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103 Meridian East » Faces of Russia »  The Magic of Karelia
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“Romantics and anthropologists <…> speak of its mysteries in hushed, awed, almost mystical terms. Its forests are said to guard ancient rites and rituals; there are fauns among the fauna; gods and devils in the birches; white witches (as well as black) in the villages, who brew up alchemical mixtures to rescue (or ruin) the lives of a pagan people who have more faith in their magic than in orthodox means, whether medicine or religion.” – Jonathan Dimbleby, “The Magic of Karelia” chapter, Russia.

In the 12th century, Russians from Novgorod came to Karelia, which was originally populated by Saami and Karelian tribes, and built orthodox churches on the sites of heathen sanctuaries. One of them was the Island of Kizhi, which is a Finno-Ugric word meaning a “place for games” or rituals. Today, Kizhi is an open-air museum of wooden architecture and ethnography, displaying a settlement typical of this region between the 12th and 19th centuries.

Besovy sledki, meaning “devils’ footprints”, is the site of petroglyphs – 5,000-year-old rock carvings created by ancient hunters and fishermen. It is located where the Vyg River flows into the White Sea, near the town of Belomorsk.


It is often called a “stony land of lakes and woods”, as it has 60,000 lakes and half of its territory is covered in forests.


Vottovaara, a mountain in Karelia, is host to a bewildering abundance of seides, idols of wood or stone, either natural or slightly shaped by human hands, worshipped for their supernatural power or dwelling of spirits. This propped boulder, whose height may be measured against the man’s seen on the right, is one of the so-called flying stones of Vottovaara. Elevated by smaller stones, it seems as if it is hovering in the air.


Karelia offers hunting, fishing, rafting, dogsledding and ecological tourism.


The climate was also responsible for a Northern village having two churches: a winter church (small and thus easily heated) and a spacious summer one. The 37-metre high Church of Transfiguration crowned with 22 cupolas is a summer church. Along with the Red Square and Kremlin in Moscow and the Historic Centre of St. Petersburg, it is one of Russia’s monuments on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List.


The newcomers adapted their dwellings to the harsh climate of the region. These housed both people and cattle under the same roof, in two interconnected premises, which saved trips outside to feed the animals in winter with its blizzards and in autumn with its rains.


The rich colours and artful composition make the 16th-century Novgorodian icons unique.


Traditional Karelian crafts are preserved by local artisans and the museum’s staff.


Like any traditional rural landscape, Kizhi would be incomplete without a windmill.


Photos courtesy of Mikhail Oshukov, Anton Suchkov, Vesta Ulanova, Oleg Dyomochkin, Anna Yablokova and Marina Shabanova


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