Following the road less travelled into Russian Karelia

 The border formalities on the Finnish side go smoothly, but on the Russian side the bureaucratic Soviet influence is still evident: I have to fill several small entry forms and then queue with them from one counter to the next. As I am crossing the border by car I have to fill separate documents for the car as well.

There is little information available on what to do and soon I find myself alone in an empty room with a table covered by piles of papers. After finding the documents in Finnish I start filling them in. An official passes me and I ask him what to do with the papers. He says nothing and simply points his index finger to the direction of the front door.

I then head towards some people who seem to be queueing for a small kiosk. It all seems a bit confusing, but luckily my Russian travel companion, the shipping entrepreneur and kite-skiing enthusiast Dmitriy Bubnovikov, knows what to say to the border officer and the gate opens in front of us. Relieved, I put the gear on and accelerate towards the country with the largest surface area in the world.

When crossing the border over to Russia the landscape remains the same, but the buildings in the villages take a time warp back to the 1950´s. The area known as Karelia is now split on both sides of the border. The local culture is a fusion of both Russian and Finnish cultures and the Karelian language, which today is only spoken by the elderly, is closer to Finnish.


The villages in the Russian Karelia take you to the 1950´s.


After driving for 7 km we make a stop at a gas station called Kolmas and fill up the tank with diesel that costs around 0,56 euros per litre – about half the price in Finland. Inside the modern building there is a restaurant with plenty of Russian dishes on the menu that are affordable, although not very memorable. Judging by the cd covers clad with half-naked ladies, the clientele predominantly consists of males. I also spot elderly couples, who speak Finnish, and almost half of the license plates of the cars parked outside are registered in Finland.


Visiting a local artist


The Russian Karelia is a popular destination with the Finns who spent their childhood in the regions, many of them making a yearly pilgrimage to their home villages or cities like Vyborg, or Viipuri in Finnish, which was the second largest city in Finland before WW2. Karelia is not among the wealthiest areas in Russia, the good thing about it is, that the majority of the historical buildings have been spared from the modernisation period of the 1970´s, which saw a large-scale demolishment of traditional wooden buildings in the neighbouring Finland.

On the negative side, the historical buildings in Russian Karelia have seen little restoration and many of them are slowly decaying, now almost on the brink of collapsing. In some cases Karelia-loving Finns have come to rescue, sponsoring restoration projects for buildings like the Alvar Aalto designed library in Vyborg – a restoration project that took twenty years and cost eight million euros.




Situated along the road leading to Petrozavodsk some 36 km from the border is the village of Ruskeala, which before WW2 was still part of Finland. The village is best-known for it´s marble quarry that provided the marble for the St. Isaac´s Cathedral and the Marble Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Ruskeala Mountain Park opened in 2005, is a popular hiking and outdoor sports destination, visited by tens of thousands Russian tourists every year.

We pull into the mountain park parking lot, which is surrounded by cafés, restaurants and gift shops. The place reminds me of the Santa Claus Village in my home town of Rovaniemi during the 1980´s when the souvenir shops started popping up along the highway without much planning. The marble quarry is situated just next to the parking lot, it is now filled up with water and together with the surrounding rocky cliffs covered by spruce trees it makes up for a stunning scenery. We see hikers returning from the woods, but unfortunately haven’t got the time for a closer inspection.


The old marble quarry.


Leaving the Mountain Park behind, we drive a short section on a dirt road in the forest and end up in the front yard of a local house, where we are greeted by the sturdy and reserved landlord Valeriy Uvarov. He runs a rental cabin business with most guests arriving from different parts of Russia, but also from the neighbouring Finland. Valeriy gives us a guided tour showing us his rental cabins. After the tour he invites us for tea in the gazebo that is just outside of his datsa –styled unpainted, greying wooden house.


Disco Inferno


There are lit disco balls circling in the ceiling, a picture of Lenin on the wall and loud Russian techno pumping trough the speakers. While we’re sipping tea and eating biscuits Valeriy tells us of the ruins of a pre-WW2 Finnish water mill by the nearby Tohmajoki river that he owns. He says that he would like to rebuild the mill to it´s former glory – ”for good karma”, he adds.

He has tried to search the internet for historical photos of the old mill, but since he does not speak Finnish it has proved to be a difficult task. I promise Valeriy to do some archive-digging and send him the photos I find, so that he could fulfil his dream. Valeriy is a colourful character and it seems like he wants to do things his way and is not afraid to express his opinions. A good example of his DIY attitude is a sauna, which he has coated with wood blocks chopped with an axe.

After the tea break Valeriy takes us to see the Tohmajoki river and the mill site. We take the short cut and drive a rocky and steep tractor road down to the main road. It´s nice to get into some off-road terrain with the Syncro.


Nice to finally get off the asphalt


There is a modest cabin by the river and Valeriy tells us about his plans for fishing tourism in the area, which include restocking trout. The dark river flows silently by the wooden cabin and the old mill site just a stone’s throw a way. All that is left of the mill are a millstone and a piece of stone wall by the shore. If the mill would be rebuilt and the trout reintroduced to the river this would be unique site.


Valeriy overlooking the river and the fishing cabin.


We have to continue our journey and it begins to rain, which is followed by the setting sun and darkness, making the visibility even worse. The road sign system is subpar compared to what I am used to in Scandinavia and I manage to take a wrong turn during a road construction area, ending up in  a restricted area with trucks and caterpillars. I also quickly learn that slowing down considerably before a road bending sign is a good idea, since the bend can be almost 90 degrees. The highlight of the drive is witnessing a young brown bear running towards the woods in the beam of my headlights, it is the first time I have seen a bear in the wild.


 Petrozavodsk – an iron factory by lake Onego

As we approach Petrozavodskthe road turns into a modern highway, but Dmitriy is quick to point out that while this section of the road might be in prime condition, you have to keep an eye on the locals, who are taking full advantage of  the situation by putting the petal to the metal.

Once we reach the city we  head for the suburbs where Dmitri and his family have a spacious three-story house. The following morning Dimitriy´s wife Lena offers us a traditional breakfast with buckwheat porridge, milk, tea and cakes. Then it´s time for a quick tour in the city.

Petrozavodsk was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. It´s situated on the shore of lake Onego and was developed around an iron ore factory, after which the city was named (Zavod means factory in Russian.)

On the way to the city the backdrop varies from soviet-era concrete apartment buildings to recently finished shopping malls with neon-coloured international brand logos. According to Dmitriy the local real estate market is overheated and new apartment buildings are being built with such a quick pace that it is impossible to find buyers for all the new flats, resulting in empty buildings and housing areas.



Function over fashion: Soviet-era architecture.



City tour

After Dmitriy drops me off at the city centre I start the day by walking along the Prospekt Lenina, the main street that ends on the shore of the lake Onego.

The city seems similar to other Russian industrial cities with wide open streets and grandiose soviet-era architecture dominating the landscape.

Here and there you will still see traditional wooden buildings with a more human-like scale and aesthetics. Surprisingly there are also quite a few buildings that bring to mind St. Petersburg and Helsinki.


Pimp your ride – Russia edition.


A good example of this is the Kruglaya Square and the buildings surrounding it. It´s a round square with four buildings symmetrically placed around it. The city officials call it as “one of the most interesting examples of  18th century Russian provincial classicism in the city”. Whatever you call it, the buildings are strikingly similar to the architecture in St. Petersburg, a city, which was famously built by Peter the Great who wanted to build a Russian city that resembled European, and particularly Italian cities.


UAZ “Buhanka” – the legendary Russian off-road van, nick-named “loaf of bread”.


Interestingly the Kruglaya Square originally featured a statue of Peter the Great, which was taken down in the 1917 revolution and later replaced in 1933 with a statue of Lenin. The statue is still erect in the Square and I cannot resist the idea of taking a photo with a grey Lada in front of Lenin looking self-confidently in the horizon. I spot a military green UAZ van in the roundabout, the much-loved and reliable off-road vehicles you see very often here and elsewhere in Russia.


