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Karelia: Land of a thousand lakes

Stepping out into the chill wind of a Karelian winter's day, Anatoliy Vasiljev's glasses cloud up with condensation. Behind him his wife Olga closes the door to their well-heated wooden cottage and begins clearing away a simple yet nourishing lunch of soup, bread and Karelian pirogi.

Karelia: Land of a thousand lakes
Lake Onega, Karelia. Image: Daniel Allen.

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“Here we drink tea an hour after the meal,” explains Vasiljev with a smile, fastening the collar on his thin jacket. “It’s a good excuse to come back to the house and warm up. When you’ve only got an outdoor toilet and there’s a blizzard blowing, you don’t want to take too much liquid on board, trust me.”

Of Russian nationality and Karelian ethnicity, 73-year-old Vasiljev has dedicated his retirement to the preservation of local culture. His village, Rubchoila, lies 50 miles west of Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia in northwest Russia, hard on the border with Finland.

“This land on which you are walking has been battled over for centuries,” explains Vasiljev, stopping outside the beautiful wooden cottage of one of his neighbours. “With its bountiful resources and strategic location, the Swedes, the Russians and the Finns have all coveted it.”

Covering more than 100,000sq miles (roughly the size of the UK), today the region of Karelia straddles the border between Russia and Finland. With its thousands of lakes and waterways, ancient wooden churches and pristine forests, this is one of Europe’s least known but most dramatic wildernesses.

Vasiljev stops his impromptu guided tour in the Rubchoila graveyard, partially covered by a stand of pine trees at the edge of the village. Below the snow-laden branches, the headstones are inscribed in both Finnish and Russian.

“In the Second World War this area was occupied by Finland for a few years,” says Vasiljev. “The Finns have always been passionate about Karelia and when they were forced to cede part of their Karelian territory to the Soviets in 1944 it was a bitter blow.”

Today, most of the Russian half of Karelia falls (somewhat confusingly) within the Republic of Karelia, with the city of Petrozavodsk as its capital. Connected by road and rail to St Petersburg, 265 miles to the south west, this surprsingly beautiful city sits on the shore of Lake Onega (Europe’s second-largest lake) and acts as the gateway to the Republic of Karelia for most Russians and Russian visitors.

After the border between Russia and Finland was opened in 1989, cross-border tourism and trade quickly took off. Over the past few years a number of cultural projects within the Republic of Karelia have received significant European Union funding, including one to preserve the region’s distinctive wooden architecture.

“The Republic of Karelia has many traditional wooden buildings, some of which date back hundreds of years,” explains Vasiljev. “During Soviet times these buildings were mostly neglected, and some even destroyed.”

Boasting one of the finest clusters of traditional Karelian wooden architecture anywhere, Rubchoila now has a new ethnocultural centre. Local villagers such as Vasiljev regularly don traditional Karelian clothing and teach tourists about life in the area’s pre-communist days.

“A place without a past has no future,” says the garrulous Russian. “Russia and Finland might still disagree about the future of Karelia. But that doesn’t change the fact that Karelian heritage is disappearing today. Cultural projects can bring nationalities and ethnicities closer.”