Soviet relics in Petrozavodsk

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Soviet relics in Petrozavodsk

Words and Images by Elizabeth Rushton

Before arriving in Petrozavodsk, one of the things I was most looking forward to was discovering more about the city’s history during the years of the Soviet Union, and what reminders of this time can still be seen. Having now been in the city long enough to explore it thoroughly, I’ve noticed several ways for history enthusiasts to observe Russia’s changing face over the last century.

One of the most obvious ways is through the actual faces of the statues around the city. Today, statues, monuments and memorials are all still used to convey revealing messages and values to the society they are situated in. As such, it’s no surprise that one of the statues closest to the city centre is one honouring Lenin, found at the centre of a roundabout near the city’s park and war memorials. Standing below it and looking up, you can only imagine how imposing statues just like this one contributed to the idolisation of Lenin in Soviet society and the impact this had on the psyche of Soviet citizens. More Communist idols can be found on the street named after Karl Marx, in the form of a statue of the man himself in deep conversation with Friedrich Engels. It’s interesting that statues such as these are presented without any sort of comment, perhaps indicating that simply a recognisable named figure is enough to make their presence and what they represent part of the average passer-by’s everyday normality.


A third statue of interest honours Sergey Kirov, a Bolshevik leader and victim of Stalin’s purges for whom the Mariinsky Ballet and Theatre was named in Soviet times. Similarly to Lenin’s, the monument stands in a grand spot where the eye is immediately drawn to it – at the centre of a square which also bears Kirov’s name, and precedes the magnificent Musical Theatre. This is a building which I find epitomises the neoclassical style of architecture popular under Stalin, prevalent in the centre of Petrozavodsk. Despite being built two years after Stalin’s death, the theatre is very much in keeping with this grand style – its exterior and immediate interior is all ornate pillars, shiny chandeliers and luxurious velvet. But the trusty hammer and sickle is never far away; it can be found on lampposts surrounding ploshchad Kirova, and on the walls either side of the stage inside the theatre’s auditorium.

Prospekt Karla Marksa also bears witness to neat, classical builds with ornate crests featuring proud stars and the hammer and sickle. Their frequency is food for thought as to the power that even small symbols have over the people who pass them every day – it’s easy to see how easily they can alter a person’s view of what normality means to them. This is a key idea within the Socialist Realist movement, which can be observed in the form of a mural above the main entrance to the pastel green 1940s building which is home to Karelia’s government. Beneath the Karelian bear, the mural displays soldiers fighting to defend their motherland, while other comrades work together in apparently harmonious cooperation, inspiring citizens to do the same.



Further up prospekt Lenina, more symbols of Socialist Realism can be observed on the façade of Petrozavodsk State University’s main building, another construction of the 1940s. As Soviet students arriving for class each day looked up at the building, they would have been reminded by the carvings of microscopes, books and torches of knowledge alongside more recognisable Communist symbols such as a sickle harvesting crops that their pursuit of knowledge was just as important to supporting their Marxist motherland and ensuring her future achievements as any worker’s role.

For a real life role model and figurehead of the achievements made possible by scientific research and technological prowess in the Soviet union, students and citizens alike only had to look up the road to Petrozavodsk’s train station, and the square in front of it. The square bears the name of Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, whose historic feat is memorialised in a plaque on the side of a relatively new addition to the city’s landscape – a clock tower installed in 2013 to mark the city’s 310th birthday, which is affectionately known as “Big Ben”. The station itself is also a classic of the Soviet brand of Neoclassicism, incorporating ornate crests and pillars alongside a stark spire with a hammer and sickle at its base and topped by a wreath and star which is clearly visible for some distance surrounding this part of the city centre.


This all exists in stark contrast with the architecture of the later Soviet era and the new symbols of today’s Russia which stand alongside them. Despite huge billboards advertising fancy new building projects in the city centre, travelling further out reveals a skyline of grey, concrete tower blocks. Mixed in with prospekt Lenina’s neoclassicism are two huge, shiny shopping centres, with another two close to the city centre – their presence is startling against a backdrop of symbols of a time, only a generation ago, when such rampant consumerism would have been unimaginable.


All things considered, it is incredible to walk around a relatively small part of this city but nevertheless see within it how many wildly different artistic and architectural styles, ideologies and influences have been daubed on the blank canvas of Russia’s landscape in its relatively recent history. One can only wonder too, what will we see next?


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Lenin and the lake: first impressions of Petrozavodsk


Lenin and the lake: first impressions of Petrozavodsk

By Elizabeth Rushton

The journey to Petrozavodsk is as straightforward and easy as its name is for anyone unfamiliar with it to pronounce. Just over a week ago, following a flight from Heathrow to St Petersburg, and meeting for the first time the rest of the small group of six comrades who are studying in Petrozavodsk this semester, we were swiftly led to a minivan, or маршрутка (marshrutka). This slightly dusty white stallion would be home for the next 5 hours, as we would attempt not just to rest and recover from the journey so far, but inevitably also to read a mini Russian dictionary cover to cover and put our minds to rest in the face of whatever might lie ahead.



