Lake Onega and the Kizhi Island

Lake Onega, also known as Onego (in Russian: Oniézhskoye Ozero; in Finnish : Ääninen or Äänisjärvi) is a large lake in the northwestern part of European Russia, in the Russian regions of Republic of Karelia, Leningrad Oblast and Vologda Oblast. The main towns on the shores of the lake are Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia (population: 261,987), Kondopoga (population: 32,987) and Medvezhyegorsk (population: 15,533).

Lake Onega Stats

Lake NameLake Onega
Surface area9961.850
Maximum depth127.0
Average depth26.3
Lake typeNatural
Catchment area59064.30
InflowsShuya, Suna, Vodla, Vytegra, Andoma
Islands1, 369 islands, Kizhi the most important
Shore length2413.79
Mixing typeDimictic
SettlementsKondopoga, Medvezhyegorsk, Petrozavodsk, Pindushi, Povenets
Residence time4918.7
FrozenJanuary to May
Average discharge616.510
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Second Largest Lake in Europe

Lake Onega is the second largest lake in Europe (after the nearby Lake Ladoga ), with an area of 9,894 km², a volume of 280 cubic kilometers and a maximum depth of 120 meters. It has about 1,650 islands totaling an area of ​​just over 250 km². 58 rivers flow into it, out of which the most important ones are: Shuya (194 km), Suna (280 km), Vodla (149 km) and Vytegra (64 km). The lake drains into Lake Ladoga through the Svir River.

The Kizhi archipelago, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, is located in the northern part of the lake. It features a historic complex of 89 wooden Orthodox churches and other wooden buildings from the 15th to the 20th centuries and includes some 1,200 petroglyphs (rock engravings) located on the East coast, from the 2nd to the 4th millennium BC.

The lake is part of the White Sea-Baltic Canal waterway, opened in 1933.

Geological history

The lake is of glacier-tectonic origin and is a remnant of a larger body of water that existed in the area during an Ice Age. In geological terms, the lake is quite young, formed like almost all lakes in Northern Europe, through the carving activity of the continental ice sheets in the latter part of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago.

During the Paleozoic Era (300–400 million years ago), the current territory of the lake was occupied by a sea. Sediments like sand, limestone, clay and sandstone formed a 200-meter thick layer that covered the Baltic Shield. When the Ice Age glaciers retreated, they formed the Littorina Sea. Its level was at first 7-9 meters higher than the current level, but it began to lower, forming several lakes in the Baltic region.

Geography and Hydrography

Without islands, Lake Onega covers an area of 9,700 km², and has a volume of 280 km³. It is 245 kilometers long and 90 kilometers wide. By area, it is the second largest lake in Europe (after Lake Ladoga) and the 18th largest in the world. The southern banks are low, while the northern banks and rocky. From space, the lake looks like a giant crayfish.

The large Zaonezhye Peninsula lies in the northern part of the lake, and the Big Klimenetsky island lies in its southern part. In the West, the deep area Big Onego is located, with depths of more than 100 meters. The most important bays here are Lizhemskoy (82 meters in depth), Kondopozhskaya (78 meters), Ilem-Gorskaya (42 meters), and Unitskoy (44 meters).

In the southwest of Big Onega, the Petrozavodsk Onego area is situated, with its large Petrozavodsk and the smaller Pinguba and Yalguba bays. Povenetsky Bay and Zaonezhsky Bay are located in the East. Their southernmost section, Small Onega, is 40-50 meters in depth.

Lake Onega reaches its maximum depth of 127 meters in the northern part. The lake’s average depth is 31 meters, with averages of 50-60 meters in the center and 20-30 meters in the southern region. The bottom features many trenches in the northern part, which are separated by large shallow banks. This structure is very favourable for fish. Consequently, the banks are used for commercial fishing.

The water level is regulated by the Verhnesvirskaya hydroelectric plant and only varies 0.9-1.5 meters/year. It rises due to spring floods that last 1.5-2 months. The water level is higher in June-August and the minimum occurs in March and April. Rivers bring in 15.6 km³ of water a year into the lake, 74% of the water. The remainder is provided by precipitation. Most of lake water (84% or 17.6 km³ / year) outflows through the Svir River, and the remaining 16% evaporates.

There are frequent storms, more characteristic of a sea than of a lake; waves of 2-3 meters are not uncommon and may even reach 5 meters in height. Near the coast and bays lake freezes in late November to December, and in its center in mid-January. The thaw begins in April in the tributaries and reaches the lake in May.

Water in the lake’s deepest parts is clear, with transparency of up to 7-8 meters. However, in the bays, this decreases to 1 meter. The water is fresh, with salt content 1.5 times lower than in Ladoga Lake. The maximum temperature at the water’s surface is 20–24 °Ð¡ on the lake and can reach 24–27 °Ð¡ in the bays. However, deep waters are much cooler, ranging from 2–2.5 °Ð¡ in winter and 4–6 °Ð¡ in summer. Weather in the region is pretty cold, with average summer temperatures of about 16 °C and below 0 °C for half of the year.

