Schloss Lugowen

After WWII the German mansion built in 1895 became the property of a Soviet brick factory and was remodelled into a block of flats.


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Members of the von Below family riding their horses in front of Schloss Lugowen
Artiom Ganin is in Russia's western Kaliningrad region talking with the owner of a 19th century German estate of Lugowen who wished to be identified only by his name. Dmitry works for a small shipbuilding company and he made an extraordinary choice of property to restore – a mansion in the village of Chaikovskoye (ex-Gross Lugau or Lugowen). The estate used to belong to a well-known Prussian family of von Below who fled in January 1945. East Prussia was handed over to the USSR and Poland after WWII. The mansion which was built in 1895 became the property of a brick factory and was remodeled to accommodate 14 families who worked there. Throughout the next 70 years it never underwent any proper restoration and gradually degraded. Dmitry managed to resettle the people who still lived in the former palace which had neither central heating nor sewage system. In the future the palace will be Dmitry's family home and a small hotel with a restaurant. Some say there're treasures hidden in the estate by the former owners, but for Dmitry the most precious things is the information about Lugowen's past. The descendants of the von Below family are happy to help.
Schloss Lugowen, photo credits: @lexsmyliekoff
Castles and Palaces (CnP): Dmitry, taking care of an old German estate is something an ordinary person can hardly afford. Please tell me a few words about yourself. Let's paint a picture of you!
Dmitry (D): Well, to be honest I am quite an ordinary person. I work in a small shipbuilding and shipboard equipment company. I am a happy husband and a father of three. I love my family, history and architecture.
Schloss Lugowen, photo credits: @lexsmyliekoff
CnP: Why have you decided to restore this particular estate? Why focus on the German heritage? Look, lots of old estates are scattered across mainland Russia! Choose one and get down to business, give a traditional Russian estate a kiss of life.
D: I live in the Kaliningrad region. You can't find a traditional Russian estate here. Of course, it is an extremely difficult task to get involved into restoring a traditional Russian estate in mainland Russia. I've never planned buying any estates, I just travelled through the region where I live as a person who wants to study it. I must tell you frankly that it all came as a surprise to me as well. I would say it was the estate which chose me.
CnP: And you said 'yes'! What was your first impression of the place?
D: My friends showed me Lugowen in the middle of autumn, the weather was so gloomy you know. My first instinct was to keep as far away from this place as possible. The palace looked horrifying. It was like in a horror movie.
CnP: A castle owner from France told me convincing his wife to buy a ruined medieval chateau took him some time. Basically, he had to invite her to a posh restaurant and spend on a proper meal to persuade her. What was your plan of action?
D: Well, I can imagine. When my wife saw the palace for the first time she had an impression it was a vampire residence. She felt witches are all around us and her only wish was to get away and forget about this place. It was a nightmare for her. She was not happy to learn that I bought Lugowen. She told me she wanted to have nothing in common with the place but if I wanted to buy it she was okay with it. But now I can see her attitude is changing.
CnP: What about your children? I bet they were happy, what did your eldest son tell you?
D: Of course, they were happy. The eldest one told me – hey dad, I'm scared, let's get outta here fast!

CnP: So inspiring! The pictures show that the building is in a very bad state. Why did the historical monument turn into an abandoned ruin?
D: Well, in 1945 the von Below family left the estate. A German hospital was set up in the building. During one of the Soviet offensives a tank sent two shells into the palace's roof where the hospital wards were located. The building caught fire and burnt down. A lot of patients perished in the blaze too.
D: Schloss Lugowen was abandoned and was listed as a ruin. The building was assigned to a nearby brick factory which restored it to a certain degree and remodelled it. A dozen of flats were created which were allocated for the workers of the factory. At the same time the residents did not care much about the history of this place. They just used it to the fullest, some of them started to steal old bricks, iron elements, some parts of the façade, etc. The factory went bankrupt, some of the residents left and this was when the looters came.
CnP: I think saving such objects should be well-received by locals. It is much better to have a restored palace which could attract tourists and be one of the key destinations in the area instead of a ruined building giving shelter to all sorts of bumps and tramps. New tourists would boost the development of the local infrastructure, locals would get job opportunities, the local economy would thrive. So, what do the locals say? Do they support you?
D: It's a tough question. Let me be straightforward with you. A fraction of locals have interests other than earning money to survive. They have meager salaries and having a neighbor who's bought such a huge mansion is something which gets on their nerves. Most of them don't get it, perhaps they are just envious.
CnP: This a very short-sighted approach. What about the local authorities? Do they help you?
D: From the very beginning the authorities were neutral. And they've got a point. A lot of attempts were made to rescue this mansion. But once these enthusiasts encountered difficulties they just gave up. You have to understand that this a residential building with 14 apartments. The owners are very different people. But once the authorities made sure we work with the owners in a respectful manner, that we listen to them and understand their needs, once they started to see that there's light in the end of the tunnel they sided with us. They helped us with solving problems. I can't say anything bad about them really. On the opposite I am grateful to them.
CnP: What's the plan? What will the estate transform into? Will it be your private residence or a hotel with a restaurant?
D: Both! It will be a private residence which will offer accommodation to guests. And of course, we'll have a great restaurant!