Soviet-nostalgia: Lenin and Lada.


All the walking has made me peckish and I decide to test the nearby Karelskaja Gornitsa, which Dmitriy has recommended. The restaurant is Karelian-themed, which means the staff is dressed as peasants from the turn of the 20th century and the decoration favours hand-carved wood and rock. Depending on your taste this can be delightful or kitch. The menu features both classics, such as Karelian pies and rarer dishes like bear meat.


For a Finn the experience can be confusing, you have dishes like Karelian Pies, which are regarded as “national food” in Finland and you’re in Russia in a region where they have an equally symbolic meaning. And it´s not just the dishes, you see heroes like Väinämöinenof the Finnish national epic Kalevala pictured on the walls of restaurants and shops.

It makes you truly understand how close the Finnish border was here before WW2 and also how culture never respects national borders. The fact that Karelian culture has such a big part in the national epic in Finland could have partly been the reason why during the so-called continuation war in 1941, Finland not only defended it´s existing borders, but also ventured further out in Russia and claimed new territories for the “Greater Finland”.


This resulted also in Finns taking over the city of Petrozavodsk and renaming it as Äänislinna (Lake Onego is called Ääninen in Finnish and Linna is fortress in Finnish). The Finns finally had to retrieve and ended up losing the war against Russia, resulting in having to not only give back the newly-claimed territories, but also important parts of the historical ones as well, including Vyborg – the then second-largest city of Finland.

The food in Karelskaja Gornitsa is really tasty and the price level very agreeable and I leave the place content. I continue my walk on the Prospekt Karla Marksa with the Lososinka and a park following it on the right-hand side. Some of the buildings bring Paris to mind with an elegant café on the street-level adding to the impression.


Street style in Petrozavodsk.



The park is called “Onezhkogo Traktornogo Zavodo”, which is a homage the Onezhsky tractor factory situated on the other side of the river. I visit the old factory site later with Dmitriy and discover a newly opened restaurant and bar – a clear sign of a gentrification process of the area. On the other side of the building, bull-dozers are finishing up tearing down the factory buildings and making way for a new housing area.


Factory leaving, residential area moving in.


Taking a left along Ulitsa Pushkinskya takes me to the shores of lake Onego, which on a cloudy winter day has a melancholic feel to it. There are only a handful people around: a kid on his scooter, a family feeding birds on the beach and a lonely man quietly sitting on a park bench looking to the lake horizon. The fleet of fishing ships and large cargo ships in the port give you an impression of the scale of the lake, of which only a small bay is visible. Driving around it would take a while on the small roads: the lake is  250 km long and in parts nearly 100 km wide.


Onego bay area.


All good things come to an end

It´s been an interesting visit, I have learned a lot about the unique Karelian culture and the rich history of the area. With the help of Lena and Dimitriy I have also learned a lot about the everyday life of in Russia – their hospitality has been very generous and they made me feel like home. Every good trip comes to an end though and now it´s time to get back home.

On the way back to the border I stop in the Kolatselga village, which is situated by a river and full of traditional wooden buildings with local Karelian ornaments. It´s a gorgeous site on cold and snowy day – it feels like a place where you could  shoot a historical film. Just after the bridge where the main road crosses the river is a scrubby-looking brick building with a sign saying “magazin”.


Kolatselga Cafe – a must stop.


It is home to a café, where a lot of travellers and buses stop, because of the delicious pies, pastries and buns. They are made by a local babushka, or granny who owns the place. She looks like she is in here 70´s or 80´s, she still speaks Finnish and tells me that the border before WW2 used to run just 7 kilometers from here, which is why the elderly still speak both languages. I take a cup of coffee and a vatrushka, a sweet bun with a quark filling.


Best pastries around.


Even though the area might not be doing that well economically, there is a unique atmosphere that takes you to another era- one that seems to be almost gone from the other side of the border. I keep thinking about a future road trip with the Syncro, circling the lake Ladoga, wild camping on it´s shores, fishing and swimming and stopping by the picturesque historical villages for provisions and coffee.




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