Burg Ragnit

Ivan Artyukh, a native of the Kaliningrad region, is the spearhead of the Burg Ragnit redevelopment project whose goal is to rebuild the ruins of the 15th century Teutonic castle into a hotel and a museum.

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Ivan Artyukh, CEO of the Burg Ragnit redevelopment project
Artiom Ganin of @Castles_and_Palaces is once again in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region which was part of Germany's East Prussia before it was handed over to the Soviet Union after WWII. The region can still boast great cultural heritage sites, like churches and castles built by the mighty Teutonic Order in the Middle Ages – although most of them are neglected. Meet Ivan Artyukh, a native of this land, who is both an avid entrepreneur and a history lover. Combing these two passions he has recently become a CEO of the Burg Ragnit redevelopment project whose goal is to rebuild the ruins of the castle built by the Teutons in the 15th century into a hotel and a museum. For now guided tours through the ruins are available as well as regular volunteers' clean-ups. Ivan – who also runs a cheese factory, a restaurant and a bee yard - says the project will revitalize the region. We've talked about Ragnit, his discoveries and the promotion of the Kaliningrad region as a travel destination.
Castles and Palaces (CnP): Could you tell me why do you have this passion for medieval ruins? What motivated you to take up the Burg Ragnit project?
Ivan Artyukh (IA): To be honest I am a history geek. As for the medieval ruins, well, you know I'd love to have a medieval castle in a great shape but I haven't found one. So, at a certain moment I realized that the castle can become a real gem. I know I will have to invest a lot of effort, money and time but you have to start with something. So, I got this idea and I started thinking about details. Then I started building a team because you know one can't embark on such a journey without a good team. Thank God there are people who love medieval castles and ruins just like me! We are practical people at the same time. We make cheese, its production is linked with the history of this area, we have a restaurant which is linked with the history and we have now this castle, which is massive! There's even more history! And we hope in the long run one day we'll be able to monetize it. But for the time being we all need to break a sweat to preserve the castle.
THE TEAM IS READY FOR HARD WORK
CnP: Why have you chosen Burg Ragnit and not other ruined castles like Balga, Georgenburg or Schaaken?
IA: Firstly, because Burg Ragnit is very close to our cheese factory Tilsit-Ragnit and our restaurant. It is literally in 100 meters. It is the key reason. Secondly, the abovementioned castles have already been taken. Other people work there now.
CnP:What do you feel when you touch the 15th century brickwork?
IA: I feel one thing – I will have to invest a lot of effort and time into these bricks. I will become romantic later when these ruins will turn to a building. Now it is like when you are a passionate teenager with your own dreams and you want something passionately but the reality is totally different. Well, when we get investments and grants, when people recognize us and start treating us like normal guys who are teachable and not like some romantic weirdos or swindlers the feelings will change. It is not always love at first sight. Our team is ready for a very hard work, we understand that if we succeed it will be a country-wide success. I understand it pretty well. So on the one hand we have this future publicity and on the other we have this huge responsibility.
CnP: The 15th century castle is now only walls and a tower which underwent restoration in 1992. It is not in the best shape now. What are your plans? Rebuilding? Restoration? Conservation?
IA: We want to rebuild the castle. We are preparing the documents now which will let us take part in the monument restoration program through an easy loan. If we are lucky we'll get the loan and get down to construction works. Once we do it international players will make a note of our project and people start spreading a word about it. It means we'll be entitled to bringing in money from abroad. There exist various programs like trans-border cooperation etc. But you have to have a sort of publicity when you enter such a program. No one will give you a million euros if no one knows you. It is ridiculous. But when you spent the money the state gave you and your own money too, people treat you in a different way.
CnP: Speaking about the tower – it is relatively well-preserved if compared with the rest of the castle. Doesn't it make sense to focus on it first thing?
IA: Totally agree, it needs urgent attention. Together with the administration of the Neman district we have started restoration efforts. We plan to mend the roofing, fix the stairs leading to the tower and install a new door. The district administration will take care of the clock. Next step is to fix the stairs inside the tower. We'll do it later. It is costly to make all at once. So the first thing is roofing – it will prevent the tower from falling apart.
GUIDED TOURS FOR ALL AS FIRST STEP
CnP: I believe we have to learn from Poland. Just take a look at how they treat their cultural heritage. There's for instance the Castle of Gniew. It was destroyed during the war but was later restored and rebuilt although in a slightly different layout. Then there's a castle in Kwidzyn which is impressive. Look at Warsaw, Gdansk – these cities rose from the ashes. What about finding an investor and maing an exclusive hotel out of Burg Ragnit? Domestic tourism is popular now and the demand is likely to grow.
IA: We are doing it already! Once we restore the castle we'll open a museum and a hotel within its walls. You know the guys from Gniew are our brothers! They visited us and shared their knowledge with us before the pandemic struck.
CnP: The castle belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church – what's the deal with the church?
IA: Under the agreement, we lease it from them for 25 years free of charge with a pledge to invest no less than 10 million rubles into its restoration!
CnP: Tell me about the clean-up you do regularly. Have you found anything interesting?
IA: The clean-ups take place every Saturday. They bring together people from across the region. Some people come to us regularly, we are happy they do it, we have great respect for those great guys! People come and work hard despite bad weather – mind you there's no end in sight for now. We haven't found anything particularly interesting so far. You know the castle was open for all those bounty hunters before we came here. And they did tremendous damage, then there was this notorious explosion of a wall made on purpose while shooting a movie. I just can't get it, this amounts to barbarism. Occasionally we stumble on a brick with makers' marks. Once our volunteers discovered a Soviet-made cradle.
CnP: You offer tours around the castle, isn't it dangerous?
IA: To a certain degree. We try hard to follow the safety rules and meet the safety requirements. We have experienced guides. One can't step off the approved path and wander through the ruins on their own. But it is no more dangerous than downhill skiing or diving with an instructor. Our guides know the ruins from A to Z and they explain about the dangers to our visitors. I hope there'll be absolutely no danger when we start restoration works.
CnP: How many visitors do you receive per day?
IA: It depends. But the more information is out there, the more people learn about the castle and the project the more people visit us.

