first-level administrative division of Russia

Karelia (Karelian and Finnish: Karjala) is a region in Northwestern Russia, known as the country of lakes. It has a strong cultural connection with Finland, with the ethnic Karelians closely related to the Finns. Much of the Finnish national epic Kalevala was collected here.

Cities

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Wooden architecture of Kizhi Island
  • 1 Petrozavodsk (Karelian: Petroskoi) — the capital and largest city of Karelia, with a fine collection of neoclassical architecture and a summer hydrofoil service to Kizhi
  • 2 Belomorsk   (Karelian: Šuomua) — a town on the White Sea, at the mouth of the White Sea–Baltic Canal
  • 3 Impilahti (Karelian: Imbilahti) — a small town on the northern shores of Lake Ladoga
  • 4 Kalevala (city) (Karelian: Kalevala, formerly Uhtua) — a small town, renamed in 1963 for the Finnish national epic, some of which was collected here
  • 5 Kem   (Karelian: Kemi) — a small town on the coast not far from Solovki with a spectacular 18th century wooden cathedral
  • 6 Kondopoga   (Karelian: Kondupohju) — an industrial town on Onega, the Murmansk Railway and the Blue Highway
  • 7 Kostomuksha (Karelian: Koštamuš) — a large town built as a Finnish-Russian cooperation from 1977–1985 for iron ore mining, functions also as a dacha-style resort mostly for Finns every summer and hosts a yearly summer chamber music festival
  • 8 Lakhdenpokhya   (Karelian: Lahdenpohju)
  • 9 Olonets   (Karelian: Anus) — a small historic town near the Alexander-Svirsky Monastery; the only town of size in Karelia where ethnic Karelians constitute a majority
  • 10 Medvezhyegorsk   (Karelian: Karhumägi) — a town on Onega and the White Sea–Baltic Canal, site of mass murders under Stalin and battles during World War II
  • 11 Pitkyaranta   (Karelian: Pitkyrandu)
  • 12 Povenets   (Karelian: Poventsa) — small town, here begins Belomorsko-Baltiyskiy Kanal (White Sea-Baltic Channel)
  • 13 Pudozh   (Karelian: Puudoži) — town at the end of the Blue Highway.
  • 14 Segezha   (Karelian: Segeža) — town on Lake Vygozero (part of the White Sea–Baltic Canal) and the Murmansk railway
  • 15 Sortavala (Karelian: Sortavala) — the marble canyon of nearby Ruskeala Park is beautiful, the city of Sortavala has interesting architecture, having been the Finnish showcase of functionalism and Carelianism.
  • 16 Suoyarvi   (Karelian: Suojärvi) — town at the Kostomuksha railway junction

Other destinations

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  • 1 Lake Ladoga   — the largest lake of Europe.
  • 4 Lake Onega   — second-largest lake in Europe.
    • Ancient drawings, hammered in the rocks (in the Pudozhsky District). These, together with petroglyphs a little south of Kem (in Belomorsky District), were in 2021 inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
    • 5 Kizhi island — famous for its beautiful wooden church and other buildings, the whole architectural ensemble of Kizhi island is a   UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • 6 Kostomuksha Nature Reserve  
  • 7 Paanajärvi National Park
  • 8 Vodlozersky National Park  

Understand

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An abandoned Finnish dam at a waterfall near Ruskeala

Karelia borders Finland to the west, Murmansk Oblast to the north, the White Sea to the northeast, Arkhangelsk Oblast to the east, Vologda Oblast to the southeast, and Leningrad Oblast to the south.

Karelia is known as "the country of lakes." One quarter of Karelia's surface is covered by water including about sixty thousand lakes. The second-largest lake of Europe, Lake Onega, is located in Karelia. The largest lake of Europe, Lake Ladoga, is shared between Karelia and Leningrad Oblast. Wherever there is land, there are dense forests covering the ground.

