The Pasvik River

One river - three states

Today, the Pasvik river forms the border between Norway and Russia. The Pasvik river valley has been and remains a meeting place for different cultures and peoples. The politics, wars and borders of the nation states have had huge consequences for the people living in the area. The Norwegian state marked its territory, and built schools, chapels, tourist stations and experimental farms.

The Finnish-Russian War left its traces among the people of the Pasvik valley. The Cold War between East and West also had a big impact on life by and on the river. But Norway and the Soviet Union also co-operated on a project to develop the river for generating hydro-electric power.

Today there are close relations between Norway and Russia, and there is co-operation in culture, tourism, energy and research. But crossing the border on the river is still forbidden!

Glasnost Kald krig 2. verdenskrig Finske naboer Norsk kolonisering Finsk innvandring Det grenseløse folket Grenselandet Førhistorisk tid

Pre-historic times

There are traces of human habitation in the area we today call Sør-Varanger, which are about 10,000 years old. Finds show that people gradually became expert in exploiting the resources of the area. Cultural traces indicate contacts with peoples in the east.

The Ice Age

Sør-Varanger was completely covered by ice during the last Ice Age. By the end of the Ice Age, in about 10 000 B.C., the coastline was completely free of ice. Inland areas were ice-free in about 7000 B.C. With the melting of the ice, both the land and the sea rose. The sea level rose because of the meltwater from the glaciers, while the land rose because the pressure exerted by the heavy ice had gone.

The vegetation that developed provided good living conditions for wild reindeer. In the sea, warm ocean currents created a good environment for fish, seal, whales, seabirds and other marine life to thrive.

It is in this setting that we find the first traces of human activity. The people who came here were hunters and their chief game was wild reindeer, but they also harvested the rich resources of the sea.

Early Stone Age

The oldest settlements in Sør-Varanger date from the Early Stone Age, which lasted from about 10 000 B.C. to 4500 B.C. We call this period the Stone Age because the objects that have been found are chiefly of stone. From the last part of the early Stone Age some objects of bone have been found, and we think that bone, together with wood and animal horn, were important tool-making materials throughout this period.

Settlements, graves, and tools for fishing, trapping and hunting have been found in Sør-Varanger. The people who lived here had a semi-nomadic way of life, which means that they moved between particular areas according to the seasons. They went wherever there was a good supply of resources. They were probably able to move around easily as they lived in light-weight tents made of animal hide that were easily transportable.

Last Stone Age

In the Late Stone Age (c. 4500-1800 B.C.) the climate changed, and the forests that had developed in the Early Stone Age began to disappear. The vegetation gradually became similar to what we know today.

The sites, or ‘tofts’, of settlements found along the coast are larger and more evident than those from the Early Stone Age, indicating that the settlements were more stable and the orientation towards marine resources had been strengthened. At the same time, the people living in the inland areas of Sør-Varanger were highly mobile. There are many traces of the people who lived in the Pasvik valley.

There are rich findings from the Late Stone Age, with many beautifully decorated objects of bone and animal horn. Stone tools were still important, but the tool-making techniques differ from those of the Early Stone Age. Tools were made in more fine-grained materials such as slate and greenstone.

Both the change in tool-making techniques and the use of new kinds of rock indicate what was perhaps the biggest difference between the Early and Late Stone Ages, which was increased contact with other peoples.

Early Bronze Age

The Early Bronze Age (1800-0 B.C.) is characterised by a more uniform use of pottery between coastal and inland areas. The differences between coastal and inland settlements became fewer. In addition to stone, wood, horn and bone there are some tools of copper and bronze. Most are from the end of the period.

The last 1,000 years of the Bronze Age era show traces of major social, cultural and economic changes, and many people believe that it is during this period that the Sami emerge as a defined ethnic group. Many of the features that are viewed as typically Sami, including types of settlement and burial customs, emerge clearly at this time.

In Pasvik, we see an increase in the number of settlements and a distinct type of pottery develops, called Pasvik pottery.

