Authentic German bricks for a dream project

Oleg Barmin to turn a sleepy village near Kaliningrad into a German-style town
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Oleg Barmin, the spearhead of the Zalivnoye village revitalization project
Russia's westernmost region of Kaliningrad is experiencing a revival. The region has dozens of projects aimed at restoring old German estates and opening them to tourists, boosting local economies. But what Oleg Barmin has in mind is something quite different. A local interpreter with a history of ups and downs, he recently settled in a small village on the Baltic Sea. First he bought, restored and moved into an old red brick house that belonged to a local pastor before the Second World War. He loved his village so much that he decided to turn it into a major tourist attraction. Mr Barmin's plan is to rebuild the depressed area into an old German-style town, complete with a town hall and fountain in the main square. To make his dream come true, he has been buying up ruined houses scattered across the former East Prussia to use the authentic German bricks as building materials for his dream project. The town will feature souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces, artisans and will be a unique place offering great views of the Baltic Sea and the tranquillity of unspoilt nature. The flow of tourists is unlikely to stop, he believes.
Castles and Palaces (CnP): Oleg, you have a rather unusual biography for a Russian businessman of the early 2000s. You made a fortune in a very short time and then your empire collapsed. Tell me about yourself so that my readers can get an idea of who you are!

Oleg Barmin (OB): What can I say... my name is Oleg and I come from the city of Severodvinsk, near Arkhangelsk, in the north of Russia. In my previous life, about 15 years ago, I owned an automobile holding company "Leo" with a turnover of $100 million a year. My company sold every second foreign car in the Arkhangelsk region. The 2008 crisis hit me hard. I went bankrupt. I had a lot of debts. At the time of bankruptcy we had debts of more than $12 million at the 2008 exchange rates.
OB: I started from scratch. I worked at LiveJournal and Beeline telecom. But working for someone is one thing and working for yourself is another. So I've started several projects: the flower shop FunFun, which is now Flowers and Honey. I also have the Lipko-Sladko honey shop. About five years ago I started a company called Agenda.Media. We make videos, promote them on social networks and do digital marketing.
CnP: All were successful. And then you ended up in the godforsaken village of Zalivnoye on the Baltic Sea, a 30-minute drive from Khrabrovo airport in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region. About 300 people live here. Why did you choose to settle there?

OB: Well, I also founded Leo-Rent car rental in Kaliningrad. Come and visit us and take a ride in, say, a Mercedes S600 - the cult car that Russian gangsters loved so much in the early 1990s. We called it Wilhelm. There are Arnold and Hans, also Mercedes, but older.
OB: I moved to Zalivnoye in the Kaliningrad region. We bought a house that used to be the office of the head of the local collective farm. Before the war, the house was owned by a priest. We invested in its restoration. Our daughter was born there. All my friends said we were crazy when we moved to Zalivnoye. "What are you doing in this godforsaken village?" They saw the village as a ruin, while my wife and I saw that the village had a bright future. But it took us some time to realise it. Even now we can't see everything clearly enough - the bright future is too far away and you need a telescope to see it!
CnP: Before you came up with the plan to turn the village into a "city of happiness", you restored an old German house. How did you come across this house in the first place?

OB: I have always wanted to own an old German house because of its beautiful and simple architecture. So in 2020, during the pandemic, my wife and I drove around the Kaliningrad region - 6,000 km in total. We were looking for our dream house! But we couldn't find one. We saw some houses in a deplorable state, others looked nice, but the documents were a problem.
OB: It looked like we'd never find anything like our dream house, and then a friend of ours said, "Come on, Oleg, let's look at another one, the last one". It turned out to be a local pastor's house, built in 1912. Shortly before the end of the war, the pastor and his family left for Germany. At first the building was used as a school, then as a library, then as a kindergarten, and finally it became the seat of the management of the Zalivnoye collective farm. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. The collective farm collapsed too. The house became the property of the well-known photographer Oleg Morozov and his wife in the mid-1990s. After his death, nobody lived there for about a decade.
CnP: How bad was the state of the house?

OB: There were indeed some challenges. I can still remember the day - the 6th of December - when we put up a tent in the house. So we moved in and lived in our tent inside the house. We called it a glamping tent. It was freezing cold. It took us about two years to restore, repair and furnish our dream house.
OB: During the restoration we tried to stay as close to the original as possible. We had to remove a dozen layers of old Soviet paint. The original German doors were restored - the ones that had not been stolen. The roof required our greatest attention, but we also restored it on a grand scale. The tiles were reassembled by hand and all the rotten rafters were replaced.
OB: We repaired the drainage system and drained the basement, where the water was knee-deep. And of course the windows! We ordered double glazed wooden windows. In case you have no idea - these windows are very expensive! We had a problem - no one here could design an original window. They just don't make them here. So we had to order them from Poland.
OB: The house has 55 windows, 9 of which are round! I almost fainted when I found out how much it would cost to order them! So we had to do it step by step. And when someone casually mentions that you know Barmin's windows are fake and not authentic wooden windows, they just have no idea how expensive the authentic wooden windows are!
CnP: I imagined they'd be expensive, but I never thought they'd be THAT expensive! Have you found anything of vintage value on the territory of your estate or in the house itself?

OB: We found an old well! We removed about 30 to 40 centimetres of earth and found a German well! We also found a bullet stuck in the brickwork of the facade! While cleaning the basement we discovered some planks from the church, which is now a ruin next door.
OB: In the garden we found a horseshoe that must have been used to shoe a Trakehner horse. We also found an old bottle with a cork and other small items.
OB: The house I bought for my project, which will house guests, also revealed its secrets - old newspapers. We dried them and had the chance to look at the September issues of an authentic German newspaper from 1880 and 1889! There was an advertisement for a brewery and electric motors, and an invitation to a summer festival with garden furniture, folding chairs and bicycles for sale. Oh, what a find! We also managed to get the asphalt removed from the main street of the village to finally restore the old German cobblestones and pavement. It is not very comfortable to walk with a pram. But it is authentic!
CnP: And when did you get the idea to build an entire town out of old German bricks?

