Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Sordavala (Sortavala) is a run-down industrial town in the northeast of Ladoga Karelia. It is god-forsaken country, forlorn, forgotten and foreboding. Visitors pass through but do not stay. They come here mainly to take the ferry to the famous monastery on the island of Valamo. There is not much to see even though the town’s population of about 21,000 makes it the second largest in Karelia. The railway line west to Viborg (Viipuri) was opened in 1893 and extended east to Joensuu (in Finland) the following year. The railway contributed to rapid industrialisation of the town. The train station was built in the mid 1890s close to the harbor, where the ferry departs to Valamo.
A jewel of a railway station

Like the visitor, time too passes this city by. However, in passing it has left behind some architectural pearls, which poverty, poor maintenance and decades of disregard cannot completely hide. So we wandered despondently through this grim town with eyes wide-open.

Little has changed since the 1930s. Some factories still run, others stand idle and we saw few new ones. A new, clean restaurant next to the train station and ferry caters with its relative elegance to the passer-by but was always empty – except for us. The railway station appears abandoned but is not: old trains still run but infrequently. Few people are in the streets. The young leave the periphery to get closer to Russia’s centre. Those who remain are old and often request alms. In a large open-air market place, pensioners conduct a slow commerce in odds and ends.

The many wooden houses built in the town during the late 18th and the 19th centuries are characterised by simple elegance, an elegance that has fared badly due to poor maintenance. Many houses, once jewels of late nineteenth century architecture, have collapsed. Others appear ready to do so soon if measures are not taken. Cast an eye on the former Teachers’ Seminar on Socialistkaya Street (formerly Seminar Street) in Sordavala, built in 1864. It was in use as a high school until about 2006 and then abandoned.
Soon lost forever

For about five years now the homeless have found shelter in it from the elements. But the roof is caving in, so even these unfortunates will soon have no use for the building. The inability of Communism to maintain real estate combined with the disregard of militant revolutionaries for cultural values are putting an unmerciful end to the simple elegance of this house.
The homeless now sleep where classes once were held

But things can get worse!  Consider the wooden building below: it lies in the very centre of Sordavala, apparently not worth either repairing or tearing down. Does the realtors’ slogan that ‘location is all’ apply here? Yes, indeed! The house is in the centre of town, but the town is in the centre of nowhere!
A central location in nowhere

The Municipality has kept some wood buildings in use and maintained them reasonably well. An example is the old Town Hall (Stadshuset, Kaupungintalo) in Sordavala.
The Town Hall in Sordavala has kept up appearances

Designed by the architect F. A. Sjöström, this graceful house was built in 1885. It serves today as the municipal library and its modern IT room is in sharp contrast to the building’s fading neoclassical elegance. But at least it is still in use (although we were the only ones there checking our e-mail) and has been reasonably well maintained.
... with a librarian hard at work

Another wood building that has survived the Soviet era is the office of the Forestry Services in Sordavala, designed by Alvar Åkerman and built in 1900 as a private home. Eventually it served as a travelers’ hostel (Resandehem Päivölä). For some reason the Forestry Services were able to restore and maintain the house. As Mother would say: Where there is a will, there is always a way! 
A carpenter's delight saved by the Forestry Services

The municipal authorities are currently renovating the Winter House (Winterin talo) in Sordavala to house a museum for the area. This commendable but modest endeavour is not yet successfully completed. The Town Doctor of Sordavala (stadsläkare, kaupunginlääkari) Gustaf Johannes Winter (1886-1929) lived in this graceful home. The house was designed by the Architect of Viborg County Karl Waldemar Allan Schulman (1863-1937) and built in 1900. Winter was a man of taste and wealth and latter commissioned Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) to design his summer house on Lake Ladoga some 20 km down the road. We plan to find it, so keep posted!
The Winter house in summer

