At the Russian border

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View across the Varangerfjord from where Grense Jakobselv joins the sea.

About 60 km east of Kirkenes is Grense Jakobselv ( Translated: Border Jakob River). The border with Russia runs along the middle of the river, at the deepest point. The border is heavily patrolled on both sides and crossing the river is strictly prohibited, as is making contact with anyone on the other side. Those in boats have to be careful not to cross over the border, as the deepest point is not always in the middle of the river.

The Norwegian border posts are yellow with black tops, while the Russian are red and green. As you can see, they are placed on opposing sides of the bank. I found the river surprisingly small. It was odd to see Russia only metres away and know that you were forbidden to go there.

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Norwegian border post with Russian in the background on the other side of the river, and Russian watch tower further away.

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At one point, the river was small and shallow and Russia was just metres away on the other bank.

 

The border between Russia and Norway was agreed on in 1826. At that time, the communities on either side of the border had close contact and worked together. In the 1900s, after the Russian revolution and then with the Cold War, the border became more strictly controlled and contact between peoples was prohibited.  Nowadays, after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, travel is easier, and people living within 30km of the border can get a border pass to cross over. Other travelers need a visa before crossing into Russia.

Oscar II´s chapel is a well-known sight in Grense Jakobselv. Opened in 1863, it was built to mark the Norwegian territory, as the state was concerned about the extent of Russian interests in the valley.

 

When the border was made in 1826, it deeply affected the local Sami population, the Skolt Sami. Their traditional territory was divided by the border between Russia, Finland and Norway, and when they were no longer allowed to migrate during the seasons with their reindeer herds across the borders, they could no longer follow their traditional way of life. As you can see in the map below, the border cuts through the  areas used by the Pasvik and Neiden Sami siida.

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The Pasvik siida had special fishing rights in Norway after 1826, but these were abolished in the 1920s. The Skolt Sami in Norway now number about 700 individuals. The language has all but died out in Norway, but is still spoken in Finland. Recently, a Skolt Sami museum opened in Neiden, to teach about and help revive Skolt Sami culture and language in Norway (http://www.skoltesamiskmuseum.no).

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St. Georg´s Chapel in the old Skolt Sami village at Neiden. The Skolt Sami converted to the Russian orthodox faith.

 

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Group portrait of Skolt Sami family, by Ellisif Wessel (1866–1949)