cleaning the moat from smaller objects will be worked out.

An active survey of the fortress will be supplemented by the work of historians and experts with archival documents. Last season, the specialists from the Center for Contemporary History, who participated in the expedition, retrieved drawings of the fortress's fortification structures from the German archives for the period from the 1730s to the 1880s. The materials are carefully studied, compared with the available drawings, descriptions, photographs of the 19th century. And the creation of a 3D model of the fortress will allow to fully determine the layout of this intricate fortification complex.


Photo provided by the participants of the expedition
Photo provided by the participants of the expedition

In addition to the fortress, the RGS specialists are engaged in the search and survey of the objects of military equipment history and fortification in the Baltic.

“Last year we managed to identify the ship found by our colleagues from the Institute of Oceanology,” says the head of the Expeditionary Department of the Russian Geographical Society Sergey Chechulin. “It turned out to be a German patrol vessel V-1802 sunk by Soviet aviation.”

The Russian Geographical Society invites volunteers to take part in the Baltiysk Fortress project as part of the research expedition "Secrets of the Amber Region", which will take place in three shifts, from June to August 2022. Participants will be able to complete training in and master the skills of using modern technical means of studying historical objects; take part in geophysical and magnetometric work, 3D scanning and photogrammetry of the territory and indoor areas, processing of the data obtained, and creating a digital model of the fortress based on them.