CnP: Where do these people come from?
IA: They come from across Russia. I am sure when the border will open people from other states will be our guests too.
ROUTES, STORIES, LEGENDS TO UNITE VENUES INTO A NETWORK
CnP: Let me share my thoughts – there are so many historical monuments around Kaliningrad like churches, manors, former estates, ruined castles, etc. It is hard to find the right people, the money for the projects and get the state involved – but it is even harder to design a well-thought through tourist network which would unite those sites. You need to create routes, stories, legends about these places. One site should send a tourist to another one and so on and so forth so that your tourists could start a journey asking questions and receiving answers to them, enjoying what they see and getting strong emotions. Otherwise it won't work. What do you make of it?
IA: You are absolutely right. This is how we all fell. This is the reason why we created our own cluster Tilsit-Ragnit which comprises Burg Ragnit, our cheese factory Tilsit-Ragnit, our restaurant Deutsches Haus and our estate of the Old Beekeeper. All these objects are linked. Just like bees working in a bee hive. Every object is linked with the other one opening up the shared history. Our main goal is to unite them all into a big network. By accident we found out that the restaurant and the Beekeeper's estate are linked with a path called Daubas. Then we launched the cheese factory and it turned out that it was mostly in the east of East Prussia where Germans used to make cheese. There's a village in the east of the region called Zhilino (former Schillen). World-know Frau Westphal was born there – the very woman who created her Tilsiter cheese brand. The village is nearby! We need to make these links step by step. This is what gives the area a kiss of life and prompts legends!
CnP: Have you personally visited all corner of the castle? What's your favorite place?
IA: I've visited every corner which can be visited. But the dungeons are the most impressive for me! They look so mysterious and sinister! Can you grasp how hard it was to have them built! How many people and how much effort it cost.
CnP: How much money do the guided tours bring you? And where do you channel the money?
NS: The guided tours bring us little money. We created this cluster – several companies – and the money goes there. But the math is simple. The tours bring us 1 ruble and the castle takes three times more! But that's fine – the castle will start bringing money when the construction works are completed. It will host a hotel, a museum, a conference hall, etc. This is when we'll start earning money.