CnP: Sounds like a plan. It is not enough to have a restored object with no tourist infrastructure around it. A tourist needs to have a cup of coffee, to munch on a sandwich, to buy a magnet you know. Some need it real cheap, other won't mind spending a little bit more. I mean that you have to have a well thought through large-scale tourist project. To which degree is the state involved in such a planning?
D: You know my first goal is to settle all legal issues with the building. I need to finalize the purchase to become the sole owner. Later on, I will start working on the concept and think to which degree I want to have the state involved in it.
CnP: You said once that now you've got a lifetime hobby. It is clear. You will have no days off. But have you ever thought of the budget? Do you have figures at hand?
D: God no! I will not make any calculations! I have some free money – I will spend it on the palace. This is my model. I do not see it as a business project, it is my hobby and a way to relax.
CnP: What's the progress of the project??
D: I have the visualization of how the mansion and the estate will look after the restoration. We are now selecting project designers with a cultural heritage license which are accredited with the Monument Protection service. It is important to remove the rubbish from the building and from the territory of the estate. We've got rid of some trees and bushes around the palace, we've also cleared the banks of the river. We've worked on the sewage system and closed the shattered windows with plastic and wooden panels, we've also fixed holes in the roof.
CnP: Looks great! When you look at the old pictures of the mansion you can see how beautiful it was – the mansion, horses on the lawn in front of the building, the garden. It has all gone now.
D: You know there's a book written by a former German officer who used to come to Lugowen in his childhood as a guest of the von Below family - it was in the 1930s – so when I read the memoirs I am simply overwhelmed with feelings. Imagine! The man writes about plums in the garden and peaches which he ate on the terrace of the mansion, about how he used to catch fish and make harbors on the bank of the river and how his mother taught him to skate in winter here. I imagine this tranquil picture and I feel my eyes are getting wet.
CnP: I can understand you. War is terrible. In order to restore such a place, one should have old documents to base on. Have you turned to German archives or have you found the required documents here in the Kaliningrad region?
D: I have discovered a few papers here in Kaliningrad. A friend of mine – Vladimir – knows the region pretty well. He is a former headmaster of a school located next to Lugowen. He has a lot of information about the estate because he personally spoke with the former owners who left Schloss Lugowen in the 1940s. I also received great support from German historians who specialize in East Prussia.
CnP: The descendants of the von Below family visited the estate several times starting from the 1980s. Last time they were here in 2003. Friedrich von Below used to bring German tourists here and to former East Prussia. Have you approached the family? I think they would be pleased to learn that there are people for who the palace matters and that thanks to them it will get a kiss of life!
D: The family helped me a lot too. The last von Below who cared for the palace was Friedrich. We are in touch with his descendants. They just can't get why on earth I need the ruins! But they share what they know with me. I've been even invited as an honorary guest to their annual gathering near Hannover.
CnP: Speaking about the former owners – Paul von Below was a well-known horse rider and a horse breeder. Do you have any plans to revive the horse breeding here?
D: Not for now. But you are absolutely right – Paul von Below aka Pulle was mad about all things equestrian, he was a brilliant horse rider, he was an avid horse breeder and what not. He used to organize competitions in Insterburg and during this period which normally lasted for a week Schloss Lugowen used to offer accommodation to high-esteemed guests – even to Princess Friedrich-Siegismund of Prussia.
D: It is interesting that back in the 2000s after the region opened up to foreign tourists there were several international equestrian competitions held nearby in the city of Chernyahovsk (ex-Insterburg). Friedrich von Below who was a teenager when the family left the estate started a travel agency in Germany in the 1980s and he organized bus trips across the former East Prussia, too. He actually came here before the collapse of the Soviet Union for the first time!
CnP: How interesting! Thanks for this insight! You do have a lot of sources of information about Lugowen. Tell me what kind of problems do you face now? I bet not everything goes according to your plan?
D: No problems whatsoever. Although there are issues. The key issue is the greed. Some people want to get a fortune for selling the ruins. And of course, my plan has nothing to do with reality! But you know it makes your life more exciting.

