Midnight Sun Country

…Kilometre posts and road signs pass by in twinkles – turn, rise, slope, rise again and new turn.

The road invariably heads south: asphalted from Leningrad to Priozersk, it is covered afterwards with a rolled macadam.

What distance is left until we reach Sortavala?

A yellow table on the post shows a two-digit number. It will surely appear very soon – the first Karelian big town on our way.

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- Sortavala!

A ringing voice distracts your attention from sharp treacherous road curves and makes you to look aside, where you notice silver of pointed roofs raising behind a lake, resembling a huge bowl completely filled with dark wine.

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There were no outskirts before the town itself. The highway just came out from a realm of woods and it runs already among houses, between thick gardens – it transforms then into a clean town street with trees on both sides.

You rotate you head. You dwell upon large clear windows at the first place. Its window glasses are inside wide panes devoid of usual crossings. Streams of sunlight enter freely into such windows. Luxuriant flowers on window panes. Obviously they do not suffer at all in this latitude.

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The decked facades glide quickly away. A noble, high, concrete clad house is covered by ivy. The lower building beside is made of grey wild stone. A detached house across gleams with its glass facade.

- Here’s the hotel!- our companion points at the building resembling a solid roomy suitcase.

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Viewed high from the hotel’s balcony Sortavala looks like an ancient Gobelin tapestry woven with silky everlasting colors. Greenwood fringe frames the town. Ladoga’s bay silver wedge divides it into two almost equal parts. Dark and even thread of the bridge connects two shores. In a misty haze on a high hill above one can see a whitish towering silhouette of an old house.

Ladoga Hotel is in the downtown. One can’t help telling some words about the building where rationalism is in harmony with comfort. All four stories of a relatively small building are designed logically, completely, up to the last centimeter. A gently sloping staircase spiral down to cozy round platforms, short corridors lead to spacious rooms with closets hidden inside walls. Everything is pretty, comfy and practical.

Yes, practical. That is the proper word to describe a sensation when you turn a door handle of Ladoga Hotel: one turn and the handle becomes a solid and reliable lock. Water taps are designed not to splash water from sinks. Windows have large panes where a light stream enters freely.

But let us leave the hotel for a while and go to a neighboring grocery store. Here as well designers have wed simplicity with comfort. Mirrored wall-like shop-window shows the exposed goods well, and just beyond a threshold a customer is surrounded by semi-circles of counters. It is also convenient for salespersons. They do not need to go far to fetch goods – a pretty spiral staircase leading into a warehouse is right in the middle of the store. The shop is well-lit and neat, and there is no crowd, as entrances and exits lead client streams into different directions. And right across the street, a bit far away, there is a large apartment house. A red tiled roof that crowns snow-white walls gives it some joyful dandy appearance.

Sortavala streets are not squared, the town was born a very long time ago, but there is no bustle, nor usual street turmoil there.

Here is the bridge across the bay gorge which cuts through the town. A walker would not reach the opposite shore very soon: the bay is large and the lamp alley is very long. And it is hard to stop oneself from standing on the bridge for a minute or so.

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The bay’s water is transparent and one can see shadows of big fishes gliding with pompousness in depth, as well as minnows dashing at the very surface. You just want to stand there and breath in a freshness of the lake, you wish to enjoy its bottomless depths and pearl distances.

But let us move along the bridge. On a steep opposite shore we are greeted by wise eyes of an elderly rune performer. A bronze patriarch holds a kantele in his hands, he touches sonorous strings with his fingers and sings about Great Vainamoinen’s deeds. Or maybe this old man with thick bushy brows above his prophetic eyes is a fairytale Kalevala hero himself?

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A turnpike at the park entrance clicks on and on. Visitors stream into shadowy alleys, they fill a wide green amphitheatre, a dance pavilion, shooting-galleries and attractions. Everywhere, at every park corner there are faces flourishing with joy and youthfulness.

Tall trees spread out a lacy shadow, bushes are green, the omnipresent Ladoga bay glistens.

