The Arctic is often associated with isolation, physical remoteness, and monotony of natural landscape. Although there is some justification to these clichés, the authors encountered the unexpected more often than anticipated while based in the town of Kirkenes in northern Norway. This paper gathers insights and impressions collected during the authors’ work and travels in the regions of Finnmark (Norway), Lapland (Finland), and Murmansk Oblast’ (Russia), which display the remarkable cultural and economic diversity of Europe's Arctic region.
After arriving in Kirkenes in November 2013, we gradually discovered a region that is indeed cold and dark in winter, cool and bright in summer, but fascinating in its unexpected social and cultural diversity. The region's cultural richness, natural splendor, and economic diversity drew our attention. Kirkenes, a town of 3,500 inhabitants and the administrative center of Sør-Varanger municipality in Norway's Finnmark County, became the starting point for our Arctic exploration. The town occupies the tip of a peninsula in Bøkfjord (a branch of Varangerfjord), 400 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The county of Finnmark borders Finland's Province of Lapland in the south, and Russia's Murmansk Oblast’ in the east. The economic profile of Kirkenes is shaped by heavy industry (mining, iron ore processing, ship repair), fishery, and services. The seaport and the international airport make Kirkenes a gateway to Europe's north and to the entire Barents region. In addition to labor migrants, the area attracts tens of thousands of tourists per year, most of whom arrive aboard Hurtigruten cruisers, which travel almost the entire coast of Norway up to Kirkenes, the terminal port.
During our stay in Kirkenes, we went on several road trips: within Finnmark (northwards, towards the town of Vardø), in Russia (eastward, towards the city of Murmansk), and into Finland's Lapland province (southward, towards the town of Inari), all within a radius of 250 kilometers. Along the way, we explored landscapes, settlements, and heritage sites. The places we visited by no means form a complete list of destinations accessible from Kirkenes, but provide many valuable insights into the region and the Arctic's cultural and economic diversity. The aim of this paper is to share our impressions on the diversity of the Arctic, by looking at both cultural and economic aspects that we encountered while living and travelling in the Europe's Arctic regions. The following section examines the cultural diversity of the region by focusing on the region's population: both indigenous peoples and newcomers. The second section discusses aspects of economic diversity, from traditional economic activities to modern resource extraction and industry, border trade, and tourism. The final section sums up the findings and puts them into context.
Geographical areas in which the borders of three nation-states meet are often described as “border triangles.” Although the border triangle of Finland, Norway, and Russia lies some 100 km south of Kirkenes, the town is located in the borderland characterized by a long history of mutual influences (Wråkberg 2014). Kirkenes is known as Киркенес in Russian, Kirkkoniemi in Finnish and Kven, and Girkonjárga in northern Sámi. This diversity of names reflects the multiethnic structure of the borderland. Kirkenes and its environs embrace a great cultural diversity. The region's identity is not formed exclusively by the titular nations of Finland, Norway, and Russia. Northern Fennoscandia, also referred to as Sápmi (the Sámi lands), has traditionally been inhabited by the indigenous Sámi peoples. Although the term suggests a single ethnicity, the Sámi peoples are diverse in their languages, traditional cultural practices, and predominant economic activities (conditioned by the environment). The Sámi population is estimated at between 50,000 and 80,000, most of whom (approximately 40,000) live in Norway, primarily in the northern regions (Jakobsen 2011).
Since the sixteenth century, the Sámi have been subject to suppression, assimilation, and marginalization policies associated with missionary activities, colonization, and nation-building processes in the High North (Jakobsen 2011). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Sweden-Norway and Russia were the main actors; from the eighteenth century, Denmark-Norway have played a crucial role. However, national borders were not established until the mid-eighteenth century. In 1751, Russia and Sweden-Norway agreed on a borderline, followed by Denmark-Norway and Russia in 1826. Until then, vast northern territories had been terra nullius (Kent 2014). These colonial projects share many similarities, including forced Christianization; forced cultural and linguistic assimilation, particularly through residential schooling; the annexation of territory; and restricted land-use rights for the indigenous populations, which traditionally depend on economic activities bound to open space, such as reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing (Jakobsen 2011).
