Tuesday, 18 August 2009
On the waves of Onega
Our second trip to Russia was short, only five days, but eventful nevertheless. We perhaps covered some 1500-2000 kilometres, using different forms of transport, crossing the border at two points.
The border crossing in the Finnish train is not a big deal anymore, but is quite a dramatic performance when crossing by bus or private car. We took a Russian bus and were the only foreigners there; therefore the driver forgot to give us the landing cards, and we created a wonderful jam in Värtsilä-Niirala.
If compared to the northern border crossing point, Vartius, the atmosphere in Värtsilä-Niirala was more relaxed. Two years ago in Vartius we were watching with awe how truck covers were being pierced by huge metal spikes, in order to make sure there were not any illegal immigrants hiding there. Also in Vartius there was a stronger military presence on the Russian side.
The sights from the bus window from the border to Petrozavodsk are breathtaking. One begins to understand better the wartime evacuees' longing, when seeing the landscapes they lost. From the former Finnish side we perhaps saw some villages close to Sortavala or Salmi, and from the parts that were always Russian we saw the region of Prääsä. The regions around Petrozavodsk are called Aunuksen Karjala. In addition to Viena (up north), Aunus Karelia is the area in which there have been recent efforts to revive the Karelian language. Closer to the Finnish border, the languages have already been lost, as most of the speakers moved to Finland during WW2.
In Petrozavodsk, we stayed with friends and socialized. The city's public transport system is interesting: as the tramways and buses are not enough to cover the growing need, there are supplementary microbuses taking people to places. I don't think I could have made sense of the system without the help of Russian-speaking friends. There were no maps, timetables or info desks in sight. The most crammed ride was to the friends' dacha outside the city. The weather was so superb that half of the city was on the move.
I dipped my toes in lake Onega! There is a wartime Finnish song "On the Waves of Onega", which claims the Eastern Karelia as Finnish possession. Finland occupied Petrozavodsk in 1941 and kept the Russian population of the city in concentration camps for three years. The city was renamed as Äänislinna. It's difficult to relate to that history. Luckily, Petrozavodsk is not "colonized" by Finnish companies in the same way as for instance Tallinn is. If one wants to escape some aspects of the late capitalist consumerism in Finland, Russian Karelia is the closest destination for tourists seeking alternatives. There are clubs, pubs and cafés in Petrozavodsk, perhaps exceeding the expectations of the provincial Finn, but the urge to do shopping just doesn't happen. That's a great relief.
Petrozavodsk's suburbs may look scary from the outset. The buildings are mainly 1970s Soviet concrete, some unnecessarily massive, considering that there is enough wilderness around the city to expand it as far as one wishes. If there was more money to paint and renovate, the suburbs would not differ dramatically from Finnish suburbs. I found the everyday life (at least during daytime) however more peaceful in suburban Petrozavodsk than in suburban Tampere. Heavy alcoholism surely is a fact in both places, but in Petrozavodsk the drinkers kept more to themselves. On this Russian trip (if compared to the first one in Viena), there were no incidents with strangers. In Vienan Karjala, there were more Finnish tourists in groups, whose economic potential had been discovered. Likewise, every time one goes to Tampere city centre, there is an incident with a stranger (local or foreigner) wanting something from you. In Petrozavodsk, and also in St.Petersburg, we could breathe more freely in the urban space. That was a pleasant surprise!
Not forgetting, my lungs felt the freshness of air in the centre of Petrozavodsk. Superb freshness, even in the hot late summer weather. Maybe it was the magic of lake Onega.
This time, I had no time to explore the history of Finns in Petrozavodsk, but next time I will follow the footsteps of the Finnish and Finnish-Canadian Reds. The best book I've read about the city was by Finnish-Canadian Mayme Sevander, "They Took My Father". Heavy reading, but realistic and wise. Sevander writes about the changing decades, also about the opening of relations with Europe and America during glasnost.
I do not know Russian Karelian authors living and working there. Arvi Perttu (born there, now living in Finland) has an interesting blog, Maahanmuuttaja ja muita rooleja, which has many entries about Petrozavodsk. I'd be thrilled to know more especially about the literary scene in the city.
PS: Will try to post a second entry on St. Petersburg.