Petrozavodsk, Karelia - Wherever the kiwi goes in Russia, the mafia is never far behind. Now the exotic fruit has reached the kiosks of Karelia, just below the Arctic Circle, with it have come gangsters from the Caucasus hundreds of miles to the south.
Last week one of the hoods who prey on the fruit trade lay wounded in the hospital at Petrozavodsk, capital of this autonomous republic, bordering Finland, when rival gangsters burst into his ward and finished him off with machine guns. In the trolley buses, the people of Petrozavodsk talked of nothing else. 'You see,' said Olga Belova, a local musicologist, 'all the problems you have in Moscow, we have here too.'
This means Karelia, like Russia as a whole, has more freedom, but also more crime. It has fledgling commerce, but collapsing industry, a tiny minority of super rich, but a vast mass struggling to survive on meagre wages - if they have not been laid off from ailing tractor and paper factories.
Stop. Let us start this story again. Daria Razumikhina, a Moscow linguist, recently wrote an open letter to Western journalists complaining that we transmit gloomy news about her country. 'Russia is a vast nation of 150 million people. Can't you do us more justice?' she asked.
So this is for Daria, a view of Karelia less newsy than the above report, but closer to the spirit of the place and people.
To begin with, I must tell you about the scenery, the northern landscape of lakes, forests, rocks and strangely-lit skies, which inspired the music of the Finnish composer, Sibelius. In Karelia, as in Siberia, nature is a more powerful influence over life than politics.
At Petrozavodsk, everyone is drawn to the shores of Lake Onega. Women with babies in prams sit by the statue of Peter the Great, who founded the city to manufacture munitions, while men and boys go on to the lake to fish through holes in the ice. It is late April, the pussy willow is out, the ice is melting, and still they venture on to Onega. 'Every year someone drowns,' says Olga Belova. 'There are warnings on the radio and in the newspapers but it does no good. Fishing is a passion, it is beyond the realm of reason.'
Once the ice has melted, boats run to Kizhi Island, which is covered with fine examples of Karelia's old wooden architecture. Summer is painfully short but the daylight hours in May and June are long. Tourists arrive, many from neighbouring Finland which, before the Second World War, counted western Karelia as its territory. Finland is too wise to start claiming land back. Its businessmen come here, making money in joint ventures to develop tourism and the lumber industry.
Perhaps it is proximity to Finland which makes Karelia feel more European than other parts of Russia. The atmosphere is akin to the Baltic States. Petrozavodsk has more artists' studios than most Russian provincial towns, and the artists are uninhibited. There is a Scandinavian quality in the work of the photographer, Irina Larionova, who captures field flowers and naked men blowing phallic- shaped musical instruments.
The main art gallery is showing works by the late Yevgeny Sudakov, who painted wheeling birds and wild grasses, clouds and pines and peasant cottages with fishes hanging outside to dry. In one painting dating back to the Communist era, flags hang in a street, but are inconsequential flecks of red, against a deep background of midnight blue - the colour of a dark November afternoon in Karelia.
Musical life here is rich. There is a folk centre called Kantele, dedicated to traditional Karelian music. Working on a shoe-string budget, the heroines of the local philharmonic society organise an astonishing 700 classical concerts each year. 'Music is very popular here, more so than theatre,' said the Karelian Deputy Minister of Culture, Natalia Vavilova. 'People are tired of words.' Last week in the Finnish Theatre, which doubles up as a concert hall, the Karelian National Orchestra played under a guest conductor, Enio Nicotra, a young Italian who has been studying in St Petersburg. The soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor was Ruvim Ostrovsky, a star graduate of the Moscow Conservatory and now Petrozavodsk's resident genius. The hall was packed - a rare sight in Moscow these days - and Ostrovsky set the audience on fire.
Of course Karelia's kiwi fruit wars make a better headline. But that's less than half the story.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies