Tuesday, September 13, 2011


June is the coolest month. Cuckoo birds sing in the light nights and blooming lilacs fill the air with their fragrance. Yellow meadows and green forests blend with blue lakes. Enchanted, we drove in silence through magical scenery. Not until we passed an abandoned cottage on Lake Ladoga did we realize that something was wrong: we were alone.
Lonely on Lake Ladoga
No other cars were on the road. No farmers were working the fields. No boats were on the lakes. This rural landscape was deserted. We passed through empty villages. We stopped by a meadow, which at a distance had appeared covered by the yellow bloom of rape plants (canola), only to discover that it was a field of dandelions. Their extensive root systems had taken over fields left uncultivated for decades. Never before had we seen such huge dandelions! In a remarkable role reversal, nature was now taming culture. Wherever we looked, wild desolation met the eye.

Dandelions take over the fields
The peace treaty concluded with the Soviet Union after 1944 created a desert. More than 400 000 Finns had been forced by the two wars to leave Karelia. Mostly farmers, they lived in rural areas. Almost as many moved in from the Soviet Union but they settled mainly in the towns, leaving the rural areas empty. Farmers who left for Finland burned their modest farmhouses upon leaving. Some houses remained, slowly ravaged by time, such as this one in Pitkäranta. For a short time it had been used by a collective farm for honey processing but was now abandoned. A lone lady harvested some roadside nettles, perhaps to make soup for that evening.
Waste not, want not!
The Soviets established a few collective farms (Kolkhozes) in the countryside, with characteristic white brick apartment houses and barns for livestock and poultry. These farms were abandoned after the Soviet Union self-destructed in 1991 and most of the buildings are already in ruins.

A Kolkhoz self-destructs

When the USSR annexed this prosperous territory, it introduced centralised planning and re-introduced serfdom. When the Soviet system collapsed people grabbed what they could. Useful building material in the kolkhozes was quickly pilfered by the former farm workers and live cattle slaughtered and consumed.
An empty stable in a once rich farmland
The Government built a number of military bases in Karelia. After the break-up of the USSR many of these bases were abandoned. The local population removed windows and roofs for private use, exposing the buildings to rapid deterioration. We passed one base close to Kurkijoki and admired a mural depicting army life, wondering for a moment whether it was graffiti or propaganda. Exposed to the elements, it is unlikely to last long.
Social realism or graffiti?
We drove through a maze of abandoned barracks in various stages of disarray. A pile of debris signaled to passers-by that this was a free-for-all where first-come was first-served. If you don’t pilfer it, someone else will. This was the basic rule of Soviet socialism: what’s yours is ours and what is ours is mine.
End-game for a baracks
In the rural wilderness we stumbled upon a Public School (Folkskola, Kansakoulu) built in 1938 during the Finnish era, a typical example of functionalism in public buildings. It once served a thriving farming community. Now it was the only building standing in a radius of several miles. Although probably empty since 1944, it appeared to be in sufficiently good shape to merit renovation and be put back into use today. But no pupils live in the vicinity any longer.
Finnish functionalism stands firm

Only a few buildings from the Finnish era were still in use in rural areas. One of them was a large stone house on the Northeastern shore of Lake Ladoga, built in 1938 by the prominent pharmacist Jääskeläinen. During the Soviet era it was the rest home of the Moscow composers’ union. Thereafter, it was put to other uses. When we passed, it was up for sale and will probably soon be converted into a hotel. Its guest book could probably fetch a higher price than the building itself!
A harmonious rest home?
Rural Karelia was not only an occupied country but also an abandoned country. For anyone with some historical knowledge, seeing the current desolation of Karelia is a freightening revelation. An economist can dismally note that the systemic change (from market to planned economy) in 1944 has acted as a time machine, transporting Karelia back about 100 years in time. Living standards today are little better than then, as is industrial capital and technology. The buildings that had survived from Finnish times and were still standing in 1944 had, if cared for, stood up well. While buildings built after 1944 and ‘maintained’ with Soviet technology were often in worse shape.

The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rational thinking, gave us the optimistic expectation that human existence gets better with time. A trip to Karelia provides a more pessimistic view, revealing as it does the devastating power of irrational thinking. Here, the golden age lies many decades in the past, indeed before we were born. Everything was better then. Overwhelmed by the nostalgia of old men, mixing memory with desire, we left the countryside behind us and headed for the towns. Would things be any better there?


  1. Thanks for your impressive story and pictures.
    Like I get proven on and on again, now also with the story you tell; and the pictures you made:
    there is only one animal on this planet that ensures that our "mother earth" will get problems in the future. That's MAN. Yes ....WE! And unfortunately I am from the same race, and not proud of it.

  2. Really enjoyed the photos and writing. Can't wait to see the next entry. Being from the US it's unlikely I'll be able to buy a visa anytime soon, so it's nice to see it from another traveler's perspective!

  3. Tack för den intressanta och välskriva bloggen om Karelen. Lika välskriven som Emils bloggar brukar vara och med samma utsökta foto därtill.

    Jag har en gammal vän sedan många år, Seppo Mälkki, som kommer från Finland. Han kom till Sverige som krigsbarn under kriget och blev kvar här. Hans föräldrar härstammar från en liten by utanför Viborg som hette Mälkinkyä (Mälkkiby). Jag vet inte om den finns kvar. Jag har skickat länken om Karelen till honom så att han också får ta del av er intressanta reseberättelse.



    It so happened that lately we have watched and read the story of Finland in the 20th century. We were pleasantly surprised and pleased to receive this melancholic and nostalgic travel-story.

    It is a real pleasure to enjoy the so fitting of a combination of seemingly so different forms of expression complimenting each other in a fashion which create a very good sensitive reportage, intellectually and even spiritually.

    Do not wait too long for the continuation)

    Christina and Avri

  5. Kiitos tästä. Laulumaalla ei toistaiseksi laulu raikaa.. Herää halu mennä laittaa paikkoja kuntoon.

  6. Russia never had any real interest in Karelia. It was occupied only for the sake of occupation. After all of worthy was stolen in the typical soviet manner. It was the base for attacks on Finland, nothing more. Today, Russia really do not care about it, but the russians are eager to prevent onyone else making the best of the country.

    Karelia could florish if it was an independant country. The country need to be built up right from the bottom with farming, fishing, industries, services and a free population with its own language.

    If the EU had any real interest in the matters of european people, it would put Russia under pressure, but EU do not care. EU is filled with corruption and more interested to cooperate with Russia no matter the price than to take care of human rights - in spite of all the nice talks.

    This pictured story will remain a memory of what happened IN OUR TIME!