The author and friends swimming in the White Sea off Solovki.
Swimming in the White Sea off Solovki.

The black smoke of a banya, a lake blanketed by buzzing mosquitos, a dark and silent wooden church, the white back of a beluga whale arching above the surface of the White Sea: these are some of my defining memories of the Russian Northwest. For two weeks this summer, I participated in the Field Experiences in Northwest Russia (FENOR) summer school organized by the European University in St. Petersburg and the University of Vienna. The program took us through many areas that the Russian government includes in its definition of the Russian Arctic Zone including the Republic of Karelia, the Solovetsky Islands, and the city of Arkhangelsk, which was the final stop on our journey before returning to St. Petersburg.

FENOR allowed us to dive into the Russian Arctic both literally and figuratively. On a blustery August day, with autumn already in the air, some of us decided to take a swim in the White Sea, which is an inlet of the Barents Sea – itself a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean. The water was approximately 10°C (50°F) – warm enough so that we could stay in for about five minutes, but cold enough that we couldn’t wait to get out and sit next to a campfire chowing on сушки (sushki, dried rings) and drinking квас (kvass, bread soda) from the Solovetsky Monastery. For those five frigid minutes, we were swimming in the same water as beluga whales, the snow-white and smiling marine mammals of the Arctic. But as I would later find out from a Russian researcher working with the World Wildlife Foundation, chemicals traced to fertilizers used in India and Bangladesh also circulate in these waters and have been detected in beluga whales’ bodies.

This transboundary pollution underscores the irreversible interconnection between the Arctic ecosystem and the rest of the world’s environment. It also mirrors the economic linkages between the Arctic and the south. More than five hundred years ago, English mariners sailed to Kholmogory, Russia, just downstream of present-day Arkhangelsk on the Dvina River, which flows into the White Sea. They were looking for a sea route to India and China. The English would eventually succeed in establishing a trading post that would make Arkhangelsk the most important sea port in Russia until St. Petersburg’s foundation in 1703. Now, without the deliberate help of any trading company, pollutants from India are flowing back to the White Sea.

Despite these connections, as we traveled throughout Northwest Russia, we felt it to be an isolated and special place. Where else could you buy a jar of cloudberries on the side of the highway with a spoonful of vodka on top for preservation? Visit a paper mill and factory belching smoke and steam into the air in a town whose residents still appear to be living and breathing in the Soviet era? Find an abandoned building rumored to have been built as a hotel in anticipation of Stalin’s visit, only for him never to come (actually, probably many places in the former Soviet Union)? But as we traveled deeper into the North, our group, composed of sixteen students from Russia, western Europe, and the United States and a handful of professors, mostly anthropologists, began to question claims about the region’s uniqueness.

The main square in Segezha, Republic of Karelia, Russia, where the main street is still named after Lenin.
The main square in Segezha, Republic of Karelia, Russia, where the main street is still named after Lenin. August 2015.

On the last day of our field school, we visited an outdoor museum, Malye Korely, outside Arkhangelsk. The museum is dedicated to preserving the architectural heritage of the oblast. While touring the dark wooden buildings that had been moved from villages around the oblast to this museum by truck, bus, and even helicopter, a guide told us that one specific house was emblematic of the oblast’s unique architectural style. Yet this house almost looked identical to one we had seen at the beginning of our trip in the village of Kinerma, in the Republic of Karelia, across the White Sea.

While many of the people we met tried to emphasize differences between their place and somewhere else, what became more intriguing to me were the broad similarities between many of the places that we visited, though typically accentuated by local adaptations. One happy example is the Russian banya, found across much of the country and largely identical to the Finnish sauna. The banya’s scorching-hot rooms helped us warm up after long days in the field. I can only imagine the welcome refuge they would provide after a round of ice swimming. A more tragic example is the gulag at Solovki that existed from 1923-1939. Alexander Solhenitzysn called Solovki’s characteristics “the embryo of the Archipelago,” referring to the way in which the gulag in the middle of the White Sea would serve as a horrific model for the hundreds more later created across the Soviet Union. The Arctic, far from being isolated, peripheral, and disconnected from the rest of the world, has instead inspired the warming hearths of banyas and the cold hands of torture beyond its southern bounds.

In the Russian Orthodox church on top of Sekirnaya Hill, the only trace of the gulag that once stood there is an unlabeled swinging door that still bears the peephole from its previous incarnation as a prison door.
In the Russian Orthodox church on top of Sekirnaya Hill, the only trace of the gulag that once stood there is an unlabeled swinging door that still bears the peephole from its previous incarnation as a prison door.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will post about my experiences with FENOR in the Russian Arctic. This series of posts will follow onto last year’s “Field Notes from the Arctic” series, written while I was conducting fieldwork in Greenland. At the same time as I write about FENOR, I’ll also return to regular analysis of Arctic current affairs. With President Obama’s visit to Alaska earlier this week, there is certainly a lot to catch up on.

Learning about the history of Kinerma, a traditional Karelian village.
Learning about the history of Kinerma, a traditional Karelian village.

0 Comments

A journey through northwest Russia

  1. I felt happy when I found your witty post again. Gracias! Regards from Buenos Aires (somebody cares about rhe Arctic in the other part of the world? An the answer is YES!)

  2. Reading about forced labor in the land of white nights made me wonder about the Chinese labor forces destined to work in Greenland, on exploration, mining and road building once the slow drying ink of the Greenland permitting process dries. Is there any data/anecdotal material about the possible work force bound for Nuuk and beyond?
    Much like your writing and images, along with soft tone of narrative. Great contest to hype and histrionics. Keep it up.

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