Today, the sociopolitical situation of Sámi peoples varies across nation-states and between national regions. The Sámi in both northern Norway and Finland's Lapland province enjoy self-government through Sámi parliaments and a number of local and regional institutions (Broderstad 2014). There are nine Sámi organizations from Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia representing the Sámi people in the Saami Council: a voluntary nongovernmental organization dealing with Sámi policy tasks. Sámi living in Russia are represented in the council by the Kola Saami Association (AKS) and the Saami Association of the Murmansk Region (OOSMO), the two organizations recognized by the Russian state. At the same time, there are independent Sámi organizations, such as the Sámi Parliament of the Kola Peninsula, which do not receive state support (Kuelnegk Soamet Sobbar 2014). Moreover, the authorities obstruct their activities by “hijacking” the parliament's agenda and organizing parallel events attended by government officials and members of organizations loyal to the authorities (Artieva 2014).
Linguists differentiate between ten or more Sámi languages in Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. The two main branches include Eastern and Western Sámi languages, which are not mutually intelligible, and can be further divided into subgroups, languages, and dialects. The area around Kirkenes is a melting pot of Western and Eastern Sámi cultures. Towards the north of Kirkenes, along Varangerfjord, Northern dialects (of the Western branch) are spoken. Among all Sámi languages, Northern Sámi is most prevalent, with an estimated 20,000 speakers, and is the Sámi language most often taught at educational institutions, from kindergarten to university level. Eastern Sámi languages prevail in areas south and east of Kirkenes, but with significantly fewer speakers. An estimated 400 people in the villages of Sevettijärvi and Nellim1 (Finland), and Lovozero (Russia), speak Skolt Sámi. In Neiden (Norway), a traditional Skolt Sámi settlement, there are no longer any Skolt Sámi speakers. Further south, Inari Sámi has approximately 300 speakers. Skolt and Inari Sámi are thus considered endangered languages. However, local projects in Finnish primary and secondary education aim to revitalize the languages (Latomaa and Nuolijärvi 2002). Sámi languages have official recognition in both Finnmark and Lapland.2 The Russian state and Murmansk Oblast’, respectively, do not currently support programs to revitalize or reverse the decline of Sámi languages; moreover, Sámi languages are not officially recognized. A number of them, such as Kemi, Akkala, and Kainuu have died out. In the Lovozero area, Kildin Sámi is still spoken by an estimated 500 people, but Ter Sámi, which was traditionally spoken in the northeastern part of the Kola Peninsula (Russia) only has two remaining speakers (Barents Observer 2010).
When travelling north and south from Kirkenes, the Sáminess and Sámi culture is evident in road signs, museums, and community and educational institutions. Kirkenes is home to the Savio Museum, dedicated to John Savio (1902--1938), a Kven-Sámi artist known for his woodcuts and paintings depicting life in the Arctic.
On our northern route towards the town of Vardø, we visited the Varanger Sámi Museum's Information Center at Ceavccageađge/Mortensnes dedicated to the (northern) Coastal Sámi. As the term suggests, all dimensions of their lives and livelihoods were strongly associated with the sea and fishing. The museum's focus is on precolonial times, traditional beliefs, and handicrafts (Várjjat Sámi Musea). We also found a private collection (Sjøsamiske samlinger/Coastal Sámi collections) of everyday objects dedicated to the Coastal Sámi and their life, organized by the local enthusiast Helmer Losoa in Byluft, Nesseby municipality.
While travelling south towards the town of Inari,3 we explored the Skolt Sámi Heritage House and open-air museum in Sevettijärvi, dedicated to Skolt Sámi history, handicrafts, literature, and housing (Skolt Sámi Heritage House). There is an Orthodox Church dedicated to Saint Tryphon of Pechenga, a monk and founder of the Pechenga monastery who is believed to have converted the local Sámi population to Christianity in the sixteenth century.
Further south, Inari is the Sámi “capital” in Finland,4 with the Sámi Cultural Center Sajos (in Inari Sámi, sajos refers to the base or the position of a place), including an educational center providing a variety of courses and workshops in Sámi languages and cultures, a library, and an archive (Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos). It is also home to Sámediggi, the Finnish Sámi Parliament. The indoor and open-air Siida5 museum complex focuses on the challenges and adaption of Sámi people to their Arctic environment at the coast, in the mountains, and forests. It introduces Sámi knowledge and the daily life of reindeer herders and hunters (Siida).
