KALININGRAD, Russia — Against the backdrop of the crumbling brick and concrete edifices of this Cold War outpost, the boisterous new beer gardens and sidewalk cafes shaded by crayon-colored umbrellas look like hot-air balloons blown off course and haplessly landed.
At the edge of town, the rusty workshops of the Yantar shipyards have sprung back to life after a five-year slowdown to turn out shiny new sedans in the place of menacing warships.
Out a little farther, along the white-sand Baltic Sea beaches, the region's first resort built to international standards is due to open in September, and turn-of-the-century cottages are getting spruced up to shelter the steady droves of German tourists.
It has taken 50 years, but the persevering offspring of Siberians sent to populate this long-closed corner of Russia are finally finding something to savor from the spoils of the Great Patriotic War.
Kaliningrad still has far to go to recover its pre-World War II splendor as Koenigsberg, the capital of East Prussia, but the western exclave inherited by the Soviet Union and fitted out as a naval fortress is beginning to blossom now that it is out of isolation.
It was the only territorial aggrandizement of Russia in recognition of this country's role in defeating Nazi Germany, and for five decades the displaced veterans and prisoners brought in to inhabit the homes of expelled Prussians felt that they had simply left one bleak existence for another.
But today a sense of belonging has taken root among Kaliningraders; few look wistfully toward their wealthier western neighbors or fearfully at the former brother Baltic states whose independence makes their own refuge an island.
Far from feeling marooned more than 200 miles from the Russian mainland, beyond Lithuania and Belarus, the 1 million residents of this western beachhead seem to revel in their remoteness.
"We have to start seeing ourselves not as cut off from Russia but as in the middle of a changing region. This provides opportunities," says Andrei V. Kubanov, chairman of the board of directors for Investbank. "Kaliningrad is the only year-round port in European Russia, and we can develop it into a going concern if we compete with our neighbors."
Unemployment here is lower than elsewhere in Russia, and most of those officially registered as jobless are busy taking advantage of the region's special tax-free status to shuttle in consumer goods for sale to the mainland.
As a designated Special Economic Zone, Kaliningrad is fashioning itself as the Hong Kong of the Baltics, able to set its own priorities in trade and transport, cut its own deals with newly independent neighbors and act as an offshore haven for Russian business.
Talk of courting reunification with Germany or breaking free of faraway Moscow has ceased after five years of political uncertainty, leaving this region firmly tethered to Mother Russia.
"True, our history was German, but this is part of Russia now," says Sergei Y. Tsyplenkov, director of the Sociological Center that carries out research projects for academic institutions and potential investors. "We have monuments to [philosopher Immanuel] Kant and [dramatist Friedrich von] Schiller, but there is no reason why the past and the present cannot coexist here."
Indeed, a German atmosphere is unabashedly exuded in the region.
Advertisements and shop signs are often lettered in both Russian and German, and the cuisine in newly opened eateries is clearly aimed at the visiting Prussians nostalgic for a glimpse of their lost native land.
"This is the only material gain Russia got for its efforts in World War II. No one could imagine it being handed back, especially if life can be brought to some semblance of normal," says Leonid P. Gorbenko, director of the fisheries port and a strong challenger in next month's gubernatorial election.
No longer intimidated by the seven centuries of German rule that preceded their 1945 conquest, the Russian masters of this Baltic Sea statelet have finally begun restoring old Koenigsberg's ruined cathedral and erecting tributes to famous Prussian cultural figures like Kant.
But proposals to rename this city Koenigsberg have ceased being put forward, as Kaliningraders bristle at the notion of giving up their Russian identity, even if it is tied to a discredited Stalinist figure.
"The problem of reverting to our historical name is very complicated here. Whoever heard of a place being named for people who were expelled and are no longer citizens of the region?" asks Alexander G. Khmurchik, editor of the newspaper Kaliningradskaya Pravda. "People have begun to realize that this craze for renaming everything seldom brings anything good."
That said, attracting German tourists is one of the more promising prospects for Kaliningrad, because its status as a closed military stronghold spared it much of the pollution and reckless development that afflicted the interior of Russia.