And here’s a “semi-century-old” oak which spread wide its mighty shoulders.

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Let us cast around a glance from a gazebo which is stuck to a steep slope. The country of lakes and forests opens up its austere face, invites you to get to know it better, to love it.

Severe northern features are indelible. High granite rocks around, mighty trees, abundant waters. A fearless nature severely keeps its originality. When exotic trees brought from far away were planted in the park, in order to give them more strength, they were attached to poles made of simple local willow. It turned out, however, that all exotic newcomers did not take root and died, but the willow poles gave deep roots instead. Nowadays a thick row of willows proudly surrounds the Green Theatre.

The “wild” area of the park is so wide that it can accommodate several thousand people. A multitude of stairs lead to the top of a steep mountain that crowns the “wild” part of the park.

At the foot of the mountain remarkable relics of an ancient culture are thoroughly kept. There, under a branchy tree, lies a boat of ancient sailors who fearlessly sailed stormy waters of Ladoga, Onega, Baltic and White Seas. Originally shaped curves of this lightweight point-chest boat give its appearance a graciousness and mobility, and the boat looks alive, when, obedient to short oars, it quickly glides the waves.

Not surprisingly the boats that sail Karelian lakes and rivers are still built after that pattern.

There is another monument of hoary antiquity – a house made of solid pine without a single nail. What kind of giant men were building this dwelling? How were they cutting and trimming and then dragging those giant beams? How highly developed was their culture if they were able to built such houses and such boats, how skillful they were in their trade and showed such an amount of good taste in arts and crafts!

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The architecture of the modern town is particular, its asphalted streets and shadow-casting alleys are lovely – the town is renown by its municipal economy. Sortavala’s inhabitants are proud of their water supply system. In fact, this utility is unique from technical point of view. Water just gravity flows down from the Pearly Lake situated at the nearby hill. The lake is co pure and transparent, that its water does not need sedimentation tanks, nor chemical treatment.

Old Sortavala became young. It is not by surprise that its park is crowded with young people. If you look at their faces, you will easily guess what they are: workers, students, schoolchildren – adult and young builders of communism. One can also see suntanned faces of villagers. The collective farm named after Telman neighbors the town, in fact it is just a stone's throw from it.

How does the town live, what forms it?

Cloth manufacture, furniture and garment factories, fish-processing plant, major printing house are main local enterprises. There is also a drama theatre, a House of Culture, perfectly designed and equipped, several movie theatres, libraries and other cultural institutions. A reader can justly argue that all these are present in most Soviet towns and cities. A multitude of school and technical colleges is not a purely Sortavala particularity. Even the presence of many resorts and sanatoriums does not make this town outstanding as compared to other resort areas.

Nevertheless, there is something, that gives Sortavala an inimitable character: the town is in a complete harmony with environment. Industrial enterprises chimneys do not cover the clear sky with their smoke. Green streets and a vast park merge naturally with malachite greenery of neighboring forests. A profound bay with houses grown on both sides of it is a very convenient navigation port.

The sky is clear, besides some light clouds on it, and the sun casts its gleaming glance on earth – one can’t help admiring Sortavala, this picturesque gate of the Ladoga region.

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Arable land of Telman Collective Farm is surrounded by rocks bristled with thick wood. And, as everywhere else here, there shines a lake nearby, with a river drown as a steel thread towards another, neighboring lake.

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Sortavala is left far behind.

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The road becomes naughty and tedious. Asphalt turns into rubble that is not always laid down smoothly, somewhere the wheels plunge into a shallow dust. Its clouds surge up high and settle down slowly and reluctantly.

The narrow road from Sortavala clings to a stone wall clambering up the hill. Ascent is steep, and the speedometer's pointer deviates sharply to the left.

From the top there's a broad view on a field chain overgrown with a green bristle and the endless horizon of Lake Ladoga.

The car gains speed on a short hasty descent. Need to slow down the inordinate playfulness of the wheels. But at the valley bottom the road is restless too, it wobbles from side to side and occasionally touches the stone wall. Among the trees there are country houses painted with a bright ocher.

