Kem’ was a bit too much even for Pasha, our connoisseur of gloom

kemA town in Karelia, on the White Sea, about halfway between Medvezhyegorsk (“Bear Mountain”) and Kandalaksha, 15km off the main highway. Populaton ~30 th. Any train to Murmansk will go through Kem’. About 32 hours from Moscow, 25 from Saint-Petersburg, and 2-3 from Kandalaksha.

Visit Kem’ if you are interested either in the Pomors (an ethnic or cultural group, a subset of Russians), or the history of Gulag. A boat to the Island of Solovki – a popular destination among the Orthodox Russians because of the Solovetski monastery – leaves from the Kem’ port.

Pasha’s notes from 2011

You are spared photos of this gloomy town of concrete fences with razor-wire on top and something military seen behind them through huge holes, overloaded timber trucks, and hundreds of identical urine-smelling unpainted wooden houses only because my camera ran out of memory. I stayed in one of these houses overnight to give my Kem’ experience some extra authenticity.  Later I tried a quick internet search for Kem’ photos but all I could find were very galleries of very attractive pictures, a delight to the eye but worlds apart from how the town actually looks and feels and smells.

For those who read thus far, here are some practical notes on accommodation: 

  • Hotel Kuzova, ul. Frunze 1, tel. +7-814-58-22257 or 22259.
  • Hotel Prichal, Poselkok Rabocheostrovsk, ul. Naberezhnaya 1, tel. +7-814-58-56060, 20038
  • Kem’ Hydroelectric Stations Hotel, ul. Energetikov 17, +7 81458 20833.
  • Kem’ Tourist Complex, ul. Energetikov 22, +7 81458 22851.

The only “touristy” object I discovered in Kem was the Pomor History and Culture Museum at ulitsa Vitsupa 12, opposite the wooden church.


Alexandra, out in-house Russian North expert, sent me the two quotes from Pavel Florensky (best known as a philosopher, a priest, lesser as a linguist, and even less as an electronics engineer) who spent a few days in Kem’ waiting for a boat to the Solovki political prisoner camp, and Alexander Solzhenitsin, best known in the West for his Gulag Archipelago. Here:

Pavel Florensky

October 13, 1934

Arrived in Kem’ on the 13th and am there now. On arrival was robbed in the camp. [During the robbery] I was sitting with three axes over my head but, as you see, I’m alive even though now without things or money; some of my possessions have been found however. All that time I was hungry and cold. Now I stay in a colossal barrack in a huge room full of national minorities where I can hear all of the eastern languages. I cannot telegraph you because I have no money. Good I was able to [buy] two postcards. I’m in good health but got skinny and feel weak. Kem’ is a disgusting city. Dirt everywhere, all grey, dull, sad, can’t think of anything worse..

October 24, 1934

…My address is Murmansk Railroad, Station Kem’, Post office “Popov Island”, 8th Division of the Solovky White Sea to Baltica Canal.

A. Solzhenitsyn

In Finnish this place is called Vegeraksha, which means “where witches live”. This is a transitory camp in Kem’, on a sad, with not a tree, not a bush Popov Island, connected to the mainland with a dyke. The first [thing the visitor] sees in the bare and dirty paddock is the “quarantine squad” (in those days prisoners were grouped in “squads”, the “brigade” has not yet been invented) dressed in… sacks! Yes, ordinary sacks, like a skirt with feet sticking from the bottom and holes for the head and hands…  

Alexandra has also rectified the consequences of my neglecting to keep the camera ready by e-mailing me a few realistic photos of the place..

Unlike in many other places, in Kem’ I didn’t need to make any special effort to find decomposition and decay. I’ll even confess that the place was a bit too much for me. From the first minutes there I was wondering how long I would last if exiled to Kem’..


The mill, the city’s main provider of jobs for the last century at least, is now dead.



I stayed in a even gloomier place.





This wharf or whatever it is called is in active use.

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