Waldau Castle

Once on a business in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region the Sorokins stumbled on a dilapidated building which bore traces of its glorious past. The building turned out to be a 750-year-old Waldau castle built by the Teutonic Order in the 13th century.


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The Sorokins: Sergey and Nadezhda
@Castles_and_Palaces is in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region. Artiom Ganin is talking to Nadezhda Sorokin who runs Schloss Waldau - a castle which was built in the 12th century by the mighty Teutonic Order. Some of you would probably ask: What? An ordensburg in Russia? Yes! This territory was once part of Germany's East Prussia and was handed over to the Soviet Union after WWII. Nadezhda is not local, she and her family come from the south of Russia. Once on a business trip near Kaliningrad they spotted the rundown building which witnessed a lot during its 750-year-old history. The family was so impressed that they took a decision to help preserve the architectural gem. After long-lasting talks with the Russian Orthodox Church – the owner of the Waldau castle – a lease agreement was signed and the family of 4 (now 5) got down to work. They managed to manufacture new wooden window-frames according to authentic designs and revive planting of local asparagus which was once the talk of the town.
Castles and Palaces (CnP): Nadezhda, could you please tell me about your family!
Nadezhda Sorokin (NS): We are from the city of Belgorod in the south of Russia – me and my husband Sergey. We have two sons – Savely and Pasha and a daughter who was born not long ago. Her name is Lena. We joke that she is a princess Helen von Waldau because she was born when we moved to the castle. She has unique childhood – she has the privilege of walking in a park where 200-year-old lindens grow.
NS: I think when she becomes a grandmother she will tell her grandchildren about her childhood at a Teutonic castle. We used to reside in Belgorod where we ran an agricultural business. We produced animal feed supplements. And then all of a sudden we moved here.
CnP: Why have you chosen Waldau over other castles in the area which once belonged to the Teutonic Order like Ragnit, Balga, Schaaken or Georgenburg?
NS: It is hard to say. To be honest it was our first castle – we never saw a castle before! In Belgorod you would hardly see a real cobbled street. And here we saw a real castle, a real Ordensburg! We saw Waldau before we visited the main cathedral in Kaliningrad and Emmanuel Kant's tombstone. We got our first powerful impressions when we saw the castle. And then we took a decision to help preserve and restore it – we allocated a certain amount of money from each lucrative deal to this goal. The first money was enough to prepare the design drawings, to mend the roofing, to clear one of the basements and to restore the façade. Speaking about the other castles in the region – our efforts prompted some activity with the castle of Ragnit in Neman. The chances are high that it will be taken care of. Volunteers are doing great job there now.
CnP: Do foreigners know about your project? Have Germans come to visit you?
NS: Before the pandemic struck Russia introduced electronic visas and we received some 3,000 foreign tourists, some 10,000 Russians visited us too. We have a joint project with the Association of the Owners of Russian Estates and the Baltic Manors. They plan to show 3D projections of all East Prussian castles in the premises of Waldau. So, our visitors will get a chance to see both our castle and other castles which do not exist any longer. We also receive a lot of journalists from across Russia and Europe including German ones. By the way there's an app for iOS and Android which will guide you through the best Gothic castles in the Baltic.
CnP: Who was the castle owner before you embarked on your project?
NS: The castle belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church – just like many other castles in the area. They have owned it since 2010. We got in touch with the representatives of the Church, they studied us for quite a long time. But in the long run we managed to come to an agreement.
CnP: Just to be clear – do you own the castle now or what's the deal with the Church?
NS: In 2016 we signed a 25-year long lease agreement. We do not pay anything for the castle. But we understand that everything we did and we'll do here will belong to the Church. You know the price of the castle is similar to what a small apartment in Moscow costs (the equivalent of some 80,000 USD). But if you own the castle with its vast territory you will have to pay a huge tax, it would cost us a fortune! The Church does not pay any taxes so this is mutually beneficial.
CnP: Was the castle in a bad shape when you started the restoration works?
NS: We were literally shocked by what we saw here! Shattered glass, broken toilet bowls, dirty and stained mattresses, mice sneaking all around the place. Imagine this happening at a very old Teutonic castle! We come from Belgorod, the oldest building there is hardly 75 years old. And here we have an old castle in such a bad state, it was hard to put up with it. When we started clearing off the rubbish we saw some construction waste, bottles, broken glass and what's left of Happy Birthday balloons! The castle is 750 years old and we thought that it just couldn't be its "grand finale"! It was terrible, absolutely terrible!
