The Republic of Karelia is vast area in northeastern Russia that stretches from St. Petersburg to the Arctic Circle. Covering 172,400 square kilometers (66,600 square miles), it is home to about 620,000 people from 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. Website: Tourist portal of Karelia:

Karelia is the land of the Karelian people, a Baltic-Finnic ethnic group It is currently divided among the northwestern Russian Federation (the federal subjects of the Republic of Karelia and Leningrad Oblast) and Finland (the regions of South Karelia and North Karelia). The climate is cook in the summer and cold in the winter. The average temperature is +15 degrees C (60 degrees F) in the summer but can drop to -35 degrees C (-31 degrees F) in the winter.

The Republic of Karelia contains deep forests, clear rivers, clean air, and 60,000 lakes, including Ladoga and Onega Lakes, the two largest lakes in Europe. The White Sea Canal links rivers and lake in the region to the Arctic Sea. The area is famous for its islands that are protected by UNESCO; in particular, Kizhi and Valaam. Visitors to Karelia can see the largest plain waterfall in Europe (Kivach), stay at the Martial Waters spa, which opened during the reign of Peter the Great, and discover the Karelian-Finnish epic poem The Kalevala. Activities that can be enjoyed include extreme off-road trips, hiking expeditions, canoeing, rafting, kayaking, fishing, hunting and checking out the famous petroglyphs around Lake Ladoga.

After World War II, the southwestern corner of the republic, including its only stretch of open-water seacoast on the Gulf of Finland, became part of the Russian Republic. In 1956 the regime of Nikita S. Khrushchev (in office 1953-64) redesignated the artificial entity, which never came close to having a Karelian majority, as the Karelian ASSR. In 1994 the republic's population of about 800,200 was 74 percent Russian, only 10 percent Karelian, 7 percent Belarusian, and 4 percent Ukrainian. The dominant religion is Russian Orthodoxy.

In a region dominated by forests, lakes, and marshes, the Karelian economy is supported mainly by logging, mining, and fishing. The plentiful mineral resources include construction stone, zinc, lead, silver, copper, molybdenum, aluminum, nickel, platinum, tin, barite, and iron ore. Industries include timber and mineral processing, and the manufacturing of furniture, chemicals, and paper.

Northern European Russia

Northern European Russia is roughly defined as the area north of Moscow between Finland and the Baltic Sea in the west, the Arctic Ocean and its branches in the north and the Ural mountains in the east. The regions is mostly flat and dotted with lakes and marshes. The area’s far northern areas are covered by tundra. Further south are taiga forest.

Northern European Russia was first inhabited by reindeer herders like the Sami people (Lapps) and later by Novgorodian merchants and Swedes, who occupied the region for a long times. The Russians didn't completely lay claim to the area until Peter the Great drove the Swedes from the eastern Baltic. The area was largely ignored until its importance as a supply line was realized in World War I and World War II.

Most places of interest lie along three routes: 1) the semi-circular route through lake, rivers and canals between Moscow and St. Petersburg; 2) the north-south rail-road route between St. Petersburg and Murmansk; and 3) the north-south rail-road route between Moscow and Arkhangelsk


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.


Kem (500 kilometers north of St. Petersburg on the road and railroad to Murmansk) is a small town of 18,000 on the White Sea. There isn't much to do here but see some old wooden houses. It is however a convenient jumping off point for Solovetsky Island. The boat journey is two hours, less time than from Arkhangelsk.

Kem is a historic town and the administrative center of Kemsky District of the Republic of Karelia. It is located on the shores of the White Sea where the Kem River enters it, on the railroad leading from Petrozavodsk to Murmansk.

In 1926–1939, Kem was used as departure place for boats headed to Solovetsky Islands carrying political prisoners. During the Cold War, the town was the site of the Poduzhemye air base, a key interceptor aircraft airfield covering Karelia. Kem was the site of The Island (Ostrov), a 2006 film about a fictional 20th century Eastern Orthodox monk. The film closed the 2006 Venice Film Festival and was a moderate box-office success.