In contrast to the indigenous Sámi people, all other groups settling in Kirkenes and its environs are newcomers. This includes an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Kven-Norwegian citizens who speak a Finnic language and identify themselves as descendants of migrants to northern Norway prior to 1945 (Kvensk Institutt 2015). Smaller in numbers and only recently recognized as a national minority (but not as an indigenous people),6 the Kven people are organized to a lesser degree,7 and Kven culture is less visible in the region. We encountered a few town signs and visited the Vadsø Museum-Ruija Museum, which explores the history of the Kven people and their way of life in Ruija (Finnmark or, literally, land by the icy sea), combining indoor exhibits with an open-air display that features a traditional Kven yard including a smith, bakery, and sauna.
In 2015, the Kven community received funding to establish a Kven/northern Finnish museum in a separate building in Vadsø and to conduct several exchange and outreach projects (Varanger Museum 2015). Finnish culture can be found in the fishermen's village of Bugøynes, also called Pikku Suomi (Little Finland), at Varangerfjorden, which has been inhabited by Finns from the eighteenth century.
Prior to the collapse of the USSR, Kirkenes was located directly on the frontline of the Cold War. The fall of the Iron Curtain made the movement of people across the border possible. By 2014, about 300 inhabitants of Kirkenes, or 9 percent of its population, held Russian passports, and many more had Russian roots. Over time, the previous suspicion among the Norwegian majority towards Russian newcomers seems to have changed. Two decades ago, Russians were often associated with illegal activities, such as selling counterfeit cigarettes and liquor, and prostitution. In recent years, there were concerns about the influx of Russian workers and Russian businesses operating at the harbor, and about the gradual “Russification” of Kirkenes into a “Little Murmansk.” Today, however, the prevailing view is of Russians as good customers and neighbors (Espíritu and Viken 2012), manifested in Russian street signs in Kirkenes and a number of cultural events dedicated to mutual understanding and good relationships.
Other newcomers to Kirkenes and its environs come from all over the world. According to official statistics, Kirkenes is currently home to more than 70 nationalities, making it remarkably diverse given its size. Diversity may increase further. Only recently, the Storskog (Norway) border crossing was used as an entry point by hundreds of asylum seekers from the Middle East, who crossed into Norway on bicycles due to restrictions on crossing the Norwegian-Russian border on foot (Sør-Varanger Avis 2015).
Travelling Kirkenes’ environs reveals a diverse economic life, influenced by local conditions, national policies, and global markets. The region's economy is based on industry and services, as well as traditional occupations such as fishing, reindeer husbandry, and farming. Kirkenes owes its growth to mining, iron ore processing, and shipping. With the beginning of iron ore extraction at Bjørnevatn during the early twentieth century, Kirkenes became an industrial town and a port. Until the 1980s, it remained a typical company town, where the mining corporation, Sydvaranger Ltd., assumed many social functions (Viken and others 2008). In 1996, mining at Bjørnevatn was stopped, to restart in 2008. Mining activities have contributed to the development of infrastructure (airport, harbor, hospital, and roads). With the decline of mining, relaxation of the border regime with Russia in 1992, and subsequent growth of cross-border exchange, Kirkenes has undergone significant socioeconomic changes, culminating in its reinvention as a border town and a northern tourist destination (Viken and others 2008).
The Kirkenes Declaration (1993) provided a new institutional framework for co-operation in the Barents Euro-Arctic region. The key idea of the Declaration, signed by Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia, is that expanding “people-to-people collaboration” across borders (particularly with Russia) would contribute to development and stability in the very North of Europe. The Border Agreement (2010) between Russia and Norway, that allows visa-free cross-border travel for local residents living within a 30- to 50-km radius of the Norway/Russia border, further implements this idea, which has led to a sharp increase in cross-border exchange between the two countries, and the so-called “Russification” of Kirkenes. The Russian community currently accounts for about 10 percent of Kirkenes’ population. Russian fishing boats frequently use Kirkenes port because it has more favorable customs and immigration regimes than those at Murmansk. The new border-crossing regime has significantly influenced the Kirkenes retail sector, cross-border trade, and travel: Russian merchants run a monthly Russian market in Kirkenes’ central square; many Russian citizens visit Kirkenes to shop in local supermarkets and hardware stores. Since 2014, the unfolding economic crisis in Russia caused by the collapse of global energy prices and Western sanctions against Russian companies has affected the ability of Russian customers to purchase Western goods. As a result, the number of border crossings between Russia and Norway significantly reduced from 2014 to 2015 (Sør-Varanger Avis 2016). This will affect both the Kirkenes retail sector and the airport, which is used for international travel by customers from Russia.
