Kirkenes, the borderlands

Our furthest north so far

18th to 22nd March, 2019

Kirkenes is in the far north of Norway. I think Jane is becoming more polar-bear each day, realising how much she is enjoying exploring here in the “crisp” weather: it is -11º Celsius here tonight.

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Kirkenes lies in the Norwegian municipality of Sør-Varanger, located as far north-east as possible in Norway, close to the Varanger fjord. It belongs to the northernmost county in Norway, Finnmark. With a population of over 9,000 spread across 3.6 million km2,  the municipality lies on the Russian and Finnish borders.

Borders … That seems to be a key part of their history here. Conflicts have forced people to move time and time again for hundreds of years. Whole populations have been displaced, some like the first-nation Sami never to return to their home territories. I wrote about that aspect of Norwegian history before when we visited Narvik last year.

At the Varanger Borderland Museum, they describe this place as a “Boarderland without borders. Already 10,000 years ago people lived around the Varanger Fjord.  People have moved west and east, between sea and inland winter spring and autumn.”

“Jeg reiser allene” (they travel alone) Kirsten Basma in 1942

Kirsten Basma tells the story of her families escape to Russia in 1942 in her father’s brother’s boat. The trip took 26 hours on the sea with a storm raging, two families with seven small children. The children and the women lived in a barrack for three years while their fathers were with the Russian partisans fighting against the Germans. Later, she was sent alone to Sweden:

“Apples were painted on the ceiling of the room where the children slept, and was kept in their imagination and helped to forget the hunger. Sweden is a protected land to live in compared to many other countries in the world, and we need to be reminded how it is to live in a war.”

The Wessel photographic archive

Ellsif Wessel (1866-1949) arrived in Kirkenes with her husband in March, 1886, where he took up the position of the district’s new doctor. Pursuing her love of photography, she often traveled with her husband on his rounds, bringing her cameras, tripods and boxes of glass negatives.

Over the next fifty years, she built up a photographic archive of life in Kirkenes as it evolved from being a small subsistence community into a highly industrialized mining town. All of her original glass plates were destroyed when her house was bombed in the final stages of World War Two, but what remain of her 600 to 700 prints provides one of the few records of this time.

School teacher Madam Hee with her students outside the Handcraft School in Bugoynes, 1898
Kirkenes, 1898. The church at the top forms part of the town’s name “Church in the Borderlands”
Sami on the mountain top of Langfjorden, Sandnes, in the winter of 1897
Sami women patients visiting Dr Wessel, at Solheim, 1901
Boys from Vardo playing in the trees at Solvang for the first time.

Author: Rockweather

I am a writer, musician, teacher, and researcher at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in Auckland, New Zealand.

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