Kostomuksha (140 kilometers west of Kem) is small mining town is located almost on the border of Russia and Finland. During World War II Kostomuksha became a place of fierce battles between Nazi troops and Soviet partisans.

Paanayärvi National Park

Paanayärvi National Park (350 kilometers northwest of Kem) is situated near the Arctic Circle on the border between Finland and Murmanskaya oblast. It was established on May 20, 1992. The park is 104 hectares, of which 60 percent is covered by pristine, untrodden forests.

In Paanayärvi Park, you can ascend Nuorunen mountain, the highest mountain in Karelia (576 meters) and enjoy the view of Paanayärvi Lake, which lies in a deep ravine. The lake is small but particularly deep — 128 meters. Among other landmarks, visitors should absolutely visit the sheer cliff Ruskeallio, the Ollanga river, Myantukoski and Kivakkoski waterfalls, and ascend the Kivakkunturi mountain to enjoy yet another breathtaking view.

The park is well equipped to receive visitors, hiking paths and trails have been laid out, footbridges have been placed over streams and swamps, and informational stands and camping places are available. Accommodation options are also available. Having purchased a license that is available in the Pyaozersky village visiting center, one can go fishing in the park. In Pyaozersky there are also several motorboat and kayak rental centers. In addition, it is definitely worth taking a sightseeing trip of Paanayärvi Lake by motorboat or the wooden sailboat Nadezhda.

National Park “Paanajarvi” is located in the northwest of Karelia, in its highest part on Maanselikja mountain ridge. The landscapes of the park are very picturesque — here mountain peaks alternate with deep ravines, numerous lakes, various bogs, wide rivers and waterfalls. Mountainsides and river valleys are covered with undisturbed forests, among which thin fir-woods predominate. There are winter and summer routes and many tourist guest houses in the park.

Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea

The Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018. Dated to a Neolithic period beginning 6,600-7,000 years ago, the site has 33 components: 11 sites at the White Sea and 22 at Lake Onega. There are at least 4,500 petroglyphs in these two parts The most famous image is a two-meter petroglyph depicting a humanoid with a rectangular head.

Petroglyphs are rock carvings, or more technically “images created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving, or abrading, as a form of rock art.” Those found found in Karelia are often carved on granite. Dating them is difficult because of lack of organic compounds in granite.

Locals believe that the petroglyphs depicts representatives of evil spirits, and therefore have nicknamed the rock on which they are depicted, Devils Nose. It is believed that places with petroglyphs were sanctuaries for the people that created them, where the indigenous inhabitants of Karelia prayed to their gods and, perhaps, offered sacrifices to them.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The petroglyphs of Lake Onega and petroglyphs of the White Sea “are located 330 kilometers apart from each other, in southeastern and northeastern parts of the Republic of Karelia. Petroglyphs of Lake Onega are located along the eastern shore of Lake Onega for the distance of 18.5 kilometers, including more than 1,200 figures in 25 groups located at 17 capes and 6 islands. Petroglyphs of the White Sea are located 6-8 kilometers from Belomorsk, on small and large islands in the branching delta of river Vyg, occupying a territory of 1.8 kilometers from north to south and 0.6 kilometers from west to east, including at least 3,400 individual figures in 11 groups. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

“Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea are the unique samples of primitive monumental art that are among the most important ancient cultural and historical attractions of the Northern Europe. They form an individual major center of Neolithic rock art characterized by originality and mystery of its pictures, diversity of themes, vivid imagery, abundance of scenes and multi-figure compositions, good preservation, exceptionally expressive natural surroundings and cultural context represented by nearby ancient settlements. The nominated property is a serial one as its components reflect the cultural and functional relations preserved for a long time stipulating respectively cultural, chronological, evolutionary and landscape-ecological interrelation.

