Friday, April 11, 2014


I once saw a map in Winterthur, Switzerland, that made a big impression on me. It was in my late sister-in-law’s apartment, a few short blocks from the Hauptbahnhoff, and it covered an entire wall in her sitting room. This was more than just a single map, however. It was several maps, collected together into one over-sized topographical collage of the western Soviet Union.

My sister-in-law’s Swiss husband, Moritz, is a linguist, specializing at the time in Finno-Ugric languages. These include some tongues spoken by small groups of people scattered all over the northern tier of Eurasia – in other words, somewhere in Russia. I suppose that’s why Moritz had assembled this full-wall geographic display of what encompassed the homelands of the Komi, Mari, Mansi, and other isolated groups of people speaking something distantly related to Finnish.

Seeing it scaled up that way, I was amazed how huge and apparently endless the territory of Russia really is, in fact the biggest country on Earth. And I recall thinking, as I studied the map up close, how cool it would be to venture out across that vast country someday, exploring it by car. Of course, such a road trip was impossible then, in Soviet times, and maybe only marginally more feasible now.

My interest in visiting Russia probably peaked not long after that trip to Switzerland, and in some ways, I feel bad about that.

Lately, with Russia again front and center in world affairs, with Vladimir Putin putting on polar-opposite displays of Russian pride in Sochi and Crimea, I find myself thinking it’s too bad I haven’t gotten better acquainted with the big country next door. 

I’m sorry to say that, in all the years of living here, only a couple hours from the Russian border, I’ve traveled across it only once, in 1984, on a weekend bus trip to Leningrad (when it was still called Leningrad). At the time, it felt like quite an adventure – a completely different world behind the Iron Curtain. I somehow even recall selling an old pair of Levis on a street corner, but that is surely a false memory. I did later sell a travel article about the trip. Of that I’m sure.

The Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage Museum. Photo: Dezidor

Since that trip, I haven’t been back. That’s despite the fact that modern St. Petersburg, a city of nearly five million people and monumental cultural landmarks, lays only 385 kilometers (240 miles) away by car.

I did make a quick visit to Estonia soon after it was no longer a Soviet republic. I spent a day in Tallinn in late October 1991, some five months after Estonian citizens had held a referendum on independence from the USSR and just eight weeks after they had faced a possible showdown with Soviet troops during Moscow’s “August Coup”.

(That was the putsch during which Soviet Communist Party hardliners placed Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest in Crimea and tried to take over the government. It was the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which apparently haunts some people in Russia, Vladimir Putin not the least among them, to this day.)

From my "archives" of old newspapers.

On that visit to independent Estonia, the recent past still lingered. Soviet authorities still manned passport control in Tallinn’s harbor, and the local currency was still the Soviet ruble. It wasn’t easy to find an open restaurant, and the one I did find was practically deserted. (To be fair, October is way outside the tourist season anywhere this far north, let alone in a country just recently opening up to the free world.)

Still, when it comes to possible travel destinations, I’ve always ignored the giant country that Estonia left behind, Mother Russia. I’m not quite sure why.

It’s not as if I haven’t had the opportunity. Last autumn, a friend of mine on his way to Shanghai tinkered with the idea of a more adventurous alternative to flying to China – taking the Trans-Siberian railway. He asked if I wanted to join him. It sounded exotic, and I was a bit tempted. But, with the prospect of sitting on a train non-stop for the week or so it would take to reach Beijing, I never seriously considered it.

In recent years, my wife – perhaps trying to break us out of our rut of traveling only to the US or central Europe – has been suggesting that for our summer holidays we should think about visiting Russia, especially the more remote areas where those various linguistic kinfolk of the Finns live, somewhere close to the Ural Mountains.

The Komi, distant linguistic cousins to Finns. Photo: Irina Kazanskaya

Maybe I’m not open-minded enough, but I haven’t been keen on the idea. Partly, it’s the thought of visiting a part of the world that looks essentially like Finland, but is even more remote and with even fewer amenities. And, the ethno-folkloric nature of such a destination doesn’t much appeal to me, either. Don’t get me wrong. I like watching folk dancing and shamanistic drumming as much as the next guy. I just haven’t been interested enough to spend precious holiday time seeking it out.

I’m no Ville Haapasalo, you might say. Haapasalo is a burly Finnish actor who is something of a celebrity in Russia due to his appearances in numerous Russian films, in which he apparently often plays the role of “the foreigner”.

Fluent in Russian and obviously a great admirer of the Russian people, Haapasalo has hosted several popular travelogue series for Finnish television, all premised on the idea on spending 30 days in this or that part of Russia.