CnP: How are the local authorities involved?
IA: The help us. They take care of the area around the castle, they helped us with utility lines. They don't hamper our efforts!
CnP: On the whole, do the authorities do enough to preserve the historical heritage in the Kaliningrad region?
IA: I'd say they are taking unprecedented measures. Perhaps they may seem insufficient but I was born here, I was raised here and I witnessed horrible times. I am happy things are different now. I am happy that the authorities spend money on the maintenance of small towns, they take care of the facades, they repair roads. Good job! Of course they sometimes make mistakes but I respect what they do and a lot of people think the same. I make mistakes myself because it is okay if you really do something. No one is perfect.
CnP: How many people are involved in your project and who are they?
IA: People are different. Both enthusiasts and pros are on the team. Ivan Grigoryev works on the sketches, he is a real pro. Marat Musin is behind our business plan. He is a recognized expert in finances and financial consulting. The local entrepreneurship support center helps us too. So a lot of people are involved but they are involved to a different degree.
CnP: Please tell me a little know or an interesting fact from the history of Burg Ragnit!
IA: Let's address this question Evgeni Gulnik (EG), our tourism manager, he is also the keeper of Burg Ragnit and knows the castle very well.

EG: Here you go – from the 13th to the 15th century Burg Ragnit was a stronghold of the German Teutonic Order on the border with Lithuania. Lithuania constantly attacked Rus. At the same time they had to repel the attacks by the Teutons and return them the favor so to speak. So it turns out the Teutonic Order involuntary helped the ancient Russian state as it engaged a lot of Lithuanian forces. Now consider this - in order to conquer most of Rus, Lithuanians had to make some 38 expeditions. Imagine what could happen if Lithuania had no Teutons to attack! Their incursions would have been directed against Rus and most likely it would have been conquered completely which would have dealt a great blow to the Orthodox Christianity. By the way in 1709 Russian tsar Peter the Great visited Ragnit. There used to be a memorial bronze bas-relief to celebrate it - but it did not survive.
CnP: Have you met ghosts of the Teutons in the castle or their Grand Master?
IA: I haven't.
EG: I havent't seen a ghost. There are no ghost in the castle. Ghosts do not exist!

CnP: Come on, tell me a legend then!
EG: The most popular legend is one about underground passages and secret floors. But I can say that those are just legends and noting more. Imagination. One has to base on scientific facts because the true history is much more interesting than vulgar fiction!
CnP: Have you ever met Germans - or their descendants - who left East Prussia after the war when it was handed over to the Soviet Union?
IA: They came to us and we visited them too. We keep in touch. It is history you know. They help us in our searches when we need information about this or that place.

CnP: What did you discuss with them here? What did they feel?
IA: Of course they love it when they see improvements. In most cases we talked about our common history, about what unites us rather than the opposite. We discussed certain historical moments about Tilsit and how we can make use of them for travel purposes.
CnP: Do you know the Sorokin family which takes care of Waldau, grows their own variety of asparagus? Do you keep in touch and share experience?
IA: Oh yes. We do keep in touch, follow each other on Instagram. We feel happy when they move forward!

CnP: I've read online that some 20 years ago a German scientist presented the then head of the Neman district with the ancient knight's armor which had been found in the castle before the war. Have you seen it? What kind of the armor was it?
IA: I know this story and I talked to the former head of the district. He told me that he was given a freshly forged gauntlet, that was it. No ancient armor whatsoever. That's what he told me. But I can't say if the story you mentioned is true or false.
CnP: Any plans to host medieval re-enactment festivals?
IA: Big plans! We really hope we'll organise them in the future and it will become an annual tradition.

CnP: You don't feel you are fed up with the project which you have to think about 24/7, do you?
IA: Right, I keep thinking about Burg Ragnit 24/7. But I don't feel sorry. I've got into this fight and I have to go all the way.
CnP: What would you tell those who want to buy medieval ruins or a ruined castle and restore it to a former glory?
IA: Think twice!

CnP: Do think the Konigsberg castle needs to be reconstructed?
IA: Oh, what a question! It is a very difficult question, an intimate question for many. I would restore part of it. The dungeons are well preserved and they could be a solid foundation for the walls. I would restore the tower for sure. It could become a great art-object because you would have a rebuilt part while the rest could be a trendy art-space.
CnP: Are you optimist or a realist?
IA: Rather an optimist. Otherwise I would have emigrated.
We very much hope that you loved the story told Ivan Artyukh who takes care of the 15th century Teutonic castle - Burg Ragnit - in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region!

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