The fire station (Paloasema) in Sordavala was built a few years before, in 1888. The building with a characteristic look-out tower was designed by the architect Ivar Aminoff (1843-1926) and was restored to its original use in 1995. This architectural style was characteristic of the last years of the Grand Duchy.
The fire station keeps a look-out

Wandering in the heart of Sordavala we came upon an early example of a completely different style: Finnish Modernism. Built in 1926, the Wegelius House (Wegeliuksen talo) was designed by the architect Kaarlo Borg (1888-1939), the father of the famous opera singer Kim Borg. It now serves as a restaurant where a young cliental clad with incongruous elegance sweeps in and out.
Modernism in Sordavala

The stone buildings built during the Finnish era in the centre of Sordavala have fared better than the wooden houses. Consider the building constructed in 1915 for the Bank of Finland. Designed by the Viborg architect Uno Ullberg (1879-1944), its national romanticism recalls Ferdinand Boberg’s (1860-1946) imposing buildings in Stockholm. We felt right at home. Ullberg was later to become, as we shall see, a pioneering modernist.
Once the Bank of Finland in Sordavala

The Bank of Finland was established five decades before Finland’s independence. The Grand Duchy of Finland had established its own Central Bank and introduced its own currency in the 1860s (having continued to use Swedish currency after the separation in 1809). Note that the initials on each gatepost in front of the building - FB (Finlands Bank) and SP (Suomen Pankki) – represent the Bank’s name in Finland’s two administrative languages at the time. The building now serves as an office for The Russian National Bank (Bank Rossija).

Two magnificent schools were built in Sordavala in 1894. Designed by the architect Johan Jacob Ahrenberg (1847-1914), the lyceum for girls remains an impressive institution. That Ahrenberg studied architecture in Stockholm is apparent to any Stockholmer of my generation, who studied in similar structures. Also the lyceum for boys is well maintained and still in use as an educational facility. They reflect the importance that the Finnish authorities attached to education already at that time.
Lyceum for girls in Sordavala - a fountain of learning!

Leaving Sordavala we passed through Pitkäranta on our way to Salmi, on the old border to Russia. Pitkäranta was another grim industrial town on the Northeastern coast of Lake Ladoga but one with few hidden pearls. The Public School (Folkskola, Kansakoulu) in Uusikylää, just outside Pitkäranta, was one. It was built in the modernist style of the interwar period. During the Soviet era it was converted into a Camp for Young Pioneers and maintained in reasonably good shape for five decades.
Finnish modernism still stands

However, after 1991 the Pioneer Camp was abandoned and the building is now subject to the elements of nature and the vandalism of man. Remains of statues of the communist system’s Young Pioneers lie scattered in the park.
Fallen idols

It is difficult to have much sympathy for this kitschy art, but nevertheless sad to observe the lack of concern by the general public and by the authorities. The pace of destruction quickens each year. Does no one care about the public space? Do the generations born here have no feeling for what it should consider as its home? Or do they feel alienated even though born here? An elderly gentleman, scavenging wood from the site, explained to us that all the problems started with Perestroika. Such oversimplifications do not help.
Can I find something useful here?

While the Finnish era's buildings had stood up well to the test of time, we were stunned to see how rapidly buildings built during the Soviet era had deteriorated. Many industrial buildings in Pitkäranta stand empty. On the outskirts of town, an industrial compound had been built in the 1980s. Among other buildings it contained a chemistry factory finished just in time for the Soviet Union’s collapse. It has stood unused and empty since then. Now, twenty years later, it is rapidly on its way to becoming yet another ruin.
No sooner built, than unused!

As we paused in Pitkäranta, we reflected over these planning mishaps of the communist system. What a wonderful illustration, we thought, of the importance of institutions! Imagine for an instance that this region were under another institutional regime – say one characterised by a market economy, democratic government and membership in the EU. I wager that this once key-ready building would be a hive of profitable activity in no time!

