hidden europe 44

Borderlands: the Pasvik Valley

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The church at Svanvik asserts Norwegian authority and identity in a region that borders onto Russia (photo © hidden europe).


Few borders divide societies which are so markedly different as the frontier between Norway's easternmost county of Finnmark and Russia's Murmansk Oblast. We take a look at life on both sides of the border in a region which was once a key part of the Sami homeland.

The forest extends in all directions from Svanvik. It marches north towards the Barents Sea, but then it falters and never quite reaches the coast. For, at these high latitudes, the taiga tussles with the tundra. Moving north, the cold tundra always wins.

To the east is Russia where industry nibbles at the edge of the forest and dusts the trees with noxious chemicals. To the west and south, a vast scatter of lakes breaks up the forest landscape.

Some forests are monotonous. But not those of the Pasvik Valley. These are forests with character. Often it is Scots pine which dominates, but elsewhere there are willows, aspen, rowans and birch. Siberian spruce and red cotton grass give a hint of the east, a reminder that the taiga forests stretch east to the Urals and beyond.

This landscape is coloured by the seasons. But it is also a landscape shaded by nostalgia and ambiguity. An island in the River Pasvik, not far south of Svanvik, is called Gravholmen — Cemetery Island. On the island there is a narrow yellow pillar capped with a black top. It is a reminder that this is the very edge of Norway. A few metres away across the water, on another fragment of land in the meandering river, there is another plinth of similar dimensions to that on Gravholmen, but this one is coloured with alternating horizontal bands of red and green, a visual mark in the landscape that here is the start of the Russian Federation.

Some forests are monotonous. But not those of the Pasvik Valley. These are forests with character.

In winter, when the waters of the Pasvik often freeze, snowmobilers make tracks up the valley, taking care not to trans gress the invisible line that marks the border between Norway’s easternmost county of Finnmark and Russia’s Mur mansk Oblast.

This is one of Europe’s most interesting border areas and a region that is remarkably multicultural. There is a long history of Finnish settlement along the Barents Sea coast and in its hinterland. Throughout northern Norway and east to the Murman coast of Russia, Finns have left their mark on the landscape and still contribute today to a complex cultural mosaic. These Finnish settlers in the far north are often called Kvens — it’s a label they use to describe themselves.

Kvens mingled on the coast with Pomor traders from the east. Norwegians added to the cultural mix, staking their claim to the region by building churches and schools and encouraging homesteaders to move up to the Barents region from the south. People moved freely through the forests and along the coast, taking their cue from the seasons and, in the case of the local Sami population, also from their reindeer.

The Samis are the ultimate transgressors when it comes to borders. They wandered at will for centuries until at last they were hemmed in by modernity. The story of the Pasvik Valley and its surroundings is typical of many narratives from this region. Strike out beyond the narrow confines of the valley towards the Murman coast (Russia), the Varanger Peninsula (Norway) and Lake Inari (Finland) and you’ll find an intriguing mix of cultures and languages. Everywhere there is the shadow of the Sami.

Ground Zero or Hill 96

“Go out to the cemetery,” said the Norwegian who paused on his quad bike as we stood by the abandoned homestead at Bjørklund. The cluster of wooden farm buildings, once home to the Fætten family who in 1870 moved to the Pasvik Valley from Folldal in southern Norway, stands on the bank of the river — with Russia just a stone’s throw away on the opposite bank. The empty buildings are forlorn reminders of broken hopes, testaments to the fact that the wilderness will always inevitably win in this remote valley.

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