Sami Iron Age and the Middle Ages

It is difficult to establish the ethnicity of a culture based on archaeological material alone. There is nevertheless little doubt that the people who lived in Sør-Varanger after the year 0 B.C. are the forefathers of the present Sami population of the area.

New features include reindeer herding, sheep-keeping, woollen clothes, new decorative styles in bone carving and embroidery, and the use of iron. We also see changes in religion and politics. Contacts with other peoples, and other places, increase.

Gradually, as tame reindeer herding spread, the seasonal migrations between inland and coastal areas changed. Unlike previously, the winters were now spent inland and the summers at the coast. Reindeer herding and husbandry changed from a system with each family keeping reindeer for slaughter, hides and meat, etc., via intensive reindeer husbandry with many owners and small herds, to full nomadism in about the 1500s.

Objects of bone found at Kjelmøya far out in Bøkfjorden. (From the history of Sør-Varanger)

The «Pasvik river», about 10,000 years ago. (From the history of Sør-Varanger)

Soapstone weight belonging to a spindle found in the Pasvik valley. (From the history of Sør-Varanger)

Comb-patterned pottery from the area. (Lent by Tromsø Museum)

The border country

In 1826, the border was drawn between Norway and Russia, and the Sør-Varanger area became part of Norway. The politics, wars and borders of the nation states had huge consequences for the people of the area. Old local and regional borders were of less importance. Contact across the borders continued between the peoples in the border area between Norway, Finland and Russia.


Negotiations on the rights to the White Sea.


The border between Norway and Sweden was finally established. Norway took over Kautokeino, Karasjok and Utsjok on the north side of the Tana river (Polmak). The rest of the communal district stayed in the ownership of Sweden-Finland. The Lapp Codicil was part of the border treaty and was intended to secure the rights of reindeer-herding Sami to move across the national borders.


Sweden was forced to surrender Finland to the Russian Tsar. Finland became a separate Grand Duchy in Russia.


Norway separated from Denmark and entered into union with Sweden. Norway got its own constitution on 17 May in Eidsvoll. The area we today call Sør-Varanger was not part of Norway(!), but part of the communal district of Norway-Russia.


The border between Norway and Russia was established. The remainder of the communal districts south of Varanger were divided between the two countries. The Enare (or Inari) lake was defined as Finnish and left the communal district. Sør-Varanger became part of Norway. The border cut through the old East Sami siida areas.


The Norwegian-Finnish border was closed for the movement of reindeer. This had consequences for reindeer-herding Sami, as new grazing lands had to be found. It was however difficult for the authorities to enforce the agreement along the border.


The union between Norway and Sweden was dissolved. Norway became an independent state.


Finland and the Soviet Union signed the peace treaty in Dorpat. Petsamo-Suenjel became a Finnish area when the border was drawn between Soviet-Russia and Finland inasmuch as Finland was independent. Russia was now no longer a neighbour of Norway.


The Finnish-Russian War between Finland and the Soviet Union. Finland had to surrender parts of its territory to the Soviet Union.


World War II begins. Norway is occupied by Germany


Finland’s border with the Soviet Union was changed. Petsamo and Suenjel became Soviet territory. Norway acquired the Soviet Union as its neighbour in the east. Movement across the border was strictly limited. Sør-Varanger was liberated by the Red Army as the first area to be liberated in Norway.


The Soviet Union is dissolved. Russia becomes an independent republic.

Borders in Cap of the North

Norwegian border marker at Melkefoss. (Photo: Ingar G Henriksen, Sør-Varanger Museum)

At Treriksrøysa, autumn 1898. Cairn no. 353 marking the border between Norway, Russia and Finland. In Finland stands a kvæn (person of Finnish stock), in Russia a Russian Karelian and in Norway Dr. A. B. Wessel. On the cairn stands Baron Liljenstjerna. (Photo: Ellisif Wessel. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

The people without borders

The East Sami are also known as “Skolte Sami”. The East Samis’ name for themselves is Nuorttalazzak. They had the Pasvik area virtually to themselves right up until the 1800s. Many North Sami, Enare Sami, Norwegians, Finns and Russians settled in the areas around the Pasvik river system. The drawing of the border, and the politics and wars of the nation states, would have great significance for the East Sami, the indigenous people of the area.