Basin and Islands

With 58 rivers flowing into it, Lake Onega has a catchment area of 51,540 km². The most important rivers are Shuya, Suna, Vodla, Vytegra and Andoma. The only outflow is the river Svir, which runs to Lake Ladoga from Lake Onega’s southwestern shore. It then continues to the Gulf of Finland as the Neva River.

The canal connecting the White Sea to the Baltic Sea runs through the lake, which is also connected with the Volga River, Caspian Sea and Black Sea by the Volga–Baltic Waterway. The Onega Canal, built between 1818–1820 and 1845–1852, follows the lake’s southern banks. It connects the Vytegra River and Svir River, and was part of the Mariinsk Canal System. The canals, 50 meters in width, is not currently used in active navigation.

1,650 Islands

The lake’s 1,650 islands cover a total area of 250 km². The most famous of them is Kizhi, a Unesco World Heritage Site, but the largest is Big Klimenetsky, which covers an area of 147 km² and is home to a few settlements. Big Lelikovsky and Suysari are 2 other large islands.

Flora and Fauna

The lake’s shores are covered with dense, virgin forests. The most common tree types are coniferous, but also lime, the European Adler and the elm. The lake’s banks are rich in reed.

Ducks, geese and swans populate the banks of the lake. In total, approximately 200 bird species from 15 families have been seen in the lake basin.

Among the mammals living in the area, the most important ones include wolf, fox, brown bear, lynx, elk, hare, squirrel, European badger, pine marten. The mink and the American muskrat were introduced here in the early 20th century.

There are approximately 45 species of fish, from 13 families. The most important species include sturgeon, brown trout, landlocked salmon, European smelt, Crucian carp, roaches, grayling, whitefishes, pike, char, European cisco, silver bream, common dace, sabre carp, carp bream, spined loach, European eel, wels catfish, ide, rudd, pike-perch, gudgeon, ruffe, European perch, burbot.


Even though the lake used to be pristine, the pollution level has started to increase. This is especially true in the northern parts of the lake, where there are industrial facilities at Medvezhyegorsk, Petrozavodsk and Kondopoga.

More than 90% of the industrial activity takes place in these cities, with sewage and drainage water amounting to 190 million m³ every year. Human activity amounts to a total of 315 million m³ yearly. Drainage contains, among other things phosphorus and nitrogen. Some of it is removed through the Svir River, but the rest accumulates in the lake.


Marble, granite and black schist have been exploited here since the early 18th century. Metallurgy is also important, and the Petrozavodsk area produces a quarter of Karelia’s industrial products. The lake’s water level is controlled by the Nizhnesvirskaya (99 MW) and Verkhnesvirskaya (160 MW) power plants. The construction of the latter raised the lake’s level by half a meter.

Lake Onega’s canals allow the transportation of goods to countries from Germany to Iran, with Sweden, Finland, Germany and Denmark getting the most traffic. About 10,300 ship voyages transport around 10-12 million tonnes of goods every year on Lake Onega. There are 2 ports on the lake’s shores (Petrozavodsk and Medvezhyegorsk), 5 wharfs and 41 piers.

As expected, fishing is an important commercial activity on Lake Onega, with 17 fish species of economic importance. The most important of them are the European cisco, whitefishes, smelt, roaches, pike-perch, burbot, ruffe, perch, carp bream, pike, lake salmon, etc.

Tourism is also alive on the lake, with several hydrofoil and motor ships making daily trips along the routes of Petrozavodsk – Kizhi, Petrozavodsk – Shala and Petrozavodsk – Velikaya Guba.

Sailing is very popular on the lake, which has been hosting the largest regatta in Russia, Russian Open Championship, every year since 1972. This international regatta takes place at the end of July each year.

Kizhi Island and the Onega Petroglyphs

Undoubtedly, the lake’s main attraction is the Kizhi island on the lake’s northern part, which boasts 89 wooden monuments from the 15th to the 20th century. A remarkable site is Kizhi Pogost, built in the early 18th century, which features a 22-dome church, a 9-dome church and a belfry. Kizhi Pogost has been included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1990. Boats can be taken from Petrozavodsk to the island.

The Onega petroglyphs are another important attraction. The rock engravings date back from the 4th to the 2nd millennium BC and depict people, boats, animals, geometrical shapes, etc. There are 1,200 petroglyphs over a 20 kilometer area.

There are also many other historical monuments around the lake, like the Svyat-Uspensky monastery Murom Cape. This monastery was built in 1350 and restored in 1991.

Lake Onega Map