Kem’

Kem’, Karelia. A town of about 30 th. on the White Sea, about halfway between Medvezhyegorsk (“Bear Mountain”) and Kandalaksha, 15km off the main highway. 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 in the Pomors 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.

The monastery was part of the network of prisons for religious offenders long before the Gulag. If you happen to be there ask to be shown holes in the wall where prisoners were immured. Bread and water were passed through a small hole to prolong their suffering for years and sometimes for decades even though most victims would loose sanity within months.  

You are spared photos of this gloomy town of razor-wired fences with something military behind them, of overloaded timber trucks, and of hundreds of identical urine-smelling unpainted wooden houses only because my camera ran out of memory. I stayed in one of these Kem 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 photos all of which had one problem, this problem being that these photos failed convey how the town actually looks and feels and smells.

For accommodation try

Kuzova, ul. Frunze 1, tel. +7-814-58-22257 or 22259.

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 to the wooden church.

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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. I was shocked at how my immediate impressions of Kem’ matched those of these two great men. Here:

Pavel Florensky

October 13, 1934
Kem’

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 so I hear all 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’..

“HONOR AND GLORY TO THE WORK OF WOOD SAWYER”
The mill, which, used to be the city’s main provider of jobs, is now dead.

I stayed in a even gloomier place.

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