When I canceled my plans for an overland trip to Central Asia, but already had a new Russian visa in my passport, I decided to make the best of it by visiting Kaliningrad, that little bit of Russian territory on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania. I probably never would have made it here otherwise, but it proved a fun several days and maybe I will go back someday.

I crossed into Kaliningrad oblast from Lithuania near Marijampolė (the Chernyshevskoye-Kybartai border crossing‎). Chernyshevskoye is a fairly post-apocalyptic looking village, with lots of rusting old constructions from Soviet times and no sign of any employment. When I hitchhiked towards Kaliningrad city, my driver had to make a delivery in a small town first, so we drove at terrifying speed on a badly asphalted minor road through a series of poor villages across the northeast of the territory.

But the city of Kaliningrad was surprisingly prosperous, with lots of new cars and fancy shops. Its status as a free trade area seems to have greatly changed it. There were lots of foreigners walking around, so I encountered none of the surprise or suspicion found in other parts of Russia that were formerly closed military zones.

In spite of that feeling of new prosperity, most of the architecture is typically Soviet. Reflecting the region’s brief but militaristic past as Russian territory, there is a greater amount of World War II memorials and monuments to sailors than in the typical Russian city. The only remnant of the Prussian city of Königsberg that was here prior to 1945 is the cathedral and some adjacent houses, but even these are recent reconstructions out of the ruins. In a perverse way, it’s impressive how the Soviet Union managed to completely eradicate whatever was here before.

On the way out, I hitchhiked from Kaliningrad to the BagrationovskBezledy border crossing with Poland. I wasn’t allowed to walk across this border, but there was a long queue of Polish cars and it didn’t take long to get a lift across with one of the numerous drivers who had just popped across the border for cheap petrol and ciggies.


The village of Chavainnur (formerly Shyrkannur) in the Morko region of the Republic of Mari El was the home of Sergei Chavain, the founder of Mari literature. Chavain wrote the first poem in Mari, Oto (The Grove) and the first novel, Elnet, which takes its name from the great river of this region. Chavain was murdered by Stalin along with most of the Mari intelligentsia in 1937, but when he was rehabilitated decades later, his home was turned into a museum and filled with many of his surviving personal effects. Next to Chavain’s home there’s a cultural centre with a small theatre and an exhibition of Mari handicrafts.

Chavainnur is a pleasant village of some 40 houses. Although the place was virtually deserted when I came, the museum guestbook shows frequent visits by Russians, and perhaps two or three visits a year by Finns and Estonians. That must explain why this village is kept in better shape than the surrounding ones, with an asphalted road and well-tended front yards.

Cosmopolitan Cheboksary

In all three trips to Cheboksary I’ve made until now, I’ve come to the Chuvash Republic after some time in Mari El. Almost any place would seem highly developed after the post-Soviet blues of Yoshkar-Ola, but something very special is going on in Cheboksary. In many ways, the city reminds me of Cluj. The streets are dominated by young people, who often work abroad in the summer. The economic power of this mobile demographic has led to the opening of trendy new restaurants, cafés and cinemas, and the local government has renovated streets and façades to match. Foreign languages are widely used here, and people seem just as ready to speak in English, French or even Japanese as Russian.

However, the indigenous Chuvash language I come to study is almost invisible, and it is necessary for one to seek out special university departments and little-known bookstores. Only on this third trip did I finally succeed in getting some Chuvash practice in the city itself, without having to go out to villages further south in the Chuvash Republic.

In a Mari village

Though finding Mari speakers in Yoshkar-Ola was well-nigh impossible, in the villages one hears little but Mari. I spent a very enjoyable day in the Toryal district with a Mari family, the traditional pancakes called melna, and an endless flow of homemade vodka. They even pulled out their national costumes for photos.

In the capital of Mari El

I became interested in the Mari language, a member of the Finno-Ugrian language family, in early 2005. I then began studying it intensively after my arrival in Helsinki with a Mari woman resident in Finland. Throughout my studies, I was eagerly looking forward to visiting the region where it is spoken, the Republic of Mari El, located along the Volga in the Russian Federation. In the course of an overland journey this summer from Finland to Vietnam, I visited the republic for several days.

The following passage from the Soviet-era Mari textbook Marijskij jazyk dlja vsex (Yoshkar-Ola: Marijskaja knizhnaja izdatelstvo, 1989) gives a cheery history of the capital city, Yoshkar-Ola.

Yoshkar-Ola was built in 1584 as a fortress on the banks of the Kakshan by the order of Ivan the Terrible. The Russians named it the ‘Royal City on the Kokshaga,’ or ‘Royal Kokshajskij.’ The Mari called it Tsärla, Tsar-Ola or Čarla. In documents dating from the 17th century it was called Tsarevokokshajsk.

In the 16th century all the buildings were made from wood, but fires always destroyed these wooden buildings. In 1696, during a great fire in Čarla the whole fortress burnt down. Nothing remained on the territory of the city. After that they started all over again and began using stone in building up the area. Only the Church of the Ascension and the house of the merchant Pchelin remain from the 18th century.

As time passed, the city grew. In the 19th century in Tsarevokokshajsk there were 5 churches, 129 wooden houses and 4 stone ones, and around 1000 people lived there. However, it didn’t become a strong cultural centre until 1917. In 1919 Tsarevokokshajsk became Krasnokokshajsk, and since 1928 it bears the name Yoshkar-Ola. Now 248,000 people live in Yoshkar-Ola.

Yoshkar-Ola is the centre for Mari culture, arts and sciences. Here there are 5 theatres, 2 institutes, a university, the Institute for Mari Language, Literature, and History, several technical schools and around 30 primary schools. The lives of many famous people in the republic are connected with Yoshkar-Ola. Here lived writers and poets Sergei Chavain, Shketan, Shabdar Osyp and Miklaj Kazakov, the composers Palantaj, Jakov Eshpaj and Erik Sapaev, the painters and sculptors Elizaveta Atlashkina, Konstantin Egorov and Filipp Shaberdin, and the scientists Valerian Mikhajlovich Vasilev, Vladimir Mukhin and Vasilij Mosolov, and others.

Yoshkar-Ola is the centre of Mari industry. Its output: refrigerators, radios, vitamins, electrical devices, goods from the ‘Truzhenitsa’ factory, are known in many countries. Year by year the capital of the Mari republic becomes more great and beautiful: Yoshkar-Ola.

The industry that built up the town in the Soviet period appears to have collapsed after the fall of Communism. Yoshkar-Ola is obviously now a poor city with few prospects, and most of the young people I spoke to intended to emigrate to find work. Nonetheless, the regional government has mysteriously found funds for the beautification of the city, especially its own central buildings. The great boulevard in the city centre has been furnished with fountains along nearly all its length.

I had heard that the Mari language was under heavy pressure from Russian in Yoshkar-Ola, but it shocking just how little the language is used there. In spite of the statistic that one out of every four residents of the city speaks Mari, my attempts to use it in shops came to naught. On the streets, the only Mari text visible besides street signs (half-heartedly translated) was a banner wishing people a good VE Day. The city does at least have a statue of Sergei Chavain, founder of Mari letters.