In the first one, Venäjän halki 30 päivässä (“Across Russia in 30 Days”), Haapasalo travels by train through Siberia from Moscow to Vladivostok (like I might have done last autumn if I were made of stronger stuff).

This was followed by three similar month-long journeys:  Silkkitie 30 päivässä (“The Silk Road in 30 Days”), Suomensukuiset 30 päivässä (“Finnish Kinfolk in 30 Days”), and Jäämeri 30 päivässä (“The Arctic Sea in 30 Days”). In the last two, Haapasalo passes through the forest and tundra homelands of Finland’s various linguistic cousins – just the kind of secluded corners of Russia my wife is pressuring encouraging me to visit. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll follow in Haapasalo’s footsteps. I’ve noticed that the Komi Republic is a jumping off spot for guided packages to the Ural Mountains, so there might be some potential there after all.

One of the drawbacks of traveling to Russia is that they don’t make it easy. Unlike Sweden or Estonia, which Finns can visit on a whim by just hopping on a boat, a plane, or (previously in the case of Tallinn) a helicopter, Russia requires prior notice. And a visa.

The application process can take a couple of weeks and requires a letter of invitation of some sort, even for tourists. In practice, this is provided by the Russian tourist agency arranging your trip (so I understand). Apparently, you must also inform your complete itinerary beforehand. There’s no following your nose.

You also have to shell out some cash. For Finns, the non-refundable application fee is €35 (about $50) for the normal single-entry visa, double that for expediting the process (which means a visa in one to three working days). For Americans, it’s pricier, €106 (€145) for the normal processing time, €190 ($260) for the fast track. And that’s just to enter the country.

It doesn’t exactly lower the barriers to would-be tourists. I have heard, however, that in summer the St. Peter Line offers cruises for one- or three-day visa-free visits to St. Petersburg. I should check it out.

In any case, I should give up on my cartographically inspired daydream of ever being able to make a road trip across the back of Mother Russia as easily as driving from Boston to LA. Not that I didn't also have an opportunity (theoretically) at least to try it.

My friend trying to make his way to Shanghai also invited me to join him on an even more adventurous scheme he briefly considered, that is, going across Russia by car. Again, I was tempted. Well, not really, since I have some idea – from watching “Long Way Around”, the account of actor Ewan McGregor’s motorcycle ride around the world – of how rough Siberian roads can be, where they even exist.

If Russia’s primitive road system almost defeated a young Obi-Wan Kenobi on a BMW all-terrain bike (with a support team), then it’s certainly not something that should be attempted by two "middle-aged" men on their own who don’t speak a word of Russian. Again, that's just too bad. 

More historic headlines from my "archives"

"Congratulations, Dear Comrades!" 
"Under the Banner of Lenin" 
Pravda, November 7, 1982 
(65th anniversary of the October Revolution)


  1. There are thousands of places in Russia that I'd like to visit. Lake Baikal probably at the top of the list. Also St. Petersburg. My nephew, who works for he Defense Intelligence Agency was once slated to be posted for a brief time in St. Petersburg, but the posting was withdrawn. He was disappointed. They say it's a gorgeous city. There are supposed to be some supremely beautiful wild places in the Urals, too--I was always interested in that mountain range because it's the same age as the Appalachians and roughly the same elevation (highest peaks are just a tad over 6,000 feet/2,000 meters). I've been told the wildlife there is something to see.

    Slightly off topic...but I saw a US show featuring weird foods where the guy (Andrew Zimmern) travels around eating strange (to US sensibilities) foods. The last one was about Finland and he visited a coastal village and had some interesting foods, including some kind of seal--he said it was like eating a good cut of beef, but that you could taste the salmon the seal had consumed in its life. Have you ever eaten seal meat?

    The folk in the village where he shot the episode looked terribly friendly.

    1. I can imagine the Urals having some pretty secluded and wild areas. On the Internet, I ran across a outfit that arranges guided trips to the highest peak, something like a week trip.Could be interesting.

      I’ve never heard of anyone eating seal meat here, but my wife tells me it is possible to hunt them (in very limited numbers), so probably in some places they do. (The freshwater seals are more strictly protected – there are only 310 of them left.)

      Reindeer meat is fairly common here (marketed under the slogan “Poro on paras” = “Reindeer is best”), and in the canteen at the place I used to work they sometimes served moose. There’s a couple of classic Russian restaurants in Helsinki where one of the specialties is bear meat.