Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/17 posted by hidden europe on

Boris and Gleb are as saintly a duo as Peter and Paul or Cyril and Methodius. Travel round Russia and you will come across no end of churches dedicated to Boris and Gleb. The two were in fact brothers and evidently their tender humility marked the Russian soul. That very Orthodox quality of patient forbearance of suffering is often said to be inspired by Boris and Gleb.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Boris and Gleb are as saintly a duo as Peter and Paul or Cyril and Methodius. Travel round Russia and you will come across no end of churches dedicated to Boris and Gleb. The two were in fact brothers and evidently their tender humility marked the Russian soul. That very Orthodox quality of patient forbearance of suffering is often said to be inspired by Boris and Gleb.

Patient forbearance of suffering is just what you need on the Russian road towards the village of Boris Gleb. Every twist and turn brings memories of that rather greasy lunch, and the bus driver, anxious to make up lost time, has few thoughts for those in the back seats. Boris Gleb is the very last village in Russia, a rather ramshackle place of wooden huts and gravel roads, plus of course a chapel dedicated to the two saints after whom the village takes its name.

As in most border communities, life in Boris Gleb runs to its own peculiar rhythm. Sturdy concrete pillars mark the exact line of the border. Those on the Russian side have horizontal bands of red and green paint, while Norway opts for striking yellow posts with a black capstone. Some of the locals in Boris Gleb have never ventured over the border into neighbouring Norway. Getting a visa is not easy.

In the simple building that serves as Russian passport control, those bound for Norway are divided into two categories. Citizens of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus turn left and join the short queue. All others turn right and join the long queue. The procedures are familiar: a query about whether our luggage contains valuable Russian icons, a quibble over currency and an amused smile when we mention that we are exporting two loaves of bread.

On average some two to three hundred travellers cross the border at Boris Gleb every day. By the standards of many European borders, this is but a mere trickle, but Boris Gleb is the only official crossing point into Norway from Russia. There was a time when local Sámi were free to follow their reindeer across these northern borders, and well into the last century there were special concessions for the Kola Sámi from Russia who travelled to northern Norway for salmon fishing.

The Sámi people of northern Scandinavia and adjacent areas of Russia have a strong sense of a shared transnational home. They call this area Sápmi. But no longer can they wander at will. Boris Gleb is, for the Sámi just as for everyone else, the sole exit point from Russia into Norway.

A few metres over the border is the Norwegian checkpoint at Storskog, from where it is just a ten minute drive to Kirkenes, the Norwegian port on the Barents Sea coast. But first there is a coachload of tourists at Storskog, peering over towards Russia. Actually, Boris Gleb looks at its best from this distance. And then there are several clusters of quad bikes on safari to the Russian border.

The truth is that there is not really a whole lot to do in Kirkenes. So when a cruise ship calls in at the northern port, the most popular excursions all focus on getting a glimpse of nearby Russia. The antics on that northern border remind us of the way that visitors to West Berlin, during the Cold War years, used to stand on the viewing platform at Potsdamer Platz and gaze over the wall towards the other Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic. Just like at Storskog, where tourists peer over to Boris Gleb and the other Europe.

Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

You might be interested to know that the next issue of hidden europe magazine will include an article on a Sámi community in the Kola region of Russia. Had you realised that you can see some 150 back issues of our e-news online?

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.