CnP: How are the restoration works going?
NS: Look, the castle is a listed building. It has historical significance. All changes, modifications, improvements and companies involved in such kind of works must be approved by a special body which deals with protecting the important heritage sites. We abide by the law. We took on responsibilities to protect the castle when we signed the deal and we know what is allowed and what is not. Any modifications are implemented in strict compliance with the law.
CnP: Have you found any interesting artifacts during the work?
NS: There's a story to tell – we found many bones and fragments of bones which belong to animals. I decided to send them to a lab for a test. Some time passed and I got a call from the head of the laboratory who said these were a rooster's bones and you know what - this is the very kind of a rooster Peter the Great could have tasted during his stay at the castle! We are in the agricultural business and we are curious people! It was mind-blowing and I was so eager to find out how a rooster looked back in the 17thcentury! Now we have a certain standard – all cows have the same udders and roosters look more or less the same. There's a museum of domestic birds in the Netherlands and I took pictures of turkey, quail, geese which were bred in Europe back then. When I came here I painted them and these pictures are now in our living quarters.
CnP: Now tell me about the plastic window-frames you've installed in this 750-year-old castle!
NS: Oh, those window-frames! It was a temporary solution to the problem we had. We were forced to install them to scare away unwanted guests – we needed to show them that the castle is not abandoned, that they just can't get inside and do what they please, that the castle is being looked after. Now, wooden window-frames have been made and they have been designed based on the original German drawings. My husband set up a carpentry workshop inside the castle building and we manufactured them there. In fact, we did not plan to start this workshop but people love it you know. So, the building has 56 windows to fill with authentic wooden window-frames. It is a very expensive and time-consuming process which requires a lot of resources. But it is the windows which give the castle its authentic looks. We also give a great deal of attention to the castle's plasterwork – we use molding silicon rubber, authentic drawings and pre-WWII pictures to re-create it. We have so much to do and the list grows bigger day by day!
CnP: Do you all live in the castle?
NS: Yes and no, we live close to the castle building in a 3-storey detached wing. We have a kitchen on the ground floor, the study on the first floor and our bedrooms are right under the roof – on the second floor. The interior is great there – we have old carved wardrobes dating back to the 18-19th century, tapestry chairs and a glazed tile stove. The walls of the dining room have my own paintings of domestic birds I've just told you about. We also have a sort of a family museum with artifacts we have found on the territory of the castle like old tiles, wall panels, wall carvings, etc.
CnP: Who does what at the castle? How do you share responsibilities?
NS: My husband Sergey has a construction background, so he set up a carpentry workshop – he is involved in restoring the interiors, wooden window-frames - according to old techniques from the 19th century. He also takes care of the flooring on the ground floor. Our sons are great helpers too. The eldest son– Savely– is a nice guide. He joined me at a local archive, read a lot about the castle, studied the documents and finally came up with his own tour around Waldau. Pasha is fond of cooking. I am responsible for contacts and PR, basically I run the castle on a daily basis.
CnP: Could you share an interesting fact from the castle's history?
NS: The castle's history is so rich! But you know, in spring 1697 a group of Russians called The Grand Embassy visited the castle. Among those on the diplomatic mission was a Petr Mikhailov. Do you know who he was? The Russian tsar and the future Russian emperor Peter the Great! He travelled to Europe under this fake name. This is so interesting! The castle is very old – the original fortress was first mentioned in 1258. Two centuries later it was remodeled into a castle which became a summer residence of the Great Master of the Teutonic Order. In the 18thcentury Prussia leased the castle, its premises were redesigned and reconstructed, later on it housed an agricultural academy.
CnP: These lands were part of Germany, namely East Prussia before WWII. They were handed over to the Soviet Union after the Nazis were defeated and the local German population left. What was inside the castle during the Soviet times?
NS: In 1947 the wings housed an agricultural college which was closed only in 2012.
CnP: Let's talk about the money you spent on restoration. How much?
NS: I won't tell you this. Do not count the money! We have enough, our children have everything they need. You can't put on two shirts at a time, can you?

