visiting Karelia

Going through some of my old bookmarked links, I came across a favourite saved sometime around the year 2000, The Karelian Journal. It is a fascinating real-life story about an international group that travels to the northwestern region of Russia called Karelia to attend a conference to save the beluga whales of the White Sea and see the best petroglyphs in Scandinavia. It also gives us a glimpse of life in this much-ignored region of Russia after perestroika.

The author is Jim Nollman, who was invited to join the expedition. He is “an American conceptual artist who works with themes pertaining to human/animal protocol, and a musician who has spent twenty years attempting to communicate with various whale species in the wild. [In 1997, he] staged a theatrical performance on the subject of shamanism in Helsinski, which was promoted by a poster displaying [a] petroglyph.”

Leader of the group is Rauno Lauhakangas, an engineer with Nokia and “a researcher at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in CERN Switzerland. CERN is where the World Wide Web got started and Rauno was there at the inception”. He started The Whalewatching Web, “which promotes the idea that wherever whalewatching flourishes, whaling must wither. Today, the site flourishes with tens of thousand of hits every day, and has helped instigate the growth of whalewatching around the world, especially in Japan, the Azores, and Spain… Rauno is also the president of the Finnish Society for Prehistoric Art, and an avid student of Northern European history which dates back several thousand years.”

“Scandinavian bedrock is adorned in many places with petroglyphs, some dating before 5000 BC. The images run the gamut from moose, swans, whales, ships, astronomical motifs, men with giant hands, battle scenes, and depictions of village life so effusive in their detail that they could have inspired Breughel. No one can say for certain whether this art was created by Finno-Ugric people…, or by ancient Saamis (Lapplanders)…. Some of the best petroglyph sites are found in Karelia, the Russian Republic that shares a long western border with Finland….Much of the oral folklore upon which the Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala, is based was actually collected in Karelia.”

Because of this Rauno Lauhakangas “organized an international conference on petroglyphs in collaboration with the Russian Academy of Sciences. A secondary reason for organizing the conference relates to his compassion for whales. One of the best known Karelian petroglyph sites on the White Sea displays several reliefs that depict human beings interacting with cetaceans. Many scholars believe they are the oldest pictures of whales found anywhere in the world. The fact that belugas still reside in the White Sea, suggests to Rauno that whalewatching tied to a program of petroglyph interpretation could provide the spark to ignite Karelian tourism. Because Russia was one of the world’s most active whaling nations until ten years ago, the current economic pessimism could easily entice them to start it up again, perhaps focusing on coastal species like belugas. But if whalewatching is established on the White Sea, it will obviate the resurrection of whaling, while contributing one more building block to the edifice of Karelian self-sufficiency.”

“Two of our traveling companions in the backseat are Estonians, Vaino Poikalainen (president of Estonian Prehistoric Society) and Loit Joekalda, author and designer of the first book in English on the subject of Karelian petroglyphs.” Other participants include “Juhani Gronhagen, a Finnish archeologist who conveys the most uplifting story of the day’s long journey. Frustrated by the illegibility of ancient paintings found at a lakeside dig, Juhani brought in two Finno-Ugric tribespeople from Siberia to help interpret.”

Nollman writes that the region “is the worst of the Third World. The town is falling down before my eyes, as if years have passed since anyone bothered to change a street lamp, repair a window, or pick up the trash.”

There’s a great deal of interesting reading here, full of interesting connections.

This story is very personally meaningful for me for two reasons. The first is known to regular readers of this blog concerning my interest in my Finnish ethnicity and the ancient rock art of northern Europe.

The second is about synchronicity again. My research into this area started around 1999 – 2000. In 2002, in conjunction with an exhibition in Finland with two colleagues, we made a trip a trip to Tallinn, Estonia, where we met Loit Joekalda and saw his work about the Karelian petroglyphs. It wasn’t until later back at home, rereading this web page that I made the connection, not having remembered Loit’s name in the article!! One day I hope to go and see these sites for myself.

Additional information on Karelia: from wikipedia, the Many Karelias*, a map*, and
on travel to Karelia (this is mostly in Finnish, some English, and with good photos).
* links expired and removed)

May 21, 2004 in Ethnicity, Finland, Estonia & Finno-Ugric, Rock Art & Archaeology by Marja-Leena