Thursday, June 6, 2013

Lake Ladoga: Europe's largest

Located 40 Km East of St. Petersburg (ex Leningrad), and known as Lake Nevo in Tsarist times, it is 219Km long by an average 82 wide. Its average depth is 51 metres, descending to 230 at the deepest point. It occupies a glacier carved basin dating from the ice age and has fyords breaking through the cliffs lining its Northern shore. The southern shore is low lying scrubland. The entire area is filled with the many lakes and rivers of a typical post glacial landscape, which has evolved since the ice melted between 12500-11500 BP. Dotted with over 650 islands, its level can vary by over a metre due to strong seasonal winds. Some of the islands are home to ancient Orthodox Christian monasteries, with beautiful architecture in the Novgorod style.

It contains important fish resources, and links through the Karelian isthmus to the White sea canal, built by slave labour in the Stalinist era. It is drained by the Neva, on whose marshy delta Peter the Great built his capital, flowing past the winter palace and Krondstat into the Baltic. It also has an endemic species of ringed seal. Long disputed between the Scandinavian countries and Russia, it finally went to the Russians after the winter war with Finland in 1940-1.

The lake freezes every winter, and this fact played a vital role in the allied victory in the second world war. After the Nazi invasion, Leningrad was surrounded and eventually cut off from the rest of the country. The situation was very disorganised during the last months of 1941, and the city began to run out of food long before the lake froze. When it did, lorries were sent out to test the ice, over a hundred of which went to the bottom, but once a sufficient depth of ice was reached and new road and rail links built to the opposite lake shore, a trickle of supplies started to flow through. This was not enough for many Leningraders, and an estimated million people starved between November 1941 and June 1942, by which time much of the civilian population had been evacuated across the lake. During the summer, supplies continued to flow by barge, helping the city survive its 900 day siege.

The ice road (known as the Road of Life) allowed enough military supplies through to keep the soldiers fighting through the winter. It has been argued that this helped save Moscow from capture in December 1941, by delaying German forces in the North long enough for Soviet troops to be transferred from the Far East to man the Moscow counteroffensive which broke the Nazi advance. Along with the early harsh winter, this prevented a swift German victory. This would have allowed them to turn their forces elsewhere rather than remaining bogged down in Russia until they were pushed out and destroyed, with consequences that can only be imagined.

Every landscape is a palimpsest, starting with the underlying geology, moving though geography and biology/ecology into human history, with each stage loaded with fascinating stories to fill us with wonder and awe. Lake Ladoga is no exception, and its intense modern history helped found the basis of the human geography we currently live in.

Image credit: Yonesh/Wikimedia Commons.

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