“Complexes of Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea form kind of primitive sanctuaries under the open sky together with the surrounding landscape, with each of these having its own characteristics, similarities and obvious differences thus naturally supplementing each other. Similarities are due to the shared timeline, connatural environment and common culture, while the differences are associated with the local traditions and preferences. The same technique used in carving the figures (picking), presence of common basic themes, similar or in some cases even identical petroglyphs idnicate possible direct contacts between the population of both territories and a certain continuity in creative practices during the evolution of rock art of the Lake Onega and White Sea.”

“Rock art appeared on the granite cliffs of the eastern bank of Lake Onega and the White Sea only 6,600-7,000 years ago and it was only active during Neolithic era, being drastically different from the similar monuments of Northern Europe created over many millennia and dating back to various eras. Petroglyph paintings of Karelia were created by representatives of archaeological Pit–Comb Ware culture and Rhomb-Pit Ware culture. This layer of middle and final Neolithic period antiquities is well represented in the basin of Lake Onega and southwestern White Sea area.

“Physical appearance of creators and contemporaries of Karelian petroglyph can be learned from craniological materials of Late Mesolithic Oleneostrovsky burial ground located nearby from the Onezhskoe rock sanctuary. Unique horn rods crowned with expressive sculptures of moose heads found in this burial ground are quite similar to those on rock carvings and allow us to suggest continuity between Mesolithic and Neolithic population of Karelia.”

Petroglyphs of the White Sea

Petroglyphs of the White Sea (50 kilometers south of Kem) are located on seven former islands of river Vyg delta in its outflow to the White Sea. One of the largest clusters of the Northern Europe, the complex of petroglyphs comprises 11 groups of rock carvings containing 3,411 separate figures. The largest amount of petroglyphs is located in Zalavruga (about 2,000) and islands Shoyrukshin (more than 500) and Erpin Pudas (more than 200). Groups of 7-100 figures are identified on the nameless islands. More than 80 archaeological sites in the area have been identified and studied, dated from Neolithic age to the late Middle Ages, including 42 camp sites coincident to the rock art.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Running in its stone bed, the Vyg river formed a branched network of streams and side channels, was full of rapids, stone islands, waterfalls, whirlpools and cataracts. As of now, the ancient landscape was slightly modified due to construction of the White Sea–Baltic Canal and hydroelectric power plants. The river bed got drained greatly simplifying the access to small petroglyph groups previously located on small remote islands. In the periods of regular discharges through the Vygostrovskaya hydroelectric power plant the landscape becomes almost like as it was in the original times. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

“White Sea petroglyphs are distinct in originality and diversity of themes; some of their plots are rarely or never found on the similar objects of Northern Fennoscandia. Judging by the area of rock paintings (about 1 hectare) and number of figures (more than two thousand), the Zalavruga petroglyph group was the main sacred center in the lower reaches of the Vyg river. The monument is unique in the large number of flat surfaces covered with carvings, often combined in complex multi-figure compositions with abundance of small striking details. They are made in realistic and often expressive manner.

“According to palaeographical and geographical data, the White Sea petroglyphs, just as the Onega petroglyphs, were created in the Neolithic age by the population of the Pit–Comb Ware culture and the later Rhomb-Pit Ware culture and probably appeared here several hundred years after the Onega ones. The first stage of the White Sea rock art is represented by northern and southern groups of Besovy Sledki, Erpin Pudas I, II and IV.”

Images in the White Sea Petroglyphs

Researchers have interpreted less than half of the petroglyphs discovered here. Petroglyphs usually represent animals, birds, fish, boats, and people, but sometimes the symbols are of unfamiliar objects. Some scientists classify these pictures as solar-lunar types and believe that they represent the moon and the sun. Others are convinced that ancient people saw some kind of flying objects and depicted them.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The petroglyphs are clearly aligned towards hunting. Predominant are the images of boats, both crewed and empty ones, there are also numerous images of labour and hunting equipment (bows, arrows, spears, skis and ski sticks), various human and animal footprints, often the hunter himself is depicted. Rare and unusual images include the trees with birds or animals (lynx) sitting on their tops. In one case, a river bed is carved: a long and very winding one, with side streams and an island; boats with crew are depicted along the river bed. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

“The most popular themes are hunts for sea (at least 70 scenes) and forest animals, sometimes hunt for waterfowl and upland fowl. Several groups display images of processions of people with some items in their hands (reminding of ritual rods with moose heads), there are also scenes of hostile confrontation (with wounded and dead characters). The perfect quality and the level of artistic expression of narrative scenes of Zalavruga are unparalleled on the world scale; they give us the information not present in archaeological materials, namely targets and methods of hunting, fine details of armaments and everyday life.

