The Republic of Karelia is a region of Russia that changed hands over many centuries, previously being ruled by Sweden and claimed by Finland. The current border was determined at the end of the Winter War, a side-conflict of the Second World War when Russia sought to occupy Finland, which had originally declared independence in 1917, previously being a Duchy of Imperial Russia.
Like Finland (whose bordering region is also called Karelia), the Republic of Karelia has a landscape of predominantly forests and lakes. The capital city of the Republic is Petrozavodsk (literally “Peter’s factory”) which sits on the southern end of Lake Onega.
We drove from St Petersburg to Petrozavodsk in a lengthy 7-hour drive. The roads were generally good with a few bumpy patches. Our route took us around the largest lake wholly contained within Europe (the Caspian Sea being the largest partially within Europe). This is called Lake Ladoga. The Neva river that flows through St Petersburg originates from Lake Ladoga. During the Siege of Leningrad (as St Petersburg was known during World War 2), food and supplies were taken to the city by brave people walking across the frozen lake at night, as it was the only gap in the German lines.
Unfortunately though the road skirts Lake Ladoga, it is wholly obscured by the birch and pine forests, there are no beautiful lakeside views on the route from the main highway. We got close to the lake at a small river flowing into it, the Syas, but there were no roads from the village of Syasstroy leading down to the lake itself. Keen to get my photo-opportunities we decided to take a little detour that would take us right up to the shores of the lake.
It wasn’t long before we started seeing patches of snow that were yet to melt from the winter. The temperature was about 3 degrees centigrade in early May, so it felt brisk but not really cold to anyone who has experienced the daily sub-zero freeze of a real Russian winter.
Having got our photographs we doubled back on ourselves to get back to the highway, as our sat nav was not giving us an optimistic prognosis on continuing along minor roads. I kept my eyes peeled for deer, moose and bears but didn’t see any – most of the dark shadows I spotted through the trees were old tree trunks, grown over with vegetation into sinister shapes.
There was lots of evidence of logging, the main industry here, in the gaps in the forest, the piles of logs by the side of the road, and the lorries full of logs that we overtook on the highway. But there was so much forest that it is easy to believe that the logging probably has minimal ecological impact. The trees are so tall, and the forests go on for miles and miles and miles, there is plenty of untouched wilderness out there.
The city of Petrozavodsk itself was a little disappointing, as a regional capital. We didn’t really see it in daylight but it had a very Soviet feel about it, with lots of industrial buildings and characterless tower blocks. The roads in the city were very poorly maintained. Once we found our apartment, we took a walk by the lakefront, which was beautiful but in a sad way, almost like a token effort to make one small part of the city a bit more interesting.
The lake was still covered by slabs of ice – broken, not strong enough for people to walk on, but stable enough for the gulls. There was a pyramid – celebrating 300 years since the city’s founding. There were some interesting sculptures. There was a rotunda.
In the morning, we set off early again for what would be a 9-hour drive to Vologda. This was the point at which we wrote off our original plan to drive to Murmansk on Russia’s northern coast – it would probably have taken the same amount of time, but once there we would have had to double back on ourselves with an 18 hour journey to Vologda, and we decided we could use our available time better and see more of Russia this way.
With little time difference in going around the northern end or southern end of Lake Onega, we took the scenic route and headed north. As far north as I have ever been in my life. The town at the north end of the lake is called Medvezhigorsk (Bear Town) and we stopped there to get some more photos of the frozen lake.
From there, the road to Vologda is rather straight and rather uninteresting. There were a lot of points where it was being repaired and we had to drive over temporary surfaces. We were pulled over for speeding at one point – even in the middle of the wilderness, the police could be waiting for you round the next curve
We passed through many villages – just like on the road to Novgorod. Many old, poorly maintained wooden houses, often sitting between collapsed, burnt out and unoccupied houses. While many of the villages between Moscow and St Petersburg were dachas, weekend homes for the city people, out here in Karelia these villages are where people live, as their great great grandparents lived 100-150 years ago. Some of these villages have no running water. The ones by the highway probably have electricity, fed from the road lighting network, but the main source of energy and the motor of the local economy is firewood. While this kind of poverty was more apparent in Karelia it is important to remember that there are villages like this all across Russia, many of them shrinking, some totally abandoned as people leave the traditional lifestyle for a more comfortable living in the cities.
The larger ones, of course, all had a church, a cemetery and a war memorial. Often the war memorials were constructed from war detritus – the tail of an aircraft, a disused tank or an old piece of artillery.