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.
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.