Mosquitoes and heat. Not what you’d expect when you picture Russia, but the country has been struck by a record heatwave.
I’m in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia, in the north of Russia. The ‘republic’ denotes what in our parlance would be a State, slightly smaller than Karnataka. It stretches along the border with Finland, hanging onto the Arctic Circle. The city itself is sweltering, with the locals unused to such extremities. As a man tells me “For us, it is better for it to be -30 than +30”.
The heat doesn’t bother me but the ceaseless light does. Like all Indians, I’m so used to the order imposed by the sun that I’m quite discombobulated by the Arctic summer. At eight in the evening, it feels like late afternoon, with the sun blazing. The sun begins to set around half past 10 but is up and about by 3 a.m. The border between night and day, so irrevocable in India are blurred here.
I’m here as part of a writer’s residency conducted by a local cultural organisation that aims to bring Russian and foreign artists together. For nearly a month I have a three-storeyed, 18th century mansion all to myself, overlooking the heart of the city. Gavrila Derzhavin, the most famous Russian poet prior to Pushkin once lived here, which puts pressure on me whenever I’m checking Twitter instead of writing.
The mansion overlooks a square presided over by a monumental statue of Lenin. The first day it is rainy, a chill introduced by the severny veter (north wind) blowing all the way from the Pole. With a touristic eagerness I step into the drizzle, looking for Instagram-worthy angles of the leader of the world proletariat. Lenin leans forward, endowed with chthonic energy, seemingly emerging from the stone through sheer willpower. “He should have kept his hat on,” a bystander says in Russian. He points to the side of the statue where a shapka (fur hat) has been intricately carved.
The duration of the residency means it not enough for me to become an insider, but yet I’m more than a mere tourist — I’m here long enough to discern the hidden rhythm that every city has. For instance I notice quite a few ‘Tsvety 24 Chasa’ shops — flower shops open 24 hours. I ask a friend, do men in Petrozavodsk fight a lot with their wives or girlfriends? She embarks on a long explanation, the gist of which is “yes”. She explains that when men arrive home late, it is absolutely essential that they bring flowers for mollification purposes; the business model upon which these shops stand.
Petrozavodsk is on a neck of land between two huge bodies of water, Ladoga and Onega, the largest and second largest lakes in Europe respectively.
The city hugs the edge of a narrow bay, a tongue of water that detaches from the main body of lake Onega. The architecture is a melding of different styles and epochs, from picturesque log houses framed in the rioting purple of Ivanchai or willowherb that grows everywhere, as well as monumental Soviet architecture, laid out in methodical grids. This orderly layout allows me to soon find my way around intuitively. From the railway station topped by a defiant red star, the main boulevard called Ulitsa Lenina (their equivalent of our MG roads) descends to the lakefront, while being intercepted by avenues running perpendicularly.
As I take long walks, I begin to follow the varying moods of the Onega — sometimes the lake is content to merely reflect the sky while at others it seems to it hoard light, radiating a reddish-orange glow that seems to emerge from its depths. The embankment is crowded with young folks zipping about on e-scooters, couples leaning into each other, teenage girls striking goofy poses for their socials, dog owners briskly walking their pets. Petrozavodskites are out in force, making the best of their brief summer, before the long polar night descends.
A man walks up to the battered public piano in the rotunda and tickles the ivory, coaxing a plaintive sonata. The music drifts across the water, contrapuntal to the plash of waves on rocks and the desolate cries of seagulls high above. It is a perfect frame but even as I take my phone out I realise how beyond that instrument it would be to capture it. There is nothing I have to do except simply appreciate that unrepeatable moment.
The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.