Norway-Russia border: short stretch, long history

Photo: Maltesen, Copenhagen / Wikimedia Commons A pair of boundary markers on the east bank of the Paatsjoki River near Kirkenes. The Norwegian poles are yellow, and the Russian ones are green and red striped.

Photo: Maltesen, Copenhagen / Wikimedia Commons
A pair of boundary markers on the east bank of the Paatsjoki River near Kirkenes. The Norwegian poles are yellow, and the Russian ones are green and red striped.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Norway shares its land border with three other countries. The longest shared border is with Sweden to the east, a stretch of 1,010 miles. In the far north, in Finnmark County, there’s a 457-mile stretch of border with Finland, and farther east, there’s a 122-mile stretch of border between the Sør-Varanger municipality of Norway and the Pechengsky District of Russia.

The Norway-Russia stretch of border was first defined in 1326 by the Treaty of Novgorod, not as an exact line, but as a march, or buffer zone between the two countries. Its original intent was not precision in the geographic demarcation of the countries, but rather specification of to which government the resident Sámi were to pay tax.

The Treaty of Novgorod definition of the border remained in force for 500 years, until the exact border line was specified in the St. Petersburg Convention between Russia and Sweden, signed in May 1826. Today the border is marked by 415 markers, 378 of which are pairs of poles spaced 13 ft. apart; the Norwegian poles are yellow, and the Russian ones are green and red striped.

During the Cold War of 1947-1991, the border was guarded on both sides, because it was one of two land borders between NATO and the Soviet Union (the other was between Turkey and the Soviet Union). Norway-Russia border relations then became a matter of concern for NATO.

Morten Jentoft, a journalist and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) correspondent in Moscow from 1996 to 2000, has written extensively on Finnmark County during the Cold War. He believes that the Soviet liberation of East Finnmark in 1944 led to widespread sympathy with the Soviet Union, particularly among people of Sámi and Finnish heritage. In turn, this led to military leaders regarding the population of the county to be potentially unreliable should Russia invade, a view made public in an interview broadcast November 11, 2004.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Directorate of Customs and Excise Storskog border control station, the only crossing between Norway and Russia.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Directorate of Customs and Excise
Storskog border control station, the only crossing between Norway and Russia.

The Cold War now is history, and the Norway-Russia border again is peaceful. But another complication has arisen. Like Norway, Sweden and Finland are members of the Schengen Agreement of 26 European countries that ensures freedom of movement between them. The border with Russia is another matter. The Russian military intervention in Ukraine of 2014-2015 has sharpened political awareness of the border. Moreover, Russia is not in the Schengen Area. The only legal crossing of it is east of the town of Kirkenes at Storskog, at 3° of latitude north of the Arctic Circle on the E105 European international main road that runs from Kirkenes southward through Russia and onward to Yalta on the south coast of the Crimean Peninsula.

In the ongoing flood of refugees into Europe, Storskog has unwittingly become a gateway to Europe for asylum seekers. To date in 2015, some 1,200 asylum seekers have crossed the border from Russia, up from about 20 in 2014. The main reason for the upswing may be that though the route is circuitous, it is legal and far safer than crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Norwegian politicians are now debating whether all the asylum seekers who come in from Russia are genuine, as many of them have lived in safety in Russia for years. Reactions including returning unqualified asylum seekers to Russia and tightening border controls have been discussed. So the short stretch of the Norway-Russia border now has become part of the agenda of European debate on the future of the Schengen Agreement.

Further reading:
International Boundary Study No. 24, Norway-U.S.S.R. Boundary, No. 24, Washington, D.C., August 1978, Office of the Geographer, Department of State; downloadable 8-page PDF at archive.law.fsu.edu/library/collection/limitsinseas/IBS024.pdf.

• In observance of the Norwegian bicentennial in 2014, a scholarly study entitled Norge og Russland 1814-2014: Et asymmetrisk naboskap (Norway and Russia 1814-2014: an asymmetrical neighborliness) was published by Pax Forlag of Oslo in two hardcover volumes entitled: Russland kommer nærmere (Russia comes closer), Jens Petter Nielsen (ed) covering the period up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, and Naboer i frykt og forventning (Neighbors in fear and expectation), Sven G. Holtsmark (ed) covering the period thereafter, together nearly 1,400 pages, two-volume set ISBN 978-82-530-3748-6. The two volumes thoroughly document official cooperation between the two countries and to a lesser extent the international interaction between their peoples.

Gjennom Sibir med Nansen (Through Siberia with Nansen) by Øyvind Ravna, Orkana Forlag, Stamsund, 2014, 325-page hardcover, ISBN 978-82-8104-250-6, an in-depth text and photo coverage of a joint Norwegian-Russian journey of 2013, commemorating Fridtjof Nansen’s 1913 exploration of Arctic Siberia aimed at opening up the Northeast Passage.

Fire and Ice, the Nazis’ Scorched Earth Campaign in Norway by Vincent Hunt, The History Press, Stroud, England, 2015, 256-page hardcover, ISBN 978-0750956369; a harrowing account of the destruction wrought in northern Norway by the retreating Wehrmacht in the final months of World War II; see Norwegian American Weekly review of November 13, 2015.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

You may also like...