Dear fellow travellers
Just beyond the spot where the main highway to Murmansk crosses the River Kem, close to an abandoned military airfield, a minor road tracks west into the Karelian wilderness.
Were it not for the occasional huge potholes, this is a road where one might maintain a decent average speed. But no one wants to rush through this beautiful stretch of the taiga forest. This region is cherished not merely for its forest and lake landscapes; it is the cultural heartland of Karelia.
The road broadly follows the River Kem upstream, heading steadily west towards the border with Finland, though those hoping to cross the frontier here will be frustrated. There are no authorized border-crossing points from Russia into Finland in this area.
We are in search of the one-time capital city of a forgotten republic. From the turn-off on the Murmansk highway, it is 150 km of easy driving, skirting dozens of lakes, to reach the small community which in 1919 proclaimed its status as the capital of the Republic of Uhtua. In those days, this lakeshore town was called Uhtua, and it was from here that the eponymous republic took its name.
There’s nothing not to like about this place. True, it is extremely isolated, but it has an enviable wilderness location amid a medley of lakes and waterways. Tree-lined roads and wooden houses aplenty, most of the homes set in decent-sized plots of land. Something of the feel of a small community in Vermont, save only for the fact that many of the homes are in need of investment. And, here in this Karelian outpost, Lenin still stands on his plinth outside one of the town’s administrative buildings.
The Republic of Uhtua
In 1919 a serious attempt to create a Karelian State was launched in Uhtua, with five scattered communities uniting in a republic which aspired to independence while maintaining a close alliance with Finland. The Republic of Uhtua lasted barely a year. By the time of the Treaty of Tartu, signed 100 years ago this month, the Republic of Uhtua had been assimilated into the Karelian Labour Commune which in 1923 acquired the status of an autonomous republic within the Soviet Union.
A change of name
After 1963, the toponym Uhtua disappeared from Soviet maps, for the village was renamed in honour of the Kalevala, the great 19th-century Finnish epic of poetry and folklore compiled by Elias Lönnrot. Uhtua became Kalevala and that’s still the name today - a little oddity that preserves a hint of Finland in the Russian Federation.
Lönnrot roamed far and wide, collecting material for the Kalevala, with a dozen field trips that took in the area extending east from Kuusamo and Kajaani towards the White Sea coast. He made three productive visits to Uhtua between spring 1834 and the onset of winter in late 1836. It was a chance to hear traditional Karelian poetry, which was usually sung rather than recited. Lönnrot transcribed all he could, and the material sourced from his visit to Uhtua is an important element of the Kalevala.
These days Uhtua / Kalevala makes much of its status as one of the source regions for the Finnish national epic. The Finnish border may be close at hand, but with no nearby border post opportunities for cross-border tourism are limited.
But visitors who do make it to remote Kalevala are rewarded by a community that still has echoes of old Karelia. The Karelian language is still spoken, albeit by a dwindling minority and the town has a museum dedicated to the local tradition of rune singing. Kalevala has a picture-perfect pale green Orthodox church. There’s a rather sculptural and very dead pine tree where it is said that Lönnrot would sit for hours listening to the singing of the old bards of Uhtua. We are sceptical, as the wizened relic of a tree seems to have been moved around town. It is currently perched where a statue of Stalin once stood - a nice example perhaps of the town’s ability to move with the times.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)