Kirkenes has developed as a tourist destination within Finnmark County, which received 380,000 visitors in 2013. Cruise tourism has been a growth sector during the last fifteen years, often with Kirkenes harbor as the final destination. Kirkenes is also a popular starting point for Norwegian and international tourists who come to explore nature, the northern lights, dog sledging, or to experience a stay in Kirkenes Snow Hotel. With tourism and retail next to resource extraction, Kirkenes has become a town with a comparably diversified economy (Viken and others 2008).
Many other places in coastal northern Norway struggle to diversify their economy. Old fishing settlements have been affected by new fishing quotas, fish farming, the use of trawlers, various new technologies, and the outsourcing of fish processing to places where labor is cheaper. These changes have left visible traces on the route north towards Vardø. Between 1980 and 2010, the population of Vardø shrank by about 50 percent as a result of unemployment, and is currently around 2,100 persons. This exodus has left decaying buildings and infrastructure, and an overall mood of pessimism. The city has been working toward creating “new optimism” through a new development strategy entitled Vardø Restored. However, Vardø still has among the highest municipal unemployment rates in Norway, at 7.3 percent (Statistics Norway 2013).
It takes about three hours to drive from Kirkenes, through sparsely populated areas of the Murmansk Oblast’, to the city of Murmansk---the largest city within the Arctic Circle. A good-quality asphalt road goes via several settlements built around industrial activities and military bases. The largest settlements along the route are two mono-industrial towns: Nikel and Zapolyarny, both located in the Pechengsky District of Murmansk Oblast’. Until 1944 the district was part of Finland's Petsamo province, when it was ceded to the USSR. Mono-industrial towns are defined as places where more than 25 percent of the population is employed at a single company or group of companies within the same industry. Historically, such settlements date back to the period of rapid industrialization during the twentieth century. Russia still has more than 300 such towns, mostly in the Arctic (Anokhin and others 2014). Following the end of the USSR, Nikel and Zapolyarny suffered tremendous population losses: 45 percent and 36 percent, respectively (HSE Institute of Demography 2014; Rosstat 2014b).
Both Nikel (approximately 12,000 inhabitants) and Zapolyarny (approximately 15,000 inhabitants) are company towns of Kola Mining and Metallurgical Company (hereafter, Kola MMC), a part of Norilsk Nickel Group. Nowadays, Kola MMC extracts copper-nickel ore at the Kaula-Kotselvaara mine near the town of Nikel and operates a smelter located in the town. Both towns are closely linked with the industries that provide employment and urban services for residents. One third of all working-age residents are employed by Kola MMC.
Nikel and Zapolyarny remain classical examples of enduring Soviet mono-towns. Both have a simple dual structure, including industrial and residential areas. The surrounding landscape has been transformed by resource extraction and environmental pollution: mines, power plants, industrial installations, overhead transmission lines, enormous chimneys, and smoke have become dominant features of the region.
Civic centers in both towns feature a relatively well-maintained House of Culture (Dom Kul’tury) and a public square. In addition to the typical Soviet-era monuments dedicated to World War II and Lenin, there are monuments and signs associated with the history of socialist industrialization that brought development, masses of workers, and prosperity to the region.
Along the road to Murmansk, there are several settlements (for example, Pechenga and Sputnik) that house military personnel, border guards, and their families. Whereas a few years ago such settlements could have been considered a form of Soviet-era heritage, Russia's new Arctic Strategy (2013) implies the re-emerging strategic and developmental relevance of the Arctic for the country and its security.
