In search of old Russia on the Arctic shores of the White Sea

10 February 2022

The Tersky coast is home to some of the oldest settlements on the remote Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia, with some villages dating back to the 15th century. While the town of Teriberka, on the peninsula’s northern edge, draws tourists who want to peek at the Northern Lights (as well as those who know the town as the backdrop to the Oscar-nominated film Leviathan), many fisherman’s villages on the southern Tersky coastline are dacha settlements, and as such are unoccupied for a large part of the year. Most of those who own these dachas live in larger towns across the Murmansk region: Murmansk itself, Kirovsk, and Kandalaksha, to name but a few.

Kashkarantsy, a small village with a lighthouse overlooking a pebble beach, is one exception. In 2010, it had a population of 79 people but, as Belarusian photographer Anastasiya Dubrovina learned on her visit in 2021, the lighthouse workers and their families actually reside in other towns. Today, only 12 people live in Kashkarantsy permanently.

Moscow-based Dubrovina had previously visited Murmansk, the region’s industrial centre, but was drawn away from the port city. “Of course, Murmansk is a more developed city, but it lacks the severe natural beauty of the Far North,” she says. “I wanted to explore the small settlements south of Murmansk, where you can see exquisite examples of wooden houses, chapels, and traditional crafts.”

There is no public transport along the south of the Kola peninsula, and local trains only go as far as Kandalaksha. To reach the five villages along the Tersky coast — Umba, Kuzreka, Kashkarantsy, Varzuga, and Kuzomen — Dubrovina hired a car. In Umbra, she visited an ethnographic museum complex known as Tonya Tetrina, which showcases traditional crafts and artefacts made by the Pomor people (whose name means ‘seasiders’) — hunters and fishermen who were among the first to put roots on the peninsula as early as the 12th century. She also photographed Umbra’s bakery, which makes and delivers bread to neighbouring villages on the Tersky coast. Supplies are delivered to Umbra by helicopter. “Though it is expensive, in the off season it is the only way to deliver goods, provisions, and passengers to remote settlements,” Dubrovina explains.

Further on in Kuzomen, quiet landscapes make for breathtaking images, which look all the more ethereal in the warm golden hour light. “It looks like the Wild West,” the photographer recollects, “a tiny settlement, surrounded by endless sand and emptiness, and atop the only hill you’ll find a sand-covered cemetery.” Yakut horses, which were once brought to the region to revitalise local agriculture, now roam the village.

Yet Dubrovina’s photos only give fragmentary views of village life. In reality, she says, “Kuzomen has been an environmental concern for Russia.” The area is overwhelmed with sand, which damages buildings and the Varzuga river. The sand itself is believed to have come from mass logging, while overgrazing and annual forest fires have further turned the once green landscape into a wasteland. After Varzuga, there are no more roads to reach former remote Pomor villages, such as Chabanga and Capoma. However, if you’re lucky, you might find a local treasure from the amethyst mine, which lies just a few kilometres away.

View of the village Umba and its eponymous river.
View of the village Umba and its eponymous river.
Alexander enters the chapel on the territory of the Tonya Tetrina ethnographic complex.
Alexander enters the chapel on the territory of the Tonya Tetrina ethnographic complex.
Icons inside the chapel of Tonya Tetrina.
Icons inside the chapel of Tonya Tetrina.
Fisherman Victor lunches with the hosts of Tonya Tetrina.
Fisherman Victor lunches with the hosts of Tonya Tetrina.
Traditional toy made by Pomors.
Traditional toy made by Pomors.
Fishing nets in Tonya Tetrina.
Fishing nets in Tonya Tetrina.
 Wooden buildings in Umbra used for boat storage.
Wooden buildings in Umbra used for boat storage.
A small chapel on the outskirts of Umba
A small chapel on the outskirts of Umba
In November, it gets dark in Umba by 4 p.m.
In November, it gets dark in Umba by 4 p.m.
Logging is necessary to keep the bakery running.
Logging is necessary to keep the bakery running.
Grocery store in Umba.
Grocery store in Umba.
Boat at sunset in Umba.
Boat at sunset in Umba.
Alexei works in a factory in Kandalaksha and is developing a small tourist business in Umba.
Alexei works in a factory in Kandalaksha and is developing a small tourist business in Umba.
House in Kuzreka.
House in Kuzreka.
Low tide on the shore of the White Sea
Low tide on the shore of the White Sea
In the winter of 1888, a rare ice tsunami with waves of over meters hit Kashkarantsy, destroying six houses and 27 barns.
In the winter of 1888, a rare ice tsunami with waves of over meters hit Kashkarantsy, destroying six houses and 27 barns.
The lighthouse in Kashkarantsy.
The lighthouse in Kashkarantsy.
Domes for the restored St. Nicholas Church in the village of Varzuga.
Domes for the restored St. Nicholas Church in the village of Varzuga.
Inside the library in Kashkarantsy village.
Inside the library in Kashkarantsy village.
A horse stands amid a shifting sand dune in Kuzomen.
A horse stands amid a shifting sand dune in Kuzomen.
The stars on facade indicate how many people from this house died during the Second World War.
The stars on facade indicate how many people from this house died during the Second World War.
View of Kuzomen from the cemetery.
View of Kuzomen from the cemetery.
Flooded roads near the village of Kuzomen.
Flooded roads near the village of Kuzomen.
In Kuzomen, a walking trail was made for the convenience of local residents.
In Kuzomen, a walking trail was made for the convenience of local residents.

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