Our next stop on the sojourn was Kirkenes, Norway. This is about as far north as you can get and still be in Europe. It is far north of the Arctic Circle and and further east than Istanbul, Turkey. In short it is a long way from almost anywhere, and further than any of us had ever been from home. A sign at the top of the hill gives a bit of perspective to several places we have recently been, or will soon be.
We just flew from the bottom of Norway in Oslo, to the top in Kirkenes (Technically, the Svalbard Islands are quite a bit further north and still a part of Norway, but few people live there year round, and fewer go there, especially in late October!). Less than a week earlier we were 4140 km (2572 miles) to the south in Rome, and in less than a week from our visit to Kirkenes we will arrive in Bergen having sailed on an eco-ferry 2265 km (1407 miles) south and west along the entire coast of Norway. Kirkenes is our jumping off point for the journey which will stop at 34 small towns, cities and villages along the way. What a way to see such an amazing landscape. I will be posting pictures from the voyage in a gallery soon.
Kirkenes has a long history, as do most of the small towns and villages along the coast of Norway, but one episode during WWII and shortly afterwards illustrates well the challenges of identity within a borderland. While Kirkenes has officially been a part of the Kingdom of Norway for a long time, it is so far from the centers of political and economic power in Oslo and Bergen, that the ties binding it to a Norwegian identity are often strained. Currently, Kirkenes is thousands of kilometers from Oslo and Bergen, but only 7 km from Russia and 30 km from Finland. Mileposts from Russia and Norway in the middle of town display the same location in two national systems.
For much of its existence, Norwegians were a minority in the Kirkenes region, outnumbered by people of Finnish and/or Sami (indigenous) descent. In the late 19th century, Norway instituted its version of the Homestead Act to encourage the settlement of Norwegians into the area by land giveaways so they would improve their national claim on the landscape. Finns, Russians and Sami need not apply. Soon the land and the economy was firmly in the hands of ethnic Norwegians and their claim on this border region secure until 1940 when the Germans took over. Norway was occupied by the Nazis during WWII. It was a source for valuable war material, and the fjords allowed endless hiding places for submarine warfare against allied fleets in the North Atlantic. The area near Kirkenes was rich in mining operations particularly nickel (for which the closest city, Nikel, Russia was named) which was needed for the production of stainless steel which was useful for producing armaments and other tools to conduct war. The Germans used Kirkenes as a shipping port and airport to transport the nickel and other metals for the war effort. As a result, Russia used Kirkenes (particularly the harbor and airstrip) as a favorite target. It was one of the most heavily bombed sites in the war sustaining at least 320 bombing attacks in 3 years. By the time the Soviet army “liberated” Kirkenes from Nazi occupation, only 13 houses were left standing. We stayed in one of them (built in 1918) and our host shared a picture of Kirkenes just 7 months after the Soviets “saved” it on October 25th, 1944. The cost of “victory” was born by the landscape and its people.
In gratitude to the common soldier of the Red Army that “liberated” the town by bombing it to rubble (with friends like this, who needs enemies), the Norwegians erected a monument to commemorate the effort.
The inscription in Russian and Norwegian marks the day 74 years ago this month, but when we visited, there were fresh wreaths of flowers piled at the base. The memory of the relationship is still fresh and important to the locals on both sides of this border, even if the symbol of communism seems a bit out of place.
What is particularly interesting about this statue is the politics surrounding its artwork, and its placement in the town. The soldier is depicted with his right foot on what appears to be a stone. Originally when the monument was made in 1948, the stone was actually a german eagle being crushed under the foot of the Soviet soldier, but by 1950 when the Iron Curtain had descended over Eastern Europe and Norway became a member of NATO, Kirkenes had become the front lines in the Cold War. It was thought that the soldier’s foot on the German symbol would be too provocative to their new NATO ally. The people of Kirkenes refused to take away the statue which paid tribute to the Soviet sacrifice on their behalf, so the eagle was ground away into a stone and the statue remained. A tribute to the communist soldiers in a western country. Such is the ambiguity of borderlands as landscapes.
The additional irony of this monument is its placement in town. It sits on top of a small hill which actually is a bunker built to seek shelter from the bombing by the Soviets when they were trying to “liberate” the town. You can still see the entrance to the shelter and the ventilation shaft in the shadow of a monument to the soldiers who dropped the bombs on the town!
As I stood on the hill, I could imagine the terror the locals would feel as they ran to the shelter and then listened to the bombs explode outside. They would have considered themselves “lucky” to have survived the raid even as they knew that every bomb exploding was destroying the town they lived in. All their possessions stripped away until the bombs stopped falling in 1944 as they celebrated their “rescue” by their neighbors’ bombs.
Within six years of that peace, the enemy is friend and the friend is enemy. Such is the ambiguity of life in a borderland landscape. The identity is fixed by the land and the sea, the nationality an open question. Alas, we had a ferry to catch and a journey to continue, so bags packed, we wandered down the lane…