Nikita I. Zakharov leads the fan club for the soccer team in this leafy, slow-paced provincial city, and yet he keeps a cleareyed view of its place in the wider world of soccer.
“We cannot really boast of soccer success,” he said mournfully. The team, Baltika, plays in a second-tier Russian league. In its 64-year history, it has won the championship once — in 1995, “the golden year!” exclaimed Zakharov — and came in second twice, in 1959 and 1961.
Its biggest win, it turns out, was not so much on the field as with a field. Rising out of a formerly undeveloped swampy area in the city, a gigantic, glistening $280 million stadium appeared this year, one of six new arenas Russia built for the World Cup.
It is a bumper crop of new stadiums that, even by World Cup standards, appear out of proportion with the small crowds drawn by local teams like Baltika, which will use the venues after the tournament.
Their construction, at a cumulative cost estimated at $11 billion along with related infrastructure, illustrates how sports, as with the oil and mining businesses, has become integral to how the Kremlin and Russia’s ultra-wealthy financiers, known as the oligarchs, do business together.
World Cup stadiums became a means to reward well-connected businessmen, said Ilya Shumanov, deputy director of the anti-corruption group Transparency International.
“Authoritarian regimes love megasports projects,” Shumanov said. “Huge sums are distributed from the budget. It’s bread and circuses at the same time.”
The lucrative deal in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland, went to the company of Aras Agalarov, who is one of Russia’s wealthiest men. Agalarov also had a commercial relationship with Donald Trump, having partnered with him in 2013 to host the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.
“The Agalarovs are very well connected, in Azerbaijan, in Russia and in the United States,” Shumanov said.
The stadium in Kaliningrad is among those that went to cities with no top-tier soccer team. In one instance, a stadium with 45,000 seats went up in Saransk, a city with a population of 297,000.
The designs of the new stadiums nod to local pride. In Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg, both port towns, the stadiums’ look hints at ships. Mastlike towers suspend the roofs. The flying-saucer-shaped Cosmos Arena appeared in Samara, a center of the space industry.
Kaliningrad’s residents have been scratching their heads over what to do with the stadium when the World Cup is over.