Karelia has a strong cultural connection with Finland, and the Karelians, after whom the republic is named, are a Finno-Ugric group very closely related to the Finns. Much of the Finnish national epic Kalevala was collected here. The border between Sweden (which Finland was part of) and Russia has crossed the lands of the Karelians since medieval times, being moved several times (see Nordic history). The parts Finland lost to Russia in the Second World War are still a bit of a sore spot for many Finns. Much of the Karelian population was evacuated to Finland when the area was ceded to the Soviet Union. Tourism from Finland was common until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and there was significant Finnish support for projects supporting the Karelian language and culture.

After the Finnish civil war of 1918 and after the Great Depression of 1929, many Finns, including Finnish emigrants to North America, moved to Karelia, simply for work or also for building a greater future. They became communities of their own and contributed significantly to development of the region. During this time Petrozavodsk (Finnish: Petroskoi) grew from some 20,000 to some 50,000 inhabitants. Many Finns also moved to Kondopoga (Kontupohja) and Uhtua (since 1963: Kelevala). The Great Terror of Stalin in the late 1930s hit the Finnish population in the Soviet Union hard and little of the communities remained afterwards.

Talk

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Everybody understands and speaks Russian, although many are bilingual in Karelian, Finnish, or, on a smaller scale, Veps (a third Finno-Ugric language). These three languages are also officially recognized. A traveller could get by with only knowledge of Finnish, as many local ethnic Russians understand a good deal of the language.

Basic English is widely understood by young people; Swedish is also relatively popular.

Karelian is the native language, spoken here since the Iron Age and recognised as a minority language. It is a Finnic language closely related to Finnish (although not the same as the Karelian dialects of Finnish). Karelian is endangered, spoken in Karelia by some 14,000 people and by some 9,000 as mother tongue. Karelian is also known to some degree by 30,000 people living in Finland, mostly descendants of those evacuated after World War II. There are a few main dialect groups of Karelian, all nowadays written with the Latin alphabet.

Get in

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  Note: Car insurance from the EU is not valid in Russia since 2023.

Finland closed the border crossings on short notice in 2023, with the closure extended for a few months at a time and closed until further notice as of May 2024. Check Finland#Get in and latest news on border policy.

(Information last updated 04 May 2024)
 
World heritage-listed petroglyphs on the shore of Lake Onega

By plane

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As of 2014, the only flights to Karelia from outside are from Moscow (Domodedovo) 5 times a week and from Saint-Petersburg 2 times a week to Petrozavodsk (Besovetc). The timetable changes often though.

By train

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There are several trains to Petrozavodsk from Saint Petersburg (7 hours; both overnight and day-time, departing from Ladozhsky railway station) and from Moscow (16 hours, overnight). Trains that go through main Karelian transport corridor: Svir–Petrozavodsk–Medvegjyegorsk–Belomorsk, are almost always bound to Petrozavodsk or Murmansk. The most popular, long-known and comfortable trains are 15/16 Moscow–Saint-Petersburg–Murmansk "Arktika", 17/18 Moscow–Petrozavodsk "Kareliya" (bypassing Saint-Petersburg), 5/6 Saint-Petersburg–Petrozavodsk (evening trains that runs 5 hours to Petrozavodsk without stops), 657/658 Saint-Petersburg–Petrozavodsk (overnight), 21/22 Saint-Petersburg–Murmansk (arriving to Petrozavodsk from Saint-Petersburg just after midnight and leaving back very early in the morning). There are several more trains from both capitals, some often seasonal or extra services. Seasonal and extra services trains, as usual, are more close to the traditional Russian and less comfortable style.

Other trains to Kareliya run only several times a week and ofter are seasonal, or on and off. As of 2014, the following routes are operational: Minsk–Murmansk (pass Petrozavodsk south Tu Sa, north Tu Th). Saint-Petersburg–Sortavala–Kostomuksha (leaves Saint-Petersburg W F, arrives to Saint-Petersburg Th Su), and Murmansk–Vologda (starts from Murmansk F Su, from Vologda W F).

