The rocky road to Lake Ladoga
I suddenly felt very unprepared. The VW Polo was not made for that. With the rental car dancing around the pothole-riddled path in the depths of Lord-Sait-Where in Leningrad Oblast, I grew increasingly afraid to hear a thud.
The route was not my choice. Google Maps had suggested it to avoid a traffic jam. Google didn’t know it, but it would be difficult to hit 60 km / h on these back roads without causing cataclysmic damage to the car. While crawling, we probably added about 20 minutes and not a bit of stress to the trip.
However, adventure is preferable to stationary traffic. There must have been a lot of these that day.
We had been planning the day trip for a while, but finding a car to hire turned out to be more difficult than you might think. Our plans were canceled the week before as the hire company called to inform us that instead of the cheap hire we requested they had a high end BMW for £ 80 per day. ‘Nyet, spasibo,‘ I answered.
And that was after overcoming other obstacles to hiring. “We have three rules,” the rental company said on the first call, “and rule number three is that the driver must be a Russian citizen”.
This is the code for ‘we don’t want the driver to be from certain places‘. Knowing this, we asked if an Englishman would be allowed. “Oh, yes, no problem,” was the response.
Although a few weeks late, we were finally exploring the Ingrian hinterland of St. Petersburg, crossing colonies with particularly non-Russian sounding names. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising: this area was once known as Ingria and was inhabited by people speaking a Finnish language. My stepfather was Ingrien.
The Soviet Union did for the Ingrians however. Considered an unreliable nationality, they suffered from the heaviness of Soviet paranoia embodied by the repressive measures of Stalin and Yagoda. Many had gone to Finland during the war, but Stalin imposed the return of all Soviet citizens to Finnish territory at the end of the Continuing War in 1944; on their return, many were sent further east to the Urals and Kazakhstan. Those who remained were soon ousted by the immigration of Russians to the region.
It is an area that has been the subject of fighting for centuries. Its key strategic position is reflected in the name of Shlisselburg, a fortress island at the head of the Neva River on Lake Ladoga. Shlisselburg is a transliteration of Schüsselburg, meaning ‘key fortress’, a name given to it by Peter the Great. This was to be our first stop.
Although various combinations of Slavs, Scandinavians, and Finns spent centuries spilling blood trying to control the region, Shlisselburg’s military importance declined with the founding of St. Petersburg across the Neva. on the Baltic coast, and it became a prison. The first detainee was Peter the Great’s first wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina. Catherine I, Peter’s second wife, thought it would be a convenient place to keep this potential rival when she became Tsarina after Peter’s death in 1725. She was not to be the last famous inmate of the island prison. : Ivan VI was assassinated there and Lenin his brother, Alexander Ulyanov, was hanged there as a reward for his revolutionary efforts.
The fall of Tsarism did not mark the end of the bloodshed. During World War II, Shlisselburg was besieged for 500 days by the German army. They destroyed the fortress with endless bombardments, but the Russians held the island, preventing the complete encirclement of Leningrad. This kept the “road of life” open through frozen Lagoda Lake and allowed a trickle of supplies to reach the hungry inhabitants of the then famous town of Peter.
Today on the island there is a cafe selling ice cream and children running around with swords and plastic shields.
From Shlisselburg we drove towards Staraya Ladoga (‘Old Ladoga’). As we headed east, we passed a column of traffic spanning at least five miles. People were now outside their cars – greenhouses on wheels in the summer sun – and meandering dangerously close to the opposite lane. Knowing that there was only one route back to St. Petersburg, we knew we would likely be seated in the queue later that evening, so we decided to take our time.
Several centuries ago, Staraya Ladoga was a great trading outpost. Not that you know now: other than the recently renovated fortress, there isn’t much in the city. In its heyday, Staraya Ladoga was dominated by the Vikings who used such an outpost. By following the river south, you may eventually find your way to Odessa, Kiev and – if you sail long enough in your rowboat – Constantinople.
A hill outside the city is the site of the Viking burial mounds, one of them allegedly of the legendary Rurik, one of many contenders for the title of “founder of Russia” and founder of the eponymous Rurik dynasty. , who ruled various Russian kingdoms until the 16th century. From the point of view of the tumulus, the river winds through the green landscape, the fortress visible in the distance.
Staraya Ladoga loses its importance as more fortresses are built, including Shlisselburg. The founding of Novaya Ladoga (“New Ladoga”) closer to Lake Ladoga in 1704, by the still active Peter the Great, sealed its permanent decommissioning in obscurity.
Food – shashlik, of course – and we went home. We passed a cemetery for those who died in the Great Patriotic War (as the Russians call WWII). A sign at the entrance reads “Nobody and nothing is forgotten”. Unlike such cemeteries that I have encountered elsewhere, its door is locked.
The traffic jam awaited us. We spent a few hours listening Jeeves & Wooster while I was explaining the wodehouseisms to the woman. Finally, we got past the cause of the delay: not one crash, but two. A truck was lying on its side along a grassy edge, and two cars looked like crushed Coke cans. Another truck carrying alcohol had spilled its contents across the road; broken bottles the slightest cause for concern in the midst of such chaos.
At home, I drank a beer and reflected on how constantly changing everything is. Cities and fortresses rise and fall unpredictably, life itself is forever on the line. Tired dog, I climbed into bed.