Pitkäranta, a symbol of the fate of all Finnish Karelia, haunted us. A run-down town where statues of socialism’s heroes standing in front of empty factories, where old men loiter in the streets which the young have abandoned, where residents lack both a past and a future. No wonder that few care that litter is everywhere. The basic principle of waste disposal seems to be:  dispose anything, anywhere, anyhow. Beer cans and vodka bottles are strewn about the streets and in the parks. There is no deposit-return system. Man and wind scatter scrap paper everywhere. Though forbidden, livestock and poultry farms outside St. Petersburg dump animal manure and corpses on the Isthmus where they soon leach into the Bay of Finland. Few seem to care about the well-being or appearance of common places. Therefore, the municipal dump outside Pitkäranta amazed but did not surprise us as we drove by.
Garbage collection in Pitkäranta

Seventy years of Soviet and Russian administration has turned a pastoral paradise into an industrial wasteland: abandoned factories, fallow land and run-down towns. Can a paradise lost be regained?  Perhaps, but at a huge cost! Is there an institutional capacity and political will to do this?  Not currently. Will the current regime ever change? Next, we turn to history to see if it can help us answer this question.  


  1. Dear Per,
    this new blog Chapter deals with an intriguing town, this town of Sortavala. A sad story of decay it entails, indeed! However, ambling through this decaying city got me thinking: where else in the world can you see such an abundance of wood houses more than 100 years old? Certainly not in Swedish or Finnish towns of today! Worn down and in sad shape they may be, the most of them, but, at least, they are still with us. Whereas, in our "advanced" societies, they are mostly gone, replaced by shopping centers and commercial or public office buildings, not to speak of freeways and enlarged city infrastructure. So let's enjoy the views while they last and before all those houses have crumbled down!

  2. Dear Per and Emil, Thank you so much for your blog! What an important work you are doing, transmitting to all of us a glimps of what there still remains to be seen of the Karelia that once was there. Captivating story telling and so eloquent pictures. Congratulations!
    I look forward to receiving the next instalments. Best regards, Hannu

  3. En litterärt avancerad och underbart romantisk text med vackra och skrämmande bilder. Vad har de gjort med Karelen!
    Du Per och jag lärde känna varandra på allvar som studenter på nationalekonomiska institutionen vid Stockholms högskola. Året var 1961 och i november inträffade notkrisen. Gromyko, Sovjetunionens utrikesminister, meddelade att Sovjet ville ta upp militära konsultationer enligt Vänskaps- och biståndspakten. Detta kunde innebära stationering av sovjetiska militära förband på finskt territorium, dvs. i praktiken ockupation. Jag hade nyss fått min officersfullmakt och konstaterade att jag sannolikt skulle bli inkallad till förhöjd beredskap eller rentav partiell mobilisering och att krig kanske inte kunde uteslutas. Du svarade allvarligt att det inte var orimligt att vi fick kämpa och dö för Finland efter alla krig där finnar kämpat och dött för vår skull. Jag upptäckte att det fanns en jämnårig med samma romantiska förhållningssätt till Finland som jag själv.
    Därför, tack Per för att du skildrar detta Waste land så poetiskt. För T S var det april, för dig var det nu juni, men stämningen är till dels den samma.
    APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.

    I själva verket är det ju du som på detta bitterljuva sätt får syrener att blomma i Karlens förödda land och blandar minnen och längtan till en känsloupplevelse. Jag blir alltmer romantisk och löjeväckande sentimental med stigande ålder och läser därför din text med stor rörelse.

    PS. Det visade ju sig sedan att notkrisen inte var ett militärt hot utan bara en smutsig sovjetisk inblandning i ett demokratiskt grannlands politiska liv. Sovjetunionen ville krossa Honkafronten och säkra Kekkonens återval, vilket också lyckades. Därför kunde vi senare skämta om frågan. Jag brukade hävda att medan jag bara ville återförena de båda rikshalvorna inklusive Karelen, var du också ute efter Ingermanland och Kexholms län. Men du ger oss i alla fall Karelen i våra hjärtan, Kalevalaland.
    Hälsningar Nils