“There are certain similarities with the petroglyphs of Lake Onega of the middle stage, manifesting in almost identical images of humans and boats. Researchers associate the subsequent stages of evolution of the White Sea rock art with small island groups in the bed of river Vyg (Zolotets I, Erpin Pudas III). The highest stage of development of the White Sea petroglyphs are the unique narrative compositions of Zalavruga, especially evident in multi-figure scenes of hunt for sea animals (white whale and ringed seal), forest animals (reindeer, moose and bear) as well as water and upland fowl (geese and woodcocks). The final stage of development of the White Sea petroglyph tradition is represented by the giant mural of Staraya Zalavruga with its giant expressive images of reindeer, total length of about 3 meters.”

Belomorsk Petroglyphs Archaeological Complex

Belomorsk Petroglyphs Archaeological Complex (50 kilometers south of Kem) not only contains rock petroglyphs but also over 30 ancient settlements dated between the 3rd and 2nd millenium B.C. Created around six thousand years ago and regarded as one of the most outstanding monuments of primitive art in Northern Europe, the petroglyphs here are located on picturesque islands on the lower reaches of the Vyg river in small clusters on such islands as Shoyrukshin, Erpin Pudas, Bolshoi Malinin, etc. Over 2,000 individual figures are spread out among almost two square kilometers.

The closest petroglyph clusters to Belomsork are Besovy Sledki and Erpin Pudas. Besovy Sledki, a monument dated to the 4th century B.C., is located near the Shoyrukshin waterfall. It was first mentioned by A. Linevsky, an anthropology student, in the summer of 1926. One of the local residents brought the student to Shoyrukshin island and showed him a rock on the shore covered with various symbols and figures. At a certain point, the rock with petroglyphs was hidden behind a pavilion. The lower part of the rock is smooth and one can clearly see images of people and animals, hunting scenes, battles, and ritual processions, as well as abstract symbols. Here you can also see the oldest image of a person on skis to be found in Europe.

Along the base of the rock below the lowest line of images is a chain of eight barefooted footprints. The footprints end with a significant figure of a “demon” standing at some distance from the main cluster of figures, which explains the monument's name. Researchers think the “demon” was a lord or a god, and the rock with the pictures was a place for making sacrifices to him. The groups of petroglyphs and ancient settlements along with the surrounding nature create a unique archaeological complex. Its territory includes the Belomorsk Petroglyphs trail.

Comparison of the Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea

The petroglyphs of the Belomorsk region are of almost the same age as those of Lake Onega. They were created between the beginning of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd millenium B.C. by the ancestors of modern Finnic peoples. While the image-creation process on the White Sea took longer, twice as many petroglyphs have been discovered there, compared to the Lake Onega sites.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Components of the nomination, namely Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea are removed more than 300 kilometers apart from each other and are located in slightly different biomes: middle and northern taiga, respectively. Of course, both rock complexes have independent outstanding value, but they were linked to each other by ancient waterways through most of their active time for about 500-700 years. Comparative analysis of petroglyph carving technique, semantics of basic and original images, hunting compositions and overall similar cultural context (Neolithic Pit–Comb Ware culture) indicate direct contacts between the populations of both territories and trace the origin of White Sea rock art traditions from the Onega one. Both the role and content of such outstanding phenomena as rock art of Karelia can only be fully revealed in a serial nomination. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

