06 February 2008

Petrozavodsk, a Little Slice of Scandinavia in Russia (Travelogue)

I am a huge fan of Karelia, the region northeast of St. Petersburg of which Petrozavodsk (called Petroskoi in Karelian) is the capital. Or a huge fan in theory, anyway – since we were there in January, we didn't get to see too much of the region's famed beautiful nature, or Kizhi Island. But it's home to the Karelians, a Finno-Ugric people (though there aren't too many of them around anymore – the Finns sided with the Nazis in World War II, so there was a lot of fleeing/deportation to Siberia), and I love random minority cultures/languages. Plus, we got to see at least a little nature in Petrozavodsk, in the form of Lake Onega, one of the world's largest lakes (though by no means as large as, say, Baikal or the Great Lakes). And Petrozavodsk itself was a pretty, cozy little capital that really did give me a weird Twilight Zone feeling that I was half in Russia, half in Scandinavia.

Shout-out to geology folks – Petrozavodsk boasts a lovely, if well-hidden, Pre-Cambrian Geology Museum, the surprise highlight of our two-day stay. It's in the Academy of Sciences, and you have to ask for someone to take you up to the fifth floor and let you in. They did so for us, and then some: a geologist from the Academy (Russian scientific research is conducted not at universities, but by the government-backed, nationwide Academy of Sciences) gave us an almost-two-hour tour! He was very careful to explain things thoroughly, since neither Amara nor I is a geologist. I did have one semester of geology, and some stuff came back to me during the tour, but I was still glad he kept it simple, since I was having to deal with Russian geology terms like месторождение, which looks like it should mean "birthplace" (место = place, рождение = birth) but actually means "mineral deposit." He never figured out - or never let on to figuring out - that we weren't Russian. Besides being oh-so-kind and accommodating, he was also adorable – probably 65 or 70, and no taller than I am. All in all, we were really glad we went, considering we did so kind of as a joke.

Me posing awkwardly with the particular type of quartz sandstone that's native to the area. It was used in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow and St. Isaac's Cathedral in Petersburg.

I don't have pictures from these, but Petrozavodsk also has an ok art museum and a very good regional history museum. The regional history museum has an exhibit on the Finno-Karelian saga, the Kalevala, that appears to be best viewed while on psychedelic drugs. At least I assume that would improve it. It was way trippy. According to the exhibit notes, it was supposed to "affect not visitors' minds, but their senses." Right. There were also less-trippy exhibits of Karelia's abundant prehistoric cave drawings, and a huge collection of stuffed animals (taxidermy, not teddy bears), where we learned all sort of new words for animals, from loons and auks to otters and wolverines.

Let's see, what else does Petrozavodsk have? Well, being on the shore of Lake Onega (whence the name of Pushkin's character Eugene Onegin), it has a long shoreline park with a bunch of sculptures, many donated by sculptors from PZ's sister cities around the world. The weather was nice and the park interesting, so we spent a lot of time there. The lake was frozen, but a friendly local warned us that going out on it like all the ice fishermen were doing was probably at least a little dangerous, so we didn't.

The view down the lakeshore path.

"Whisper a wish" - a wishing-tree sculpture. Hopefully it understood the wish I whispered in English!

"The Fishermen," by a sculptor from somewhere in Minnesota.

Amara looked like a lion when she posed with this sculpture. I'm a little too short to look like a lion.

It also has a street named for and monument to Yuri Andropov, the last [edit: second-last] Soviet leader before perestroika. Apparently there were protests when the monument was unveiled in 2005, so Amara and I decided to show Andropov a little love (to the amusement of a passing elderly gentleman).

All in all, it was a very nice town. The café and restaurant scene was surprisingly good for such a small city – we even ate at a slightly touristy, overpriced but delicious Karelian restaurant, which had many reindeer meat offerings which we did not try, plus traditional Karelian savory pastries filled with millet which we did. (They were delicious, even though pastries filled with grain does seem a little odd.) With lots of trees and the lake right near the center of town, I can see how it'd be great in summer. I'd really like to go back and see more of the surrounding area; hopefully I'll somehow get a chance.

[Edit: Thanks to Seth for pointing out my mistake about Andropov, nit-picky though it may have been!]


Seth said...

Not to be a dick, but Konstantin Chernyenko was technically the last Soviet leader before Gorbachev. He died quickly after being named head of the party.

Leslie said...

Why else?

I'll give you your "nit-picking blog reader of the week" award next time I'm in Rostov.

Celine said...

Hey Leslie!

Sounds like you had a good time in Petrozavodsk. Back to the day job I assume? Good luck with that and keep on writing!


Anonymous said...

Again, I am insanely jealous. Here's an interesting experience I had though: I covered a convoy to Babylon yesterday, and got to see the ruins from the air. Oh, guess who the convoy commander was? Eric Gentzel. Small world! Love you.