Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Карелии (De Karelia)

Карелии  (De Karelia)

Written 13 July 2013 on the train from Belomorsk back to SPB about our excursion of Karelia, also with some edits from the 29th.

Day 0 and 1:

On Tuesday July 9th we took an overnight train from SPB to Petrozavodsk, the capital city of Karelia. SPB is not technically in Karelia, but rather is nestled just to the south/southwest of this state-like region. SPB is in what is called the Leningrad Oblast, next to the Republic of Karelia. It’s been difficult to try and explain the difference to my family between Oblast and Republics as they are both part of Russia, but do not equally translate to state, province, or anything we know. It doesn’t help that I don’t entirely know the difference either, although I have enough of an understanding. American readers: Just know they are geo-political regions within the country of Russia.

Petrozavodsk was established by Peter the Great in 1703, the same year as SPB, as a mining city to help him get the iron he needed. It is located on the shores of Lake Onega, which is dwarfed by Lake Ladoga, but is still immensely vast and many still refer to it as “like a sea.” We arrived relatively early, but had to wait for the group from Moscow to arrive to start our excursion. While we waited, Daria, Erik, and I wandered the city looking for coffee/snacks/looking at places near the train station not finding much since things didn’t open until 10am. However, we found some Mountain Dew in a grocery store and thus surprised Matt with his favorite soda. The excursion began with a quick breakfast at our hotel (but did not check in), and then was followed by a tour of the city seeing the main square (Lenin’s Square), the ruins of the old manufacturing plant from the Soviet Era, some art along the shoreline, and other main monuments of the city. We also saw the old gubernatorial gardens, which suffered greatly a few decades back to the point where they were not used and then they had to work hard to restore them so that people could enjoy the park as it neared the 300th anniversary. Since then the gardens have been much more accommodating. The city itself is named as “Peter’s manufacturing plant” Zavod, being like a plant or factory.

Our check-in around lunchtime had a few hang-ups, mostly on my end where I didn’t have my family give the migration cards, only their passports, to the receptionist. I also didn’t give my visa and so in the evening I had to finish my own registration by supplying all the proper documents. Oops.

In the afternoon we took a boat 68km out to the famous island Kizhi where although there are still residents, there is also a famous open-air museum where we could see wooden churches and other structures from the 15th-early 20th centuries. All the structures were originally built without nails and while many came from the surrounding countryside and rebuilt on the island for the museum, the main church was not was originally built on that island. Actually it consists of two main churches, a winter and a summer, along with the belfry and they are intentionally built so that from various angles they sometimes look like one structure. There we also had the pleasure of seeing a man use an ax to chisel the wooden tiles used to make the onion domes (no saws were used either, only axes – quite impressive). We bought some souvenir tiles with paintings on them. My mom also bought a necklace made from beads where a couple thousand beads are used on a single string and then the single string is crocheted to make a patterned necklace. It was almost lost art, but a few people rediscovered the craft and now 4 people know how to make it, and they are teaching others to help revive the craft.

My cousin Matt and I stayed up quite late that evening having a couple beers and watching the sky become darker, but never quite dark, and just catching up after a few years of not seeing each other. It was a good conversation, but quite late.

Day 2:

They told us the water from Lake Onega was very soft. Our showers proved this to be quite true and our hair felt great. J

We merged with another group for day 2 and took a bus to some protected forest, where our new guide was quite garrulous and while she gave lots of information, it might have been nice to give us more time seeing the forest and waterfalls at Kivach. Kivach, a local Karelian word not of Russian origins, is the second largest “plain waterfall” in Europe. It was truly beautiful to behold.

Some of the more interesting information that was passed along, although the manner could have been better, is that the Karelian birch is extremely valuable. It differs from other Russian birch with a thicker bark and a harder, sturdier wood. This birch was preferred by the Russian court and aristocracy for making furniture and floors in the palaces among other things and could be found in the Winter and Summer palaces of SPB. The pines in the area are also harder, compared to the softwood that most pines are, and therefore it was also considered more valuable thus why Russia struggled so hard to keep Karelia rather than let the Finns or the Swedes have it.

We also visited a museum in Medvezhegorsk, or “Bear Mountain” where we learned about the Great Terror of Stalin, the gulags, and the building of the Baltiskiy-Belomorsk Canal. It took only 19 months to build the Canal, but there was an average of about 800 deaths per day (from starvation, exhaustion, disease, and other reasons) of the prisoners and they would just ship in more people to continue the construction. The Great Terror is an example to me of why this was not really an example of socialism or communism despite the name, and truly just an example of tyranny. Socialism is the government controlling commerce and production, but it does so in the name of supporting the people like what can be found in many European countries today, or at least partial socialism is found. Communism is meant to equalize the people and everyone works together toward the betterment of the community. The Great Terror was Stalin killing off the community instead of working to help the people. Wasn’t part of the whole revolution to liberate the peasants from the oppression of the ruling class? Someone forgot to mention that to Stalin.

