A winter return to Karelia, in Russia’s far Northwest, in which adventures include bathing in a frozen lake, oral history interviews, and a run-in with the Russian emergency care system. All in a few days’ work!

I first went to Karelia back in 2007, on my first trip to Russia. At the time, I was working for a human rights organization, and the trip, to visit the Solovki Islands (site of the first Gulag, technically in the Arkhangelsk oblast), included a stop in Medvezhegorsk, a small town where the inmates of the Gulag were shot and buried in mass graves in the forest. Needless to say, it was a pretty heavy trip, though it was in the glorious long days of the northern summer, and deeply memorable. However, having spent my time in Karelia dwelling in the depressing, I was really excited about the possibility of returning at another point. So when a friend offered to set up some oral history interviews in her home town of Petrozavodsk, I jumped at the opportunity, and I didn’t even flinch when it became evident that our only real chance to go would be in the dead of winter. We were all in.

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Various views of the Petrozavodsk train station.

So, with a holiday weekend ahead of us (Defenders of the Fatherland, February 23, which fell on a Tuesday this year), we boarded a train on Thursday night, and arrived at the Petrozavodsk train station some 14 hours later, at 10:30 in the morning. Tamara, my friend, met our train and took us on a walk through the city to her apartment, where she hosted us for a couple nights. Friday was a busy day, full of interesting interviews, for which I no evidence, other than anonymous recordings, which were full of interesting stories and experiences of life in the Soviet Union. And on Friday night, after Tamara was done at the archives, we were off to a lovely banya (Russian or Finnish-style bath house) right on the shores of Lake Onega, of course completely frozen over in the winter.

A lone bicyclist literally biking on the frozen lake.

A lone bicyclist literally biking on the frozen lake.

As part of the exciting experience of being in Petrozavodsk, the city banya was literally right on the lake. Which was lovely. Needless to say, these ships were in harbor until the thaw…


And the banya itself was amazing, in part because the dipping pool was literally cut into the frozen lake.

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After we were appropriately steamed and soaked, Tamara had a social engagement to attend, so we enjoyed a kitchy Karelian-themed restaurant for dinner (the bear was not available, but Maki did have reindeer! I stuck to fish), and a night out on the town. The next morning, we had a planned leisurely morning to get ready for hosting some of Tamara’s relatives, while Tamara finished up a little work at the archive. This was all fine in good, until I managed to slip on the super clean shower, dramatically cracking a mug on my way down, and falling on the shards under my wrist. I realized the danger immediately, and was very relieved that the bleeding was minimal, but I still thought I should probably see someone. So Maki called our friend, who told us where to go and called a taxi. I awkwardly wrangled into my clothes and wrapped my hair, and we set off for the “emergency room.”

Waiting to see the doctor.

Waiting to see the doctor.

I checked in, and they moved me to the front of the line (the doctor was on break). When he returned, I was ushered in to see him. We learned the Russian word for tetanus (conveyed through charades, which was amusing; I was up-to-date and not at risk). He looked it over, declared stitches unnecessary, and had his colleague wrap it up well. Within 25 minutes, I was on my way, and my entire visit cost me a grand total of zero rubles, pretty painless (minus the cut, which has since scarred over), all things considered. We returned home to finish up preparations to host some of Tamara’s friends and family, so I could do interviews. Sometimes, this is what research looks like!

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Tamara left early the next day, though we still managed to head out to have a beer with her that evening before we went back to crash for the night. The next day, we had until 5 pm before our train onwards. I woke up early to catch the sunrise over Lake Onega.


The sunset was beautiful, and reasonably painless (the sunset was not until 8:30 or so, so I had plenty of time to sleep).

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I returned to Tamara’s apartment to wake up Maki, and we enjoyed leftover crepes and hard boiled eggs for breakfast, before we set off for a day of exploration in Petrozavodsk, what we had been unable to actually accomplish due to my little emergency room visit. The day was crystal clear and cold, and there was some festival happening on the lake (literally on the lake, I might add).


Lake Onega selfie time!


There were ice sculptures, and various tents and snowmobile racing, and other things going on, and it felt like half the town was out and about.

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The whole day made be quite excited to see Petrozavodsk in the winter — winter can be so pleasant, at least if people are intent on enjoying it. As our time grew short, we warmed up with coffee in a place in the city, and then headed back to collect our belongings, drop off Tamara’s key, and head to the train station to catch our train ever northwards. We took off just as the sunset over the station.


Our train, headed to Murmansk, the Arctic’s largest city, gave us 19 hours to relax in our own compartment (we got lucky!), which was surprisingly lovely. We had a leisurely evening and a slow, pleasant morning, with plenty of time to relax as the train went steadily northwards.

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And by the time we disembarked at noon the next day, we were well-rested, sufficiently caffeinated and breakfast-ed, and ready for our Arctic adventure.


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