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Faces of Russia


Singaporeans’ Adventures in Russia. Tales of the Karelia Woods

Some young Singaporeans are real daredevils when it comes to new discoveries. Sons and daughters of a tiny island nation in the tropics, they bravely venture as far as Russia’s North. 103rd Meridian East is roud to report of at least two occurrences of oung Singaporeans visiting the motherland of its editorial team: Karelia.

Story 1. Snapshots of Real Life

Lake Onega
Is Europe's second largest lake (9,894 sqm)
Has a maximum depth 120 m
The Open championship of Russia forailing inruiser yacht class has the status ofhenternational Onega Regatta

Last August saw a historical moment in Russian-Singaporean relations: three guests from Singapore came to Petrozavodsk, a city in Russia’s Northwest, to participate in the Giperboreya-2009 international forum dedicated to issues of identity development, self-perfection and efficient methods of problem-solving. All participants, young people aged from 16 to 30, lived in a tented camp, cooked their own meals, listened to lectures and took part in role-playing for one whole week.

In the foreign team, there were three Singaporeans. One of them, Lemian, 23, had studied economics at an American university. Like others, she came to Petrozavodsk on the Award programme. “I enjoy travelling”, she says. “For us, Russia is one of the most exotic countries on the planet. Very few Singaporeans have been here. Initially, I ssumed it’d be very cold here but now, in summertime, it is not at all bad.”

Lemian’s knowledge of Russia was limited by that drawn from American mass media: Russia is not safe, there are power struggles, nuclear weapon and elusive submarines. Not much. But we must admit  – Russians hardly know more about Singapore.

Lemian, like other Singaporean participants, was happy to discover that Russians are very hospitable and kind-hearted people. The only shocking experience for her was a make-shift, army-like shower with only one cabinet to be shared by a dozen bathers. The girl struggled with prejudices for about five minutes, but common sense and hygiene finally won the upper hand.

As for Bobby, a 23-year-old student from Singapore, the forum became a kind of rite of passage. He managed to chop wood, although he had never before held an ax in his hands, and took part in the Mister Giperboreya competition, for which he had to write some essays and sing a national song. Additionally, it was only the second time that he had ever seen starry skies. As it turns out, one can’t see stars in Singapore due to heavy smog and bright artificial illumination.

“But you guys in Russia have got a real life! You never know what will happen here in a year’s time!” Singaporeans told Russians with rapture in their voices. They discovered this only after spending some time in Russia. Before, they had believed that the country was extremely dangerous, especially Moscow, as some guidebooks give such warnings.

Why hadn’t they come to Russia earlier? Apparently, it is not easy to do so. To get a visa, one must have an invitation or book a room in a rather expensive hotel for the duration of one’s stay in Russia. This is tantamount to a couple thousand euros, which is too heavy for most people’s budgets. But after Giperboreya-2009, the invitation and visa should no longer be a problem, for the three Singaporeans had found more true friends within a week than most people could in a year.

By Victor Davidyuk (Petrozavodsk, Russia)


Story 2. Cold Land, Warm People

Petrozavodsk is the capital of the Republic of Karelia in the Russian Federation and a pringboard for visitors to the UNESCO world heritage site, Kizhi Island. I had learnt about this city through my friends from 103rd Meridian East magazine, whose hometown it is. Eventually, I hose Petrozavodsk over the bigger Russian cities to do a Russian-language immersion course in March and
April 2010. That experience made me the first Singaporean to study at Petrozavodsk State University, something unique for myself and for the Russians whom I met there. Although it is not widely known among Singaporeans, Petrozavodsk has now become my favourite Russian city.

It is extremely easy to fall in love with Petrozavodsk. Located on the shores of Lake Onega, the modern city is surrounded by thick forests with no heavy industries in sight. Its easy-going, friendly culture took me completely by surprise, and many Russians here can speak good English.

To make my language course an enriching experience, the university had arranged for me to stay with a host family so that I could fully immerse myself in the Russian way of life. My Russian host family went an extra mile to help me adapt to my new environment and included me in their celebration of Russian festivals. In addition to that, the university checked in on me regularly during my stay there and updated me on interesting events happening in the city.

“Tranquillity, beauty and adventure” is what tourism in Karelia is all about. Staying in Petrozavodsk gave me the opportunity to go on a snowmobile excursion across the frozen Lake Onega and dog sledding in a earby forest. Over time, I started to discover more of the fascinating cultures and languages of the different ethnic groups in Russia. The warm Russian hospitality that I experienced here was extremely comforting, and the Russians were patient with me as I struggled to find the appropriate Russian words to speak to them.

Russia was once described by Winston Churchill as “a riddle wrapped up in an enigma”. Having spent some time in Russia, befriended Russians and understood their culture and traditions, I ave concluded that Russia is unique, but not impossible to understand. Many Singaporeans still view it as a “cold, dangerous and wintery north”, but all they need to do is come to Russia with an open mind and make an effort to befriend Russians. After a while, they will be able to see the real Russia, which is not as difficult a puzzle as it appears to be.

By Wong Ying Ying (student of Singapore Management University)


Karelia: At a Glance

Distance from Petrozavodsk to:
Moscow 1091 km
St. Petersburg 412 km
The Finnish border 350 km

Karelia is one of Russia’s northernmost territories and one of its five regions bordering the EU. It houses about 4,000 cultural, historical and natural monuments, some are on the UNESCO World Heritage List (the islands of Kizhi and Valaam). Karelia is the birthplace of the Karelo-Finnish epos Kalevala, a literary heritage of universal significance. Karelia’s area (180 sq km) exceeds those of Hungary (93 sq km) and Austria (82 sq km) taken together.

Petrozavodsk is the capital of Karelia. It was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as a foundry that manufactured cannons. Its location was chosen for its proximity to Sweden, with which Russia was fighting for access to the Baltic ea. In 1777, Catherine the Great granted the settlement the status of the town of Petrozavodsk, Russian for “Peter’s factories.”


On a Lighter Note

You know you’ve lived in Karelia too long when:

  • You think that snow in June is a norm and water at 10 degrees Centigrade is warm enough for swimming;
  • You hear St. Petersburg’s dwellers boasting about white nights and can’t help laughing;
  • You help a cab driver to dig his car out of the snow, push it and only then ride in it;
  • You believe that global warming is neither global nor warming;
  • You come across a car with the number ”10” (the regional code for the Republic of Karelia) on its plate and start flashing your car lights and honking and feel euphoric;
  • You know what picking lingonberries and putting them into a potato sack feels like;
  • On a glorious summer morning you wear a T-shirt and shorts to work, but you make sure to take a warm jacket with you.
Source: The Internet


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