Later in the afternoon/evening we saw some petroglyphs about 20km from Belomorsk (city on the White Sea) that date back about 6000 years. We were eaten alive by mosquitos, but it was worth it to see such beautiful carvings in the granite and learn about the people from that time. When we were walking, I told Matt that the mosquitos weren’t as bad as what we had a few weeks ago. Then we crossed a small river and the pests increased 100 fold. Yeah, they were definitely as bad if not a little worse. Another tally on my mistakes list. The petroglyphs had actually been covered by forest and sandy soil and were discovered in the 1920s when they started to do some construction in the area. There was one from a different location that some locals knew about, but they were afraid of it thinking it was an evil omen (although now scientists believe it to be something like a “king of the forest”), but most were hidden away. They don’t really know what they mean, perhaps teaching the next generation how to hunt/live, but they did some really incredible work and many scientists from different places around the world are still there trying to decipher the pictographs. Daria did most of the translating throughout this whole trip, but I have been helping where I can and the petroglyph site was where my role stepped up a little bit. There was one petroglyph that I listened to that Daria didn’t and I felt good for getting most of the info on that one and passing it along to my family.

We ended the day checking into the only hotel in Belomorsk (pop. About 11,000 drastically down from about 30k in the 1980s). Before dinner a girl probably about 15-17 years old came up to us on her bike and spoke to Daria (after first calling her out on being the translator of the group). She told us how glad she was that we were visiting her city since so few people visit it, especially foreigners. Her smile and thumbs up beamed with a happiness that is rarely seen among locals to visitors that she put “Southron Hospitality” to shame. The city itself is definitely half abandoned and in disrepair. Daria, Erik, and I went on an after dinner stroll on which we got a good glimpse of what the house life was like. I honestly have no words to describe this, only that this city showed me a completely different side of Russia than I knew, and probably one more accurate to the rest of the country once you leave the major cities. I do have to point out that while the days are getting shorter in St. Petersburg, sunset in Belomorsk was at 11.58pm and sunrise was roughly 3.30am (I didn’t look up the official sunrise so I can’t say the exact minute) and that is about 3 weeks after the solstice.

Day 3:
A little panic in the morning since our bus driver didn’t wake up and we had a boat to catch caused our guide to order taxis. My family therefore learned the joke about how in Russia a sober driver is weaving (to avoid the potholes) while a drunk driver drives straight. We caught our boat and went off to the large island of Solovyetsky where we visited the monastery and museum. The monastery is located 100km south of the Arctic Circle and is the farthest north any of us have been.

The monastery itself was established around 1500 by a monk who was banished from the monastery on Valaam on an island in Lake Ladoga. The walls surrounding the monastery look more like a medieval kremlin than a regular monastery and were made in a pentagon rather than a quadrangle because of the shape of the island and the need to defend itself. Some walls of the buildings inside (not the protection) are up to 4 meters thick and the heating system of building ventilation in the bricks reminds me of what I learned about classical Roman architecture and heating where holes are intentionally made in the brickwork so that heat from fires below the building rise into the walls to help heat the building. They also had an underground stream between Holy Lake and Good Landing Bay (seriously the translations of the names), which they connected to the mill and laundry system. Unfortunately the monastery also became the “religious” gulag during Stalin’s Great Terror, and it’s where they placed many religious prisoners from other monasteries and churches before slaughtering most of them in 1937 (some were fortunate – or unfortunate- to live a few years longer and one until the 1960s). Other fascinating facts include a holy saint from there who refused to absolve Ivan the Terrible who was later transferred to a Siberian prison before his own execution (Ivan clearly hadn’t repented and therefore didn’t deserve absolution). The monastery is both a museum and functioning monastery and is undergoing a lot of repairs. A short distance away is a labyrinth, which if we understood correctly is about 6000 years old, but is clearly upkept and I doubt has any of the original rocks. Unlike other religious places that were converted into museums or preserved for various reasons, Solovetsky Monastery suffered a lot of damage at the hands of the Soviets and is now being re-birthed (as the sign says –more loosely translated as Ressurected). It also suffered from attacks from the British during the Crimean War despite being so far away from Crimea or anywhere else the British might have attacked at that point.

One of the things we learned at the petroglyphs is that the White Sea is far more rough than it looks. The waves appear small, and the black water (probably the same color as the Black Sea and the BS gets its name from the color of the water, whereas the WS gets its same because it’s frozen most the year and thus appears white) looks calm. Despite this appearance, the water was rough and I could easily see how smaller vessels would capsize quickly. I wonder, but do not have an answer, of whether more goods were taken to the island during the summer with vessels that probably made it there in a day, or during winter with sleighs and skis over a couple days (although I have no idea how rough the winter weather is there either). Also speaking of weather, according to our guide the monastery sees about 22 good sunny days a year. The rest of the summer is rainy and damp, fall and spring are short and wet, and the winter long, dark, and cold. We got one of those days I guess.

As for the train today, it’s a 15-hour journey, and at one of the stops we bought some berries from a local person, including cloud berries/mulberries, which none of us had tried. They are definitely different and we don’t know how to describe them. Because of their strangeness, none of us are diving into the cup, but we’re not rejecting them either. However, the blueberries and raspberries were devoured quickly. They were a little pricey and although we could have haggled down the price, we decided it was better to help stimulate the local economy.

I would like to say this journey has been good for my Russian practice as I’ve had to use it a lot more than I normally do. Much of it has been the same of asking how much something costs, or how much time we have for this or that, but sometimes it has varied. However, it has still been really good for my speaking and my listening to be on this trip as I have had a lot more opportunities to use my Russian outside of the classroom and more into real-world experiences, including buying the berries and ice-cream from peddlers on the train platform.

Pictures will be forthcoming and there will be many more descriptions of the journey along with the pictures.

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