“Comparison of Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea can be prominent in clarification of peculiar development of rock art of various local areas. All petroglyphs of the White Sea are located on islands while those of Lake Onega are mostly located at the capes, but sometimes on coastal islands. In the White Sea area predominant are the figures carved for their entire silhouette while it is common for the Onega ones to be only traced along the contour or half contour. In general, the White Sea petroglyphs are more realistic than the Onega ones as there are fewer fantastic characters. Onega cliffs also include multi-figure compositions though their plots are mostly underdeveloped and there are fewer details than in the best rock paintings of the White Sea. There are notable differences in themes. Bird images are predominant in the Onega sanctuary while in the White Sea one they are few; mostly replaced by high-sided boats with a moose head stem post with visible differences from the linear Onega carvings. However, a small petroglyph group was discovered recently in the lower reaches of the Vyg river with carvings of similar narrow boats adorned with swan heads. Onega rock paintings have plenty of half-human half-animal figures almost unknown in the White Sea area, where carvings of people are much more common: hunters for forest and sea animals and birds. Except one case, there are no solar or lunar carvings among the White Sea petroglyphs, but there are bows, arrows, skis, plenty of sea animals and sea hunt scenes, animal and human footprints that are either not represented or very rare at the Onega cliffs.

“However, similarities between Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea are significant. Both at Lake Onega and in the White Sea areas pictures were carved on the sloping rock outcrops near the water, grouped in isolated clusters. These clusters have some variations in their themes, number of carvings, density of placement and degree of conservation. Central rock paintings are standing out dominated by large and even giant anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. The places of localization of clusters have expressive landscape features and certain natural uniqueness especially intensifying the human perception of the surrounding environment. There is a range of close art correlations between the two petroglyph centers regarding the imagery of birds, anthropomorphic figures in profile, scenes of hunt for white whale, moose and bear, propagation of human race etc. The cultural context is represented by settlements of Neolithic Pit–Comb Ware culture and Rhomb-Pit Ware culture also indicating the direct contacts between the populations of both areas.

“The range of plots represented in the both petroglyph complexes of Karelia is rather close: anthropomorphic images, forest and sea animals, waterfowl, boats etc. Moreover, the analysis of stylistic features of Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea from the art standpoint fixes numerous cases of interaction and obvious contacts between the creators of these rock paintings. These features and a range of some other ones allow us to speak about the common beliefs and culture of population as well as chronological proximity of Onega and White Sea petroglyphs. Onega petroglyph tradition, appearing a little earlier, could give a certain impetus to emergence and development of carving traditions for the White Sea cliffs and lower reaches of the Vyg river.

“According to the archaeological, geographical and palaeographical data, the rock art of Karelia was interrupted abruptly due to natural processes associated with sharp rise in water level and drowning of the rock paintings, and, most likely, never got renewed again. Thus, Petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White Sea together with surrounding natural landscape present a unique evidence of extinct cultural rock art tradition of the Northern Europe.”

Looking for and Studying Petroglyphs

Even today, scientists discover new drawings or previously unknown important part of the old images. One of the reasons for such surprises is the poor preservation of many of the rock figures. The clarity of he rock engravings largely depends on the lighting. It is best to examine them in the early morning or evening sunlight. The slanting rays of the rising or setting sun makes the image more prominent and clearly visible. Light effects often so strong that literally transform the drawings.

Many figures clearly stand out against the reddish cliffs, many though are covered by lichens, soil and moss, so finding them is not easy. It can take a lot of work to find and identify the Onega petroglyphs. A.Y. Brusov, a petroglyph researcher, specializes in trying to locate the images on rock surfaces, often checking the same rocks at different hours of the day. He has said that a see a number of poorly visible images are only visible during certain hours.

"One day,” Brusov wrote: “a strong wind arose after the big rain that quickly dry the smooth surfaces of rocks, whereas even in subtle depressions moisture stained with a dark color Here at devils nose, to the east of the central group, for high. crack clearly loomed multiple images, which under other circumstances remain invisible during all hours of the day. Only the sharp difference in the color of dried smooth surface and still humid tiny potholes, the difference is that it is almost impossible to carry out an artificial way,”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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