East Sami women’s caps. The East Sami are known for their beadwork. (Photo: Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)


The East Sami were organised in siidas. The siida system is also common in other Sami societies. A siida consists of several families who together own and use a delimited geographic area. The siida is also the name of the area. For some parts of the year, the families would be spread over the entire area. In the winter time, all the families would be gathered in the winter settlement, and there was time for socialising.

East Sami siidas

The East Sami population consisted of such siidas. The drawing of the border in 1826 between Norway and Russia cut right across the siida areas. Three siidas were inside the Norwegian-Russian communal district:

  • The Njavddam siida (Neiden siida) had its summer settlement in Neiden and its winter settlement in what is now Finland. The members of this siida remained Norwegian citizens.
  • The Paccvei siida (Pasvik siida) used both sides of the Pasvik river, both the west side, which is today Norwegian, and the east side, which is today Russian. Today, most of the descendants of the members of this siida live in Finland.
  • The Peisen siida (Petsjenga siida) was in Russia and the area was little affected by the border. The members of this siida remained Russian citizens.

The East Sami in Pasvik became Russian citizens in 1826, although those belonging to the Neiden siida remained Norwegian.

East Sami at Nakholmen, Vaggetem, in 1900. (Photo: Ellisif Wessel. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

Seasonal migration

The East Sami lived in a hunters’ culture, pursuing a semi-nomadic way of life. The East Sami had several settlements in the Pasvik valley and by the fjords in Sør-Varanger. They lived where there was best access to resources. In the spring and summer they lived by Bøkfjorden and Jarfjorden, where there was a plentiful supply of salmon, cod and coalfish. They took the animals they owned with them out to the fjords. In the autumn and winter they lived chiefly along the Pasvik river.

At one of the East Sami salmon fishing places in Bøkfjorden c. 1900. (Photo: Ellisif Wessel. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)


Fisheries were important for the East Sami, and this applied to both freshwater and sea fishing. Nature was the most important source of food. Many East Sami families kept some sheep and reindeer. The reindeer provided meat, hides and bone, but were also important as a means of transport. The East Sami made use of nature’s resources and moved according to where those resources were available.

Fishing in Norwegian Fjords

The East Sami in the Pasvik siida lost their fishing rights in the Norwegian fjords Bøkfjorden and Jarfjorden in 1924. They were at that time living in Finland. Norway and Finland agreed that Norway could purchase the fishing rights for 12,000 gold crowns. The East Sami had no real possibility of refusing this. Norway was not interested in having the Pasvik siida in Norwegian fjords.

Borders and wars

The culture of the East Samis became a victim of the politics, border regulations and wars of the nation states. Their old ways of life with seasonal settlements and the siida system had no place in a modern world. Finland developed the Petsamo area and pressure on the East Sami increased. It became difficult to maintain the seasonal migrations. Many East Sami settled permanently in Boris Gleb. After World War II, the area became part of the Soviet Union, while the East Sami in the Pasvik siida remained Finnish citizens.

The limits of the old East Sami siidas. (Map: Astri Andresen: «Sii'daen som forsvant» Sør-Varanger Museum)


Mrs Ryeng, the widow of forest ranger Ryeng, told the archaeologist Povl Simonsen in 1959 that Nakholmen on Vaggetem was settled from about 1 August and until the first snows fell. After that the East Sami went south-east to Russia for ice-fishing for about a month. From there they continued to the Svanvik area for the winter, and then down to Boris Gleb at Easter. Following that they went to the fjords to fish.