The city of Murmansk, with its 305,000 inhabitants (down from around 470,000 in 1989), diversified economy, university, international airport, ice-free port, and prominent architecture, is the “capital” of Russia's Arctic. The city is overlooked by Alyosha, a 35-meter-high statue depicting a Russian World War II soldier: the Defender of the Soviet Arctic. Surrounded by typical Soviet high-rise buildings in residential areas, the relatively small city center surprises the visitor with its European appearance comparable to St. Petersburg's imperial style. Shops, restaurants, offices, and hotels create a city center environment very similar to non-Arctic cities of a comparable size. Murmansk attracts many tourists (540,000 in 2013), mostly from Russia.
Travelling south from Kirkenes towards Inari, large industries and mines give way to a landscape epitomized by Inari municipality's motto: “Mighty by Nature”. Here, large areas, such as including national parks and wilderness areas, and bodies of water---including Lake Inari and many others---have protected designation.
Inari's economic driver is tourism around Lake Inari. In 2013, Lapland received more than 2.4 million tourists. More than 15 percent of the municipality's population of 6,600 work in the tourism sector. Inari's town center has the appearance of a holiday resort, with hotels, campsites, restaurants, and souvenir stores. However, Inari is much more than that: it also serves as Finland's Sámi capital, with a large museum site and a number of institutions representing Sámi people (for more details, see the section Indigenous Peoples and Newcomers). In the areas around Inari, particularly in Sevettijärvi, traditional economies such as reindeer husbandry and fishing are present. Aside from creating a basis for existence, these economic activities are vital to the Sámi way of life and cultural identity.
One of the most unexpected places we found while travelling in Inari region was Näätämö,8 a small village 15 km south of the Norwegian border. Although there is nothing distinctive about the village's center, it attracts hundreds of visitors each day, especially from Norway.
For many Norwegians, Näätämö is a shopping “Mecca,” with two small- to medium-size supermarkets, a gas station, and a hardware store. Customers regularly make the 50-km drive from Kirkenes through mountains, along fjords and rivers, in order to fill their cars with groceries. K-Market and Nord1 Market in Näätämö offer cheaper Finnish prices (particularly for alcoholic beverages), and a choice of fresh meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables that is perceived to be better than that in neighboring Norway. Cross-border shopping opportunities promote mobility, even to the least expected places. As a result, Kirkenes’ Borderland Museum has arranged a small exhibition dedicated to the common weekly routine of Kirkenesian shoppers driving to Näätämö. These international customers are a gift to Näätämö's economy. The only desirable item not offered at Näätämö is fresh shrimps, which are sold at Kirkenes harbor directly from the fishing boat Dansken.
Kirkenes and its environs encompass great cultural and economic diversity. In all three regions (Lapland, Finland; Finnmark, Norway; and Murmansk Oblast’, Russia), Sámi peoples form the indigenous cultural core of the region, with their traditional livelihoods close to the natural environment, shaping over centuries economic activities such as reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing. With the arrival of newcomers---first and foremost colonizers---the region transformed culturally and economically at the expense of traditional indigenous ways of life, which were suppressed and gradually assimilated. Recent policies of political participation, cultural support, and reconciliation in Finland and Norway can hardly reverse the consequences of earlier assimilation policies directed at the indigenous populations, but certainly contribute to respecting and strengthening indigenous identities and ways of life.
While resource-based economies in the northern regions of Norway and Russia have played a key role in the modern transformation of the Arctic (including its landscape, environment, and infrastructure), decline in traditional sectors poses a challenge for places economically dependent on such sectors as mining, particularly among mono-industrial towns in Russia and Norway. Coastal fishing villages face similar challenges due to fish farming, the use of trawlers, new quotas, and outsourcing of processing to regions where labor is cheaper. Unemployment, massive out-migration, and aging infrastructure are the consequences, which can only be mitigated by diversifying the economy. Cross-border trade and tourism, most successful in Lapland and Finnmark, have proved to be the driving forces of economic restructuring.
Cultural transformations are also under way. Politically, a combination of bottom-up and top-down approaches in Finland and Norway promote cultural diversity rather than assimilation, while in Russia only state-sponsored and-controlled diversity projects prevail, by which the Sámi peoples of Murmansk Oblast’ are bypassed. With open borders, cross-border traffic, and global migration flows, cultural diversity in the Arctic is likely to increase in coming years. Kirkenes and its environs will serve as a mirror of these dynamics, which once more render the region compelling.