It appears that bright colors are not the privilege of the South. A simple ocher looks very elegant in combination with greens of pine needles, blueness of the sky and silver lakes. Also there are buildings lined with grey granite; they have severe austere appearance. A peaceful holiday house that stands on steepness of the Lake Ladoga shore seems like an impregnable castle. And stalwart spruces around it are like sticking formidable pikes.

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Looks like curiosity can not only force a traveller to turn from the straight path but also to drive a hefty piece of road back.

Here's the known hillock, a downhill and a turn. A holiday house looks like a castle; the same lake from the north side. The landscape is changing so amazingly!… Having turned the way to Ruskeala directly to the west, you can observe signs of other climate: there're more mixed forests and vast plowed fields.

The branch of a highway to Ruskeala does't allow to rush not only because of fragmental rock scree beside the radiator's front, muscled rhizomes appearing on the road or pothole variations. There's another reason that humbles the running wheels – a desire to leisurely look around, understand and remember the miracles, created by the unbridled nature.

Here are orders of pines that step on the rocky hilltops in serried ranks; as if there's no end or edge of them. But no! After the bend of the road, steep slopes are lined with plowed fields. Peaceful and perfect silence. Suddenly, a rumble of thousands of drums mercilessly crushes the silence: the overbrimmed lake throws cascades of water from the height of granite cliffs. As soon as a thunder of the waterfalls fades out, the green fields are left behind and the eyes become accustomed to a dense forest again, the road suddenly turns and flows into a street of a small township. There are many signboards that flit on our way: the Machine and Tractor Station, the school, the club and the village shop. And again: forest, forest…

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The narrow and tall chimney pierces the blue of the sky. A long dark plume stretches out of the pipe. When wind changes, the plume deflects after it. But these windless days the smoke builds up, hangs heavily over the calm water of the bay, slowly floats in an endless far of Lake Ladoga and merges with the horizon somewhere.

Cellulose factory with a pipe-lamp is surrounded by water from all sides, it is located on a small island. Low dike and the bridge, that connect the island with the shore, are not visible because of the frequent trees, making the factory look like an isolated unapproachable fort.

But despite of its insular position, the factory is connected with the town of Pitkäranta with unbreakable bonds. Most of the Pitkäranta's inhabitants work in the factory, they don't even notice the bridge and consider the island to be an essential part of the town.

Houses of Pitkäranta fled in different directions along the steep slope, which hem falls into the bay's water. Probably one of the best sceneries in Ladoga opens from the top of slope.

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In marble Ruskeala, where the power of still unconquered nature is so mighty, you especially notice how its strength is being subordinated to a man. Dense forest stepped far away from the town's outskirts. Railroad tracks shine among the wild cliffs. The lake is crossed by steamers, caravans of barges and rafts. And noticeable pipe of the cellulose factory rises above everything. From the slope steepness this young fast-growing town is visible clearly.

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The factory in Pitkäranta makes a significant contribution in cellulose producing in our country.

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When finished the observing, we go out of the cellulose factory's gate.

From here bridge and dike lead directly to the town.

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Tall thickets of willow-herb stretch along the both sides of the road for many kilometers. The car hastily bores the space between Pitkäranta and Salmi state farm.

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Willow-herb still frames the road with a solid colored lace. At the left there's a forest that became thicker; the rocky shore of Lake Ladoga approaches from the right. When the car wells up to a hillock, from the height one can see green islands, endless horizon of lake-sea, bluish haze over it and the coast flooded with sunlight.

Straight path swims under the wheels; there're only a few of oncoming cars.

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Pryazha settlement is in sight. Two roads merge in a one here. They strive to this place from far away, over Pitkäranta: the first is through Vedlozero, the second is through Olonets. And now, over the dozens of kilometers the roads met each other with a friendly hug, joined and changed their modest clothes of crushed stone and tar oil to a dapper smooth asphalt…

Alexander Talanov

Translated by Ilya Kuznetsov, 2013
(beginning from "The road becomes naughty and tedious.")