By bus

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Petrozavodsk is connected by buses with Joensuu in Finland (from Joensuu Th–Su at 16:00, from Petrozavodsk Th–Su at 06:00, transfer tickets to Finland buses are available), Saint-Petersburg (4–5 times a day), Cherepovets through Tikhvin (from Cherepovets F at 07:30), Vologda through Voznesenje ferry (from Vologda M Sa at 08:10), daily from Vytegra through Pudog, and on Tu F Sa from Vytegra through Voznesenje. There are also buses from Saint-Petersburg to Pudog, Pitkyaranta and Sortavala. Complete timetables (subject to change) are on Petrozavodsk bus station site [dead link].

By car

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By car there are two main routes to Karelia: through M-18 from Saint-Petersburg (from Moscow you can get to M-18 bypassing Saint-Petersburg through A114 Zuevo–Volkhov–Novaya Ladoga), and by M-8 and R-5 from Moscow via Vologda. An alternate route is via R-37 Lodeinoe Pole–Vytegra and then on to R-5 (this route is informally called Arhangelsk trakt), but this route contains enough unpaved stretches. Most Karelian roads (other than M-18) are in a bad state, rather bumpy (this includes Karelian part of R-5, though not Vologda region part), and often include unpaved stretches.

There are border crossings from Finland, in very sparsely populated areas: 1 Suoperä (Суоперя) between Kuusamo and Kestenga, 2 Vartius/Ljuttja   (Люття) between Kajaani and Kuhmo and Kostomuksha, and 3 Niirala   in Tohmajärvi/Vyartsilya (Вя́ртсиля) between Joensuu and Sortavala. The latter was quite busy until 2023, with a million passages a year.

Get around

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Minor road in winter

Most public transport in Karelia runs along part of bus and train routes from Saint-Petersburg to Murmansk: on M18 from Olonets, and by rail from station Svir' near Podporogye further north through Petrozavodsk, Kondopoga, Medveg'yegorsk, Segezha, Belomorsk and Kem'. M18 runs to the west of most of those towns, with distance of 3 to 20 km from them.

Other relatively popular bus routes are to Sortavala (through Olonets, or via more direct route through A121), Suoyarvi and Spasskaya Guba. There are quite a number of suburb buses, starting from Petrozavodsk.

Apart from these routes transport (including buses to Kostomuksha and Pudozh among others) is quite scarce, and the number of local buses is small.

To get to Valaam you'll have to get on public or private boat from Sortavala. To get to Kizhi in navigation period, you can get on boat or hydrofoil from Petrozavodsk or Velikaya Guba village. In winter there may be an occasional connection to Kizhi via cushioncraft or helicopter from airport "Peski" in Petrozavodsk. Sometimes there may be a helicopter to Pudozh, or in summer a boat to the opposite shore of Onega, not far from Pudozh.

There is a wide border zone towards Finland, for which a special permit is needed.

  • Valaam Monastery of the Finnish Orthodox Church was built on an island of Ladoga, but was evacuated during war with the Soviets in the 1940s. The monks fled with their icons and rebuilt Valamo close to Heinävesi, a bit west of Joensuu. The monastery is visited by many Finns, Orthodox or not, and is featured in most tourist guides as well. Pilgrims come to see the ancient icons from the old Valamo monastery.
  • 1 Kivach waterfall.    

Itineraries

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The Blue Highway runs from Mo i Rana on Norway's Atlantic coast across Sweden and Finland and then via Sortavala and Petrozavodsk to Pudozh on Onega's eastern shore.

There is quite some forest and waterways where you can hike or paddle. In some areas you may be able to find tourist businesses arranging tours, whitewater adventures and the like.

Drink

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Stay safe

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Most of the republic is very sparsely populated. Away from the main roads you will have to manage mostly on your own.

Go next

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The Solovetsky Islands and Monastery on the White Sea are another nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site in Arkhangelsk Oblast and can be reached by boat from Karelia.

Trains head north from Petrozavodsk to Murmansk.

This region travel guide to Karelia is an outline and may need more content. It has a template, but there is not enough information present. If there are Cities and Other destinations listed, they may not all be at usable status or there may not be a valid regional structure and a "Get in" section describing all of the typical ways to get here. Please plunge forward and help it grow!