In trying to reach and conquer the Baltic Sea, Tsar Peter the Great declared war on the Swedish Empire in 1700. Three years into a conflict that would last more than two decades, Peter the Great sanctioned the building of a new town on the shores of Lake Onega that would be used as an iron foundry for much-needed weaponry for his northern fleet.
Under the supervision of Prince Menshikov, the settlement and foundry of Petrovskaya Sloboda was established in September 1703 — the same year the construction of St. Petersburg began.
The town grew in the aftermath of Peter the Great’s victory in the Great Northern War, and its industrial heritage remains evident to this day. Several name changes occurred during these early years until eventually Petrozavodsk, which means “Peter’s Factory,” was settled upon.
Today, Petrozavodsk is a small city by Russian standards and has a friendly, European atmosphere. A leafy park in the neoclassical center leads to the grand Musical Theater and former governor’s residence. But Petrozavodsk is also the victim of the blander sides of Soviet construction. Visitors venturing off the main streets and squares — which resemble St. Petersburg — are soon surrounded by characterless housing and the remnants of an abandoned industry.
Petrozavodsk is the capital of the Republic of Karelia — a vast region of rivers and forests that fills the gap between Lake Ladoga and the Arctic Circle. Surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty, it is an ideal launch point for the exploration of hectares of forest and a number of breathtaking waterfalls.
The region’s proximity to Scandinavia has led to a unique blend of cultures and folklores. Hallmarks of this Finnish heritage are visible in the city’s cuisine, traditions and souvenirs. Dance and musical ensembles regularly perform in the Karelian language, which shares the same roots as Finnish and is also written on many road signs and notices. These links and Peter the Great’s progressive tendencies all give the town a distinctly Western feel, a fact that visitors frequently comment on.
Karelia is equally famous for its rich rock deposits. Karelian stone has been highly sought after throughout the centuries, being used in the construction of monuments and buildings in Russia and Europe. Perhaps most famous is the presence of Karelian red marble in the tomb of Napoleon I in Paris and of Karelian quartzite, noted for its dark-red hue, in the structure of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow.
Several companies export Karelian stone to this day, as it is a popular choice for headstones in Russia’s cemeteries as well as being used in general construction. Many of the town’s own monuments reflect this diverse geology.
On the whole, Petrozavodsk is a mixed bag for the traveler. The town itself has seen better days, and it is certainly outshone by nearby St. Petersburg. In terms of business, however, the town has been growing steadily over the last five years, with city hall’s budget increasing year after year since 2006, and the average wage accordingly.
The energy sector has provided the biggest boom following a restructuring of the Russian energy sector, in which field leader Karelenergo joined the main regional companies in the surrounding area to form parent company IDGC of the North-West. This, alongside a wave of investment that led to the founding of two new companies in 2006, Energokomfort and the Karelian Power-Selling Company, has led to an increase in the sector’s yearly income by a third over five years. Karelians now enjoy some of the lowest fuel prices in the country.