Dear fellow travellers
You have probably never heard of the Izhorians. In truth, neither had we before we started exploring landscapes and communities on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. The area immediately east of the Narva River, which now marks the border between Estonia and Russia, was once a heartland of Izhorian life and culture. Deportations under Stalin, progressive assimilation into wider Russian culture and the relentless move of people from the countryside to the cities have combined to quash the the Izhorian spirit.
Elements of old Izhorian customs can however still be found in villages tucked away in forests around the River Luga, and on the twin peninsulas which frame Luga Bay where the peaty river eventually reaches the sea: to the west of Luga Bay is the swampy Kurgalsky Peninsula while on the east side of the bay is Soikinsky Peninsula, where the only place of any size is Vistino. The village overlooks the bay. Wooden signposts in the centre of Vistino point the way to local landmarks, among them a little museum devoted to the Izhorian heritage. There are no more than half a dozen Izhorian speakers left in Vistino, but some of the local kids still gather at the museum for an occasional class in the language of their ancestors.
Managing industrial development
This is where this tale of rural Russian life takes a twist. Luga Bay of 50 years ago looked much the same as it would have done in centuries long gone. Fishing, forestry and the extraction of peat were local staples, and the only vessels using the bay would have been those belonging to local fishermen, some of them Izhorian and others Russian. St Petersburg, only a hundred kilometres away to the east, would have seemed like a very faraway place.
But these days Luga Bay and the community at the head of the bay, which is called Ust-Luga, are very much in the minds of Russia’s industrial magnates and energy moguls. For Ust-Luga is rather like the fictional Scottish village of Ferness in Bill Forsyth’s wonderful 1983 film Local Hero. In that movie, oil executives in faraway Texas decide to buy up the village and replace it with an oil refinery. (Plot spoiler for those planning to watch Local Hero: the Texans are unsuccessful in their quest.)
Well, nobody from Texas has yet bought up Vistino or Ust-Luga, nor would the Kremlin power brokers let them. For the Russian Federation is itself transforming this relatively remote, once deeply rural region into a huge modern port. Ust-Luga is one of three new commercial ports on the Gulf of Finland that were championed by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s – when the three Baltic States secured independence and Russia needed to develop new port capacity for the Baltic shipping market.
The two sides of modern Russia
Of the three projects, the boldest and most ambitious has been that at Ust-Luga, bringing massive development in a previously unspoilt and traditional region. The initial plan was for a deep-water port handling coal and fertiliser shipments, but that has been aggressively expanded in the Putin era. New rail routes, access roads and gas pipelines have been constructed, along with vast areas of wharves and docks. A new container terminal has just opened, turning Ust-Luga into a major multi-modal hub. Work is underway on a huge liquefied natural gas plant as Russia pushes ahead with monetizing its hydrocarbon assets.
The last ten years have seen the most rapid phase of expansion of the freight handling and industrial facilities around Luga Bay, with the development now occupying almost the entire area between the villages of Ust-Luga and Vistino. But those two places still look like many small communities in rural Russia, with poor roads and inadequate infrastructure. Rarely has the juxtaposition of the two sides of modern Russia been so keenly felt.
Although international ferry services to and from Russia are currently suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were direct links to Ust-Luga from the European Union – one was a regular ferry from Sassnitz in northern Germany, launched in 2012, which only paused operations last year. The majority of travellers who arrived at Ust-Luga on that ferry surely headed off at once to St Petersburg and beyond. But actually within just a couple of kilometres of the ferry terminal there are traditional Russian villages where one might still find a faint glow in the last embers of Izhorian life and culture.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)