Kant was born and spent most of his life in Prussian Königsberg, which was renamed Kaliningrad after coming under the control of the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II. Now it is Russia's westernmost city and hosted World Cup matches this year.
Until recently the philosopher (1724-1804) was in the lead in an online poll to choose a name for the city's airport, currently called Khrabrovo after the nearby village.This sparked a furious row with officials blasting Kant as a “Russophobe”, even though there is no historical evidence that the philosopher harboured strong feelings toward the Russian Empire.
In a video on regional media, a senior Russian naval officer urges servicemen to vote against Kant in the poll, saying he “betrayed his motherland.”
The philosopher, a central figure in Western thought, has now sharply dropped in the rankings below Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, whose army captured the city in 1758 but abandoned it five years later.
Kant, during the brief period of Russian rule, asked the empress to let him teach at the local university, but his letter was never delivered.
“He demeaned himself to get a department in the university, so that he could teach and write some strange books that none of those present here today have read,” says the naval officer in the video, identified by local media as Vice-Admiral Igor Mukhametshin, head of the Baltic Fleet staff.
In an op-ed for pro-Kremlin website Vzglyad, Kaliningrad regional lawmaker Andrei Kolesnik called the philosopher a “Russophobe”, adding that it would be unpatriotic to “Germanize” the airport.
“The author of the 'Critique of Pure Reason' cannot be one of the main symbols of a Russian region,” Kolesnik said.
A history of tensions
The viral video follows other attacks on Kant in Kaliningrad, which was heavily bombarded during World War II and almost entirely rebuilt in Soviet style while the German population was expelled.
Last week, three Kant-related locations were vandalized with paint: his tomb, a monument to the philosopher and a memorial plaque commemorating the place where his house once stood.
Flyers strewn around the monument expressed satisfaction that “the name of the German Kant will not tarnish our airport.”
The spokesman for Kaliningrad's Gothic-style basilica, which houses Kant's tomb, said he couldn't understand the motive behind the anti-Kant protests.
“For Kaliningrad residents, for thinking people, Kant is not a citizen of any certain country, he is an individual of a planetary scope,” spokesman Vladimir Silinevich told AFP.
A student at the local state university Mikhail Shipilov was questioned by police after proposing a rally in support of the philosopher on his social networking page, local news website New Kaliningrad said.
He told AFP he has since spent several days trying to get the authorities' permission for the event, calling the experience “Kafkaesque”.
He said he thinks the Kant controversy stems from a “dislike of everything German” harboured by some Russians: “Kant is a German, therefore he's an enemy.”
Vadim Chaly, head of the philosophy department at the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad, said that if Russians objecting to Kant actually read his works, they would find that his values are the “normal values of any modern society, including Russian”.
“Kant's figure is vaguely disliked by the part of Russian society which hasn't yet figured out their own ideas, let alone Kant's,” Chaly told AFP.