CnP: Do you plan to invest your own money or will it be a joint project?
D: Since I see Schloss Lugowen as my own home I have never thought of attracting others' money.
Schloss Lugowen, photo credits: @lexsmyliekoff
CnP: My heart melts when I read about such enthusiasts like you – business people who invest in their home region. You don't move to regions which are better off and more attractive, you literally shape what is around you. Look at Waldau, Ragnit, Georgenburg, Grunhof. There's also a guy who wants to restore several old German houses in his village, recreate the main square with a fountain and build a town hall of old German bricks! This is a way to go! Do you keep in touch with each other to get inspiration?
D: I know the guy who wants to build an authentic town hall and the owner of Grunhof. You know we seldom talk, we all have our own businesses. Work comes first, then comes family followed by this hobby of restoring palaces and building towns. I don't feel I need to talk to them at least now.
CnP: I know you have great guys working here in the Kaliningrad region – the Ruin Keepers. They do a lot to save the heritage sites across the region. I follow them on Instagram and can see how they organize cleaning here and there – at Waldau in the village of Nizovye, in the Ragnit castle in Neman. They clear the dungeons of trash for example. Have you ever thought of inviting them to your palace?
D: Everybody knows them! Great guys they are! They mainly focus on castles and churches and I know that their schedule is pretty busy. In the future I would be happy to share their company at Schloss Lugowen. It will benefit both the palace and the adjacent territory!
CnP: There's a picture on your Instagram page which shows your son and you break a wall in the palace which opens up a passage to the dungeons. Looks exciting! You started the project half a year ago. Have you found anything interesting in the palace or around it?
D: Tons of garbage. Looters did a good job here and we have to work hard now!
CnP: Still, if you find anything, will you showcase it in a small and cozy palace museum?
D: Sure thing! We'll show such items in common spaces. A couple of my friends agreed to showcase their findings in Schloss Lugowen.
Schloss Lugowen, photo credits: @lexsmyliekoff
CnP: The von Below family fled the estate before the war end. They surely could not take all of their belongings and valuable items with them. I know there's a legend which says that some family treasures were buried on the territory of the estate. Will you search for them? Or perhaps all of the treasures have already been found!?
D: The family were fully aware of the situation at the front. So, they left Schloss Lugowen on January 21st, 1945. Their train consisted of 70 carriages and 30 cars. I believe it says it all. Some say certain dishes or plates were found. You know if we are lucky to find anything during our restoration works so be it! But what is really a treasure is the information about the past of this beautiful place.
Schloss Lugowen, photo credits: @lexsmyliekoff
CnP: I've read about the 17th century Konigsberg baroque style staircase, which Count Paul von Below brought to his new palace from a Konigsberg house at the end of the 19th century – before the house was pulled down. After the war the staircase disappeared. How do you plan to restore it?
D: It's hard. The pictures are few and there's too little information about the unique staircase. But I've managed to find a carpenter who's ready to recreate it as close to the original as possible based on the available information.
CnP: You should know the building from A to Z! I understand that the palace is in a dire state right now. It was remodeled in the Soviet times; the rooms look shabby and rundown. But do you have a place inside the building which you love most of all? Maybe it is in the park. Come on, tell me!
D: I can't really say that I love a particular place in the palace. I see it as a whole. Perhaps later on when all the work is done I will have such a place.
Schloss Lugowen, photo credits: @lexsmyliekoff
CnP: Tell me about something unusual which occurred to you in the palace. Have you ever experienced something which you could not explain?
D: Nothing like that ever happened and to be honest I don't want anything like that.

CnP: What about Schloss Lugowen ghosts? Do you have any?
D: I am sure we have good spirits of Friedrich and Gerd von Below. I believe they help me. It is thanks to them – and myself – that I move forward.
Schloss Lugowen, photo credits: @lexsmyliekoff
CnP: You don't regret you've got into this, do you? You are in the beginning of a long road, a very long road. Aren't you scared?
D: Of course, I don't regret anything! I love this place and the place loves me too.

CnP: Give a piece of advice to enthusiasts like yourself – who are dreaming of buying an old ruined and abandoned property to restore!
D: You can't just chose a house, buy it and restore it. It is the house who chooses its owner and its friend. So, if you feel a house has made its choice – go for it, you will succeed.
We very much hope that you loved Dmitry's story about his efforts to save the 19th century Schloss Lugowen in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region!

Photo credits:
Alexey Filippov @lexsmyliekoff
Andrey Novozhilov @peps39

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