I’ve recently returned from a short trip to Kirkenes in Northern Norway. I have quite a bit to say about the conference I was attending, but I thought I’d first share some thoughts and stories about the town and area I visited, as it was quite fascinating and was the source of lots of ‘firsts’ for me…
This was my first experience of mainland Norway outside of Oslo or Tromso airports, having only passed through in transit to Svalbard before. It was also the closest I’ve come to Russia and the first non-airport border I’ve been to outside the EU. Indeed, in Norwegian terms, you are a long way North and East here. The road signs here point to recogniseable Norwegian cities, but the distances are in 1000s of kilometers rather than 10s or hundreds. The major Russian city of Murmansk however is a mere 120km away, a 4 hour drive if you are not held up at the border. Russian-Norwegian relations were bought into sharp relief here. The over-riding feeling was of co-operation, but definite presence. There were a number of war memorials in Kirkenes dedicated to soviet soldiers, many shops and public buildings had both Russian and Norwegian signs, hotel staff were fluent in both languages and local residents have a kind of season ticket arrangement for visas to Russia.
Alongside this there are military warning signs, old watch towers and WW2 war bunkers dotted around. I was lucky enough to get a tour around town with a long-time resident and office head of the Barents Institute, Svein Helge Orheim, including a trip to the Russian border. From a distance, lines drawn on the map look definite, contested perhaps, but solid. Up close, the trees on either side of the fence look the same and the border is, well, just a chicken wire fence. Surely things are a little bit more fuzzy than they look, with such an international town nearby (Kirkenes has roughly 10,000 residents from 62 nations)? Myself and my Russian companion wonder if people jump the fence often, and our guide looks puzzled. Why would they? Chicken wire fences can be watched, policed and militarized and carry far more meaning than they might appear. Either side has CCTV (I hope they saw me giving them a friendly wave at some point!) and have built a presence whether town, mine or power station -sovereignty is staked out here, physically.
Svein told us how this part of the border follows the river except in this place as there was a Russian church on the Norwegian side of the river. One can move a church, but not the holy ground it rests on, so a small part of Russia is on the ‘Norwegian’ side of the river. When a hydro electric power station was constructed on the Russian side, for a short period the border was opened so Norwegian engineers and workers could help in the design and construction more easily. I could easily get carried away in delving into the world of Border Studies, the processes of border-making, the everyday experiences of borders… (this paper* from Newman looks like a good place to start).
The local tourist industry, makes the most of this proximity to Russia, offering trips along the border as a king crab safari and the museum has borderlands as its theme. The king crabs have their own interesting story. They are heavily marketed as a tourist attraction and local dish from the moment you pick up your luggage at the airport, and indeed, in my case, the first thing I noticed when I got to the hotel, a tank full of them, placed handily between the dining tables and the kitchens, with barcodes attached.
However, these crabs (which are really big, weighing up to 10kg!) are not ‘native species’, but introduced by Stalin to Russian waters in the 1930s. The attempt to create a significant food source was largely unsuccessful at the time, but numbers have boomed and been drifting westwards since the 1990s. There is some debate as to whether their presence as relative mega-species in the area is negative to more local critters, and if fishing should be more vigorous rather than by quota agreements (this blog has more of the story). For me this is interesting as it connects with wider debates around how native / alien species are defined (do dates matter, nation-state borders, environmental change?), by whom and to what end, which is, really quite a lot to do with how we value socio-natural things and our relations to them. Indeed, some Norwegian colleagues tackle such issues in a paper related to lists of native/ alien plants#.
#Qvenild, M., Setten, G., Skår, M. (2014) ‘Politicising plants: dwelling and “alien invasiveness” in domestic gardens’, Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift – Norwegian Journal of Geography, 68(1). http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00291951.2013.870599#.VEDu4BbgVBk