Karelia and Komi, the two northernmost republics of European Russia, occupy a sizable portion of the latitudes north of Moscow. Both are rich in natural resources, exploitation of which has caused considerable environmental damage.

The people around the Baltic are of Finno-Ugric origin. There are about 10,000 Vepses living in Karelia. There are about 100,000 Finns living Karelia and Estonia.

Votic is a language in danger of going extinct. It is spoken by about 30 people on the Russian coast of the Gulf of Finland. The Izhors are a minority with about 800 members that live in the St. Petersburg region.


The Karelians are a Finno-Ugric people that live in northwest Russia near the Finnish border, in Finland and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.. Karelians are cousin of the Finns and have been largely assimilated into Russian or Finnish society. Few speak Karelian. Even so they consider themselves Karelian. Their traditional culture is more closely linked with that of the Finns rather Russians.

The Karelians have traditionally along the northeastern shore of Lake Ladoga. Before World War II this was part of Finland. After the war it was ceded to the Soviet Union. Many Karelians were resettled in Finland. Today there are about 140,000 Karelians in Russia. About 80,000 of the them form 10 percent of the population of the Karelia republic along the Finnish border.

Karelians have lived in the border region between Russia and Finland for more than 1,000 years. They were mentioned in Scandinavian sagas dated to 874 and 1143, when they took part in battles against the Finns. There homeland was also the site of fierce fighting between the Russians and Swedes.

Karelians have traditionally lived in settlements along lakes or rivers and raised crops and animals, hunted, fished and caught fur -bearing animals and held jobs in the cities. Karelians drink Karelsky Balsam, a local firewater, with an alcohol content of 45 percent, made from 20 herbs and spices, including galangal and nutmeg. The Karelians also are known for their colorful folk art and wooden architecture. Most are either Orthodox Christians or Lutherans. Some traditional beliefs in spirits remain. They have a rich mythology and epic poetry. There are beliefs in magical spells. There may still be bull sacrifices during festivals honoring local patron saints.


Karelia Autonomous Region is vast area that stretches from St. Petersburg to the Arctic Circle. It is the home to 55 different ethnic groups including the 140,000 Karelians, and many Russians who are offspring of labor camp survivors. In the past it was part of Sweden and Finland. Some signs are in both Russian and Finnish. There are deep forests and 60,000 lakes, including Ladoga and Onega Lakes, two of the largest lakes in Europe. The White Sea Canal links rivers and lake in the region to the Arctic Sea.

Lake Ladoga (near St. Petersburg) is the largest lake in Europe. Fed by water from 3,500 rivers and dotted by more han 500 islands, it covers 7,000 square miles and is about 150 miles long and an average of 50 miles wide. The lake is surrounded by flat expanses a beech, willows, fir and spruce that stretch as far as the eye can see. There are sandy, rocky beaches along its southern shore. The 46-mile-long Neva River connects Lake Ladoga to the Baltic Sea and St. Petersburg. During World War II, Lake Ladoga saved hundreds of thousands of lives. When it froze in the winter it became the "road to life" allowing convoys of trucks to break the Nazi blockade and bring food, ammunition and supplies to Leningrad during the 872-day Leningrad Blockade. Lake Onega (connected to Lake Ladoga by the 139-mile-long Svir River) is the second largest lake in Europe and one of the purest as well.

At 172,400 square kilometers, Karelia is the fourth largest of the autonomous republics of the Russian Federation. The republic shares a border with Finland from the Kola Peninsula in the north to Lake Ladoga in the south. The status of Karelia has changed several times in the twentieth century. When Karelia first became an autonomous republic of the Soviet Union in 1923, it included only the territory known as Eastern Karelia, which had been Russian territory since 1323. When Western Karelia was gained from the Finns in 1940, the enlarged Karelia became a full republic of the Soviet Union, called the Karelo-Finnish Republic. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]


The Komi people are a Finno-Ugric group, traditionally have herded reindeer, hunted, and fished. Closely related to the Udmurts who live in the Volga region, they originated from a region north of Iran and speak a Finno-Ugric language related to Finnish. When Russians took over their homeland in the 14th century many converted to Orthodox Christianity. Saint Stephen of Perm iss credited with launching the conversion process and providing a written language for the Komi language. Today, most Komi are Orthodox Christians.

About 350,000 Komi live in northern Russia, with many of them in the Komi republic, The Komi include three ethnic subgroups: the Permyaks, who inhabit the Permyak Autonomous Region south of the republic; the Yazua, who live in both the Republic of Komi and the Permyak region; and the Zyryan, who account for the majority of the republic's Komi population.

The Komi have largely been assimilated. Their towns looks like Russian towns and in many cases are dominated by Russians. In the old days the Komi hunted and fished and were involved in forestry. Now they have normal jobs. In Russia they are known as skilled folk artist and carvers. They have also produced a number of poets and writers that are well-known in Russia.

Komi Republic

The Republic of Komi extends westward from the northern end of the Ural Mountains across the Pechora River basin; the republic's westernmost extension is about 250 kilometers east of Arkhangel'sk and the White Sea. The region, which as a republic occupies 415,900 square kilometers, was annexed by the principality of Muscovy in the fourteenth century, principally because of its rich fur-trading potential. In the eighteenth century, Russians began exploiting mineral and timber resources. In 1921 the Soviet government designated an autonomous oblast for the Komi, and in 1936 the oblast became an autonomous republic. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Altogether, in 1994 the Komi constituted 23 percent of the 1.2 million people of their republic, which had a 58 percent Russian majority. There are also some Ukrainians. Long isolated by the forbidding climate of their region, the Komi of the north have intermixed with other ethnic groups only in recent decades.

Bordering the Kara and Barents Seas and located just southwest of the oil-rich Yamal Peninsula, Komi has become an important producer of oil and natural gas; in 1994 a pipeline leak caused extensive damage to the tundra and rivers in the Pechora Basin. Vorkuta, in the far northeastern corner of the republic near the Kara Sea, is an important Arctic coal-mining center. The capital of Komi is Syktyvkar. Komi’s virgin forests were selected as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995.


There are about 2,000 Sami (Lapps) live on the Kola Peninsula of northwest Russia. Constituting the bulk of the territory of Murmansk Oblast, the Kola Peninsula lies almost completely to the north of the Arctic Circle and is bordered by the Barents Sea in the north and the White Sea in the east and southeast. The city of Murmansk is the most populous human settlement on the peninsula, with a population of over 300,000.

Despite the peninsula's northerly location, its proximity to the Gulf Stream leads to unusually high temperatures in winter, but also results in high winds due to the temperature variations between land and the Barents Sea. Summers are rather chilly, with the average July temperature of only 11 ̊C (52 ̊F). The peninsula is covered by taiga in the south and tundra in the north, where permafrost limits the growth of the trees resulting in landscape dominated by shrubs and grasses. The peninsula supports a small variety of mammals, and its rivers are an important habitat for the Atlantic salmon.

The Sami have been in the Kola peninsula for over a thousand years, long before the Russians arrived. By the end of the 19th century the Sami had been pushed to the far north of the peninsual by Russian settlers. In an attempt to collectivize the Sami in the Soviet era, the Sami were forced to move to urban areas and industrial farms.

Book: “Runnning with Reindeer: Encounter in Russian Lapland” by Roger took (Westview Press, 2004).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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