OB: Look, guests started coming to see us, they just kept coming. And in a way we started to get a taste for receiving guests. Back then, when we did the roof work, I'd always be up on the roof. I would sit there and look at the river, the bay, the land. I would think and draw on a piece of paper.
OB: So we bought the house next door and turned it into a guesthouse. We bought an old German barn, about 350 years old, and moved it into the village. I soon called it our 'ruin bar'. And so, little by little, my idea of building a tourist village began to take shape.
OB: My personal project evolved into a concept for developing the whole village. It is important to say that Postnicken (as the village was called before 1946) was once a wonderful place with a beautiful church, its own promenade and a system of canals running into the bay.
CnP: Are there any examples (perhaps in Europe) that have inspired you?

OB: I studied old Prussian maps and compared them with modern plans. Then I went to towns in our area that still exist, but of which almost nothing is left. I studied how towns were built 100-200 years ago.
OB: Well, any medieval town in Germany that miraculously survived the Second World War or was rebuilt afterwards is what inspires me. I also really like the Finnish village of Fiskars. These are my sources of inspiration!
OB: The most important part of any village is certainly the main square and the main buildings around it, such as the police station, town hall, post office, bakery, pharmacy, restaurant and so on. This has always been the heart of any old town. And our village will have a central square with the town hall and a fountain! It will have a U-shaped layout with about 20-25 houses.
OB: All of them will be built from old materials that we've collected all over the region - there are so many ruined buildings scattered around. Nobody needs them and they are all forgotten. But we'll certainly do so legally. So the village will have a pedestrian street. There will be cafes, museums, blacksmiths, glassblowers and carpenters. There will be co-working facilities and guest houses. There will be a honey museum, a farm, a local shop, a boat harbour, a beach - you name it!
CnP: Are you going to rebuild the old church?

OB: Every time I see the ruins of the church I get upset. The church was originally built by the Teutonic Order. There were two bells in the tower. During the Second World War it was practically untouched, then during the Soviet period the windows were bricked up, the tower was dismantled and used to store agricultural produce.
OB: In the 1970s it still looked beautiful from the bay. There are old photographs to prove it! It was almost completely intact, but in a terrible state. Finally, in 1994, it was abandoned and it was only a matter of time before it started to crumble. We have a tendency to revive such places. There is a church in Znamensk, formerly Wehlau. The magnificent St Jacob's Church. Now people hold concerts there, we also plan to preserve the church and make it a concert venue. It will be great!
CnP: Tell me about your team!

OB: Look, the people who visited us got the germ from us! They could see the future - just like us! So our friends became our new neighbours. A restaurant owner bought a huge piece of land near the river. The owner of an IT company bought a house and a huge plot. In total, five people have joined us and the number is growing. Together we own a huge cluster.
D: Now the most important question: why would anyone want to come here and spend, say, a weekend? There are other well-known resorts on the Baltic, such as Svetlogorsk and Zelenogradsk.

OB: Our project is already well known among designers, PR people, marketing experts, bloggers and many people from the Russian digital community. We want to make this a very special place. The Kaliningrad region is popular now that people can't travel freely outside Russia to Europe en masse.
OB: We have beautiful pine trees and sand - just like Lithuania! We are going to have a lot of activities here. Well, with our approach and friendly attitude to everyone who will visit us, I am quite sure that the inspiring historical setting and rural harmony will make our creative environment successful! Musicians, artists, photographers, craftsmen, enthusiasts, tourists - everyone is welcome!
CnP: The region is quite depressed. People have a hard life here, and the villages look pretty run down. What do the locals think of your project to turn the village into a tourist mecca?

D: We have the power to change the world around us, to make it comfortable, kind and open. Yes, there are many problems, but that doesn't mean that we should remain indifferent, sit back and wait for the local authorities to do everything! The district is developing quite dynamically, it is one of the leaders in the Kaliningrad region.
Old Prussian estate of Lugowen near Kaliningrad to shine again
OB: The authorities have launched many projects to improve the situation here. Business initiatives + government support = progress! We are not unique in the region, there are other projects where private investors buy buildings with rich history and give them a kiss of life. The volunteers of the Ruin Keepers are also doing a great job, taking care of the ruins and the heritage. They are changing the attitude of the locals. As for the officials, I'm glad they're decent people.
OB: For example, there was a plan to asphalt our village roads for the first time since 1986. But we asked them not to! On the contrary, we begged them to remove the remaining asphalt and open up the cobblestones. They met us halfway! They used asphalt elsewhere. I was so happy that I could hardly stop myself from kissing the tough road workers!
CnP: Wow! My traditional question: what would you say to a dreamer who might follow in your footsteps and buy an old German house or, God forbid, a ruined castle to restore?

OB: It is very romantic and all that, but you have to understand where you are going to get the money for the restoration. Investing everything you have in the ruins is madness! The area is full of interesting properties that have been bought with the same aim, but the owners lack the money.
OB: People wanted to open museums, restaurants or hotels, but it never happened. So the buildings have been left to rot and decay. Money matters. Restoring a house like mine, for example, would be expensive. Restoring the roof alone will set you back about $15,000. And if you want a castle, I can't even imagine how expensive that will be.
We very much hope that you loved Oleg Barmin's story about his plan to transform a village in Russia's westernmost region of Kaliningrad into a German-style town!

Photo credits:
Oleg Barmin @olegfreedom
Dasha Karaulova @daryadarya_ru

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