CnP: Okay, I got your point. How do the authorities help with the restoration works? I know you got the authentic German-made roof tiles. Anything else?
NS: The main financial source is of course our revenues. Our business in Belgorod brings us the money and helps restore the castle. Occasionally we receive help from the authorities. For instance, the local branch of the Culture Ministry earmarked some 75,000 USD for mending the roof, the Kaliningrad city council gave us 610 tons of cobbles, the Russian Orthodox Church also chipped in – they donated us 13,600 USD. And we also have a 0% bank loan for the next 15 years.
CnP: What about the resources – who helps you to restore the castle and how?
NS: A relative from Belgorod stayed with us, he helped a lot. We thought that the idea to come here and help us can be very contagious for local residents. We bought two site containers with a toilet and a shower for volunteers in case they would like to assist us. We also believe that there are those who are sick and tired of living in a big city. If such people have some free time and a strong desire to participate in the works at Waldau we are happy to receive them – they can come here and enjoy some basic comfort.

CnP: Are there any problems?
NS: Not any more but we had problems in the very beginning. Imagine you work hard during the day mending something, you go to bed to wake up and see that what you had mended was broken by locals. We saw groups of teenagers who were breaking windows and window-frames, smoking inside the building, drinking vodka and beer. We contacted the police and the local council but they were unable to help. You know the solution was simple – we just fixed the lighting and made sure we have electricity there. Once we did it, the teenagers just disappeared – this is how psychology works!
CnP: I've read that you revived the old tradition of growing asparagus. How did it happen and is it possible to taste the vegetable at the castle?
NS: Oh, this is really an interesting story – when we were clearing the rubbish off the basements of the castle we found some organic wastes which turned out to be asparagus. We were puzzled – what if we plant it and see if it will grow. We did exactly that – I filled a linen basket with soil put these odds and ends there and this is how our experiment started. The first sprouts turned up and for several years the basket was our only asparagus plantation. We read up on selective breeding techniques, worked on how to improve its taste at home.
NS: It was a game. But this game brought great results – we managed to create a new variety of asparagus which we called Waldau. We registered the variety and planted it in Belgorod because we have several hectares of land there, all the necessary equipment, storage facilities and it is easier to sell asparagus to Moscow from there – the Russian capital region has become our biggest market. This is how we got our second business. You know asparagus was popular in Prussia and we thought why not make it popular again in Kaliningrad? There are two varieties of asparagus registered with the Russian State selective breeding registry: the Waldau (ours) and the Tsarskaya.
CnP: Sounds great! You said you were clearing the dungeons of the castle – have you found your castle ghost? There should be one – the castle was built in the 13th century!
NS: I'll tell you this – we never visit the main building of the castle after dark. Things which are difficult to explain take place there – there are sounds and something keeps falling, equipment keeps breaking there too. Not long ago we broke our own rule and stayed there after dark because we had to finish a photo session. All of the pictures were spoiled, cameras failed. We had to do it again next day. We have no idea why it keeps happening but perhaps there are ghosts of former owner wandering the halls of the castle! Prince Albrecht or his wife Maria von Braunschweig – it is sending shivers down my spine to be honest.
CnP: Do you organize reenactment events?
NS: We should have held the Asparagus festival this summer but the COVID pandemic ruined our plans. But filming crews visited us and shot a couple of culinary shows. We organized Oktoberfest celebrations in autumn and we also invite musicians, we hold concerts here. We have quite a rich cultural life. Last year the castle became the setting for a Russian movie about the Second World War – a lot of Russian cinema starts came here – we were so excited!
CnP: Do you want to remodel the castle into a hotel? What are your plans for the future?
NS: We don't know. I can't say what we are planning to do with the castle. Times change, trends change, people need different things. But we are sure that we wouldn't like to have a 5-star hotel here which no one will need later.

CnP: You don't want to return to Belgorod, do you?
NS: I live in the Middle Ages. It is hard to reach me by phone. I am away from the city life. I go down to the ground floor and I am at my office. I am a happy person! My mum says how could you leave your house in Belgorod behind? You built a wonderful banya, your office etc… But you know I have a different opinion. I worried so much about my children, they literally lived in virtual reality in their smartphones. When we came here and started reviving the castle they changed, they discovered so many interesting this in realty. When our first tourist called us, my youngest son met them in pouring rain. He opened his umbrella and stood in the rain waiting for them. My eldest son once said that since we moved here he felt that he started to grow mentally every day and that he liked it very much. And I do agree with him because I feel the same.
CnP: What would you tell those who would like to follow suit?
NS: Our family keep learning all the time thanks to the castle. Our boys are learning to become good castle guides, write scripts and organize holidays. I want to make it into the history as a person who gave this castle a kiss of life. One would hardly remember an entrepreneur who sold the biggest shipment of animal feed supplements. But people will surely remember a person who restored a medieval castle! Go for it!
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Nadezhda Sorokina, who leases and restores the castle of Waldau from the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region!

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