Somewhere in the middle of Karelia

For those of us who had signed up to live at home with Russian volunteers, were we really ready to be thrust into having to communicate solely in Russian with native speakers? If not, wouldn’t the whole thing be uncomfortable as hell? And what would they even be like – as cold as the notorious Russian winter and hard as the boots worn to persevere through it? What if they turned their nose up at my humble offering of Tiptree jam, for who could want such a thing when you have mighty Russian compote? What if we froze to death in the winter (even in late August the chilly temperature in St Petersburg, which only grew more so as we travelled north towards Petrozavodsk, was immediately noticeable)? BEARS?!??

However, I can happily report that the next day came, and having been welcomed by my wonderful host Marina, I felt assured that most of the above questions were no cause for concern (I will, however, still be on the lookout for bears). After meeting our teachers and the staff at the Petrozavodsk State University, our academic home until December, we were ready to immerse ourselves in this city still largely unknown to us.


Petrozavodsk State University

One of the things I found myself looking out for first of all was references to Russia’s not too distant Soviet past. To my great interest and satisfaction, visual reminders of this time are clear and plentiful in Petrozavodsk. One only needs to venture just outside of the city centre, past the city’s train station resplendent with a star atop its distinctive spire, to see the stark tower blocks so synonymous with Soviet housing loom into view.


Russia's answer to The Shard and it's got a star on it and everything

If you head further into the centre from the train station on ploshchad Gagarina, down the main street, prospekt Lenina, and then turn right down ulitsa Engelsa (spot a theme here?), then it is here that the biggest remnant of the past can be found – a statue of Lenin himself, standing at a stone podium and leaning keenly forwards with cap in hand, as though still trying to passionately impart his message to pedestrians and drivers on the roundabout below him after almost a century. Lenin is surrounded by pleasant parks, and neo-classical buildings which are reminiscent of the architecture of Petrozavodsk’s better known neighbour, St Petersburg. It’s a great contrast to prospekt Lenina, where parts of the pavement have been dug up or dirtied with soil or cement in the process, and where you can also find a few small sink holes which are marked off in a minimalistic way that would surely make any British health and safety inspector feel faint at the sight.


Здравтствуйте, товарищи!

Continuing down prospekt Lenina leads you past abundant shops and cafes, as well as shopping centres and fast food outlets, including a KFC situated in a building unlike any other KFC – a gorgeous former cinema built in the Stalin era. “I guess they thought young people prefer chicken over movies.” our teacher remarks when we express surprise at the building’s former use.


KFC or Кинотеатр?

However once you have passed these symbols of revelry in a capitalist system once unimaginable here, you arrive at Lake Onega, where I feel the key to the city’s soul really lies. Onega doesn’t feel as much like a lake as a monumental expanse of water leading to the ocean, and its size should not be underestimated – it has a surface area of 9,700km2 compared to Petrozavodsk’s 135km2, meaning it dwarves the city at over 70 times its size. As a result, the land you can see in the distance when you look out over this vast expanse is not the other side, but one of the many small islands which rest in the lake.

Petrozavodsk is the capital city of the Republic of Karelia, a land of silvery birch trees and woody marshland – the wild outdoors forms a large part of what makes this place what it is. This wild side is something I hope to explore and learn more about, as well as Karelia’s shared culture between Russia and Finland. Petrozavodsk (or Petroskoi as it will be known to any Finnish readers) has born witness over the centuries to the two countries disputing over Karelian territory. The Karelia Suite, one of the most famous and popular works of Finland’s most loved composer, Jean Sibelius, is testament to the Finnish connection to this place, with themes of nationalism and traditional folk music running through it.


I could get used to this view

Around the periphery of the lake more visual reminders of the city’s past can be found – one of its most recognisable landmarks, the wire sculpture of two fishermen flinging their nets out to the lake, serves as a reminder of one of the main local industries, which also forms the backbone of Karelian food culture. Industry has always had an important role to play in Petrozavodsk – its name in fact means “Peter’s factory” after Peter the Great founded the city in September 1703 to be the location of artillery factories to support the growth of St Petersburg, the city he had founded just over 3 months before. A statue of Peter near the dock on the lake marks the spot where he ordered the first settlement to be built.


Lake Onega - where will it end?

My first week in Petrozavodsk began started as one of the scariest times of my life, with my head filled with so many doubts about what it would be like living in a city I had never been to, with people I had never met, and communicating in a language I am far from fluent in. However, as I near the end of my second week, I couldn’t be more excited for what I still have to discover in this city, as well as all the experiences I will have which I hope will not just take place in Petrozavodsk itself, but also in the Karelian wilderness that surrounds it. I’m in at the deep end, but I can’t wait to go deeper.