Boris Gleb Church, 1928. (Photo: Wilse. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

The East Sami today

Today, the East Sami live mainly in Norway, Finland and Russia. Most of the members of the Pasvik siida chose to settle in Finland after World War II; the alternative was the Soviet Union. There are also descendants of the Pasvik siida in Norway. Then, as now, there were marriages across borders, countries and cultures. Many East Sami gather annually for Orthodox church services in Neiden, Sevettijärvi or Boris Gleb.

On the Norwegian side, the East Sami centre is Neiden, and a service is held each year in St. George’s Chapel.

Finnish immigration

“Päivä, päivä! Mitä?” Finnish is still spoken in Pasvik and many older people speak the language fluently. Finnish surnames such as Beddari, Kalliainen and Sotkajærvi are common in the Pasvik valley. The children learn Finnish at school, and there are still close ties with the neighbouring country Finland.

The long march

Conditions were hard in large parts of Finland in the mid-1800s. The dreams and hopes of a better life were the driving forces for those who left their villages. They left their homes and said goodbye to their parents, families and kin, probably knowing that they would never return. In the north, close to the fjords and the Ruoija (Arctic Ocean), lay the land were they would start a new life. They packed their few possessions, and began the long march to Paatsjoki (the Pasvik river) in the Pasvik valley. And they settled on both sides of the river.

Fishing in the fjords

Finnish immigration to the Pasvik valley really started in the mid-1800s. Before that the Finns travelled to the fjords to take part in the fisheries there. The sea offered both coalfish and cod, and the fishing activity brought an income. The Finns who went to fish in the fjords must have discovered that in the north-east part of Norway conditions were also good for farming, reindeer herding and forestry.

Paatsjoki, as the Pasvik river is called in Finnish, and the surrounding areas, attracted many immigrants from Finland in the 1800s. (Photo: Sigrun Rasmussen, Saviomuseet/Sør-Varanger Museum)

Why did the Finns go to Pasvik?

The fisheries and the possibilities of settling in an area rich in resources caused many Finns to leave their home country. In the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s, many took their few belongings and made the long journey north. In addition to being attracted by the resources in Sør-Varanger, many left because large parts of Finland had experienced crop failure and crisis. Many communities had a surplus of population, and resources were few. All this helped hasten the immigration to the Pasvik valley and the areas around the Varangerfjord.

Several legs to stand on

The majority of the Finns who settled in the Pasvik valley in the 1800s stayed. They established smallholdings, had children and lived like the other people in the valley. A patch of land, a few cattle, sheep and reindeer, fishing in the river and the sea, berries and timber from the forests provided a livelihood. Some farms had more than one family living on them.


In North Finland a large proportion of the population were Sami. Many of those who left Finland came from communities where there had been a fusion of Finnish and Sami culture. Sami and Finns had inter-married, and many who went to Norway were a mixture of these two peoples. Both Finnish and Sami traditions were carried on in the Pasvik valley together with Norwegian traditions. The people who settled in the valley learned from one another how to make the best possible use of the resources.

Magda and Aleksander Beddari. Aleksander was the grandson of Peter, who came from Kemijärvi in Finland. (Photo: Lent by Olav Beddari)

Kven or Finnish?

In the 1800s, the Norwegian authorities used the name kven for everyone who came from Finland. Gradually, the name acquired negative connotations. Kven was also the name used for the people who lived by Bottenviken. Today, many descendants of those who came from Finland and Bottenviken choose to call themselves kven. Others choose to say that they are of Finnish origin or that they have Finnish roots. In 1996, kven were recognised as having minority status in Norway.

Make the area Norwegian!

Initially, the Norwegian authorities took a positive view of the immigration from Finland, but then they began putting into effect various initiatives to get more Norwegians to move to the area. A roadbuilding programme was started already in the 1870s and Norwegian families took the road north. Projects to settle and farm new land, the building of the Strand boarding school and laws designed to Norwegianise the area were all put into effect. The Norwegian authorities wanted to mark the fact that the west side of the Pasvik river was Norwegian territory. The Finnish language dominated in large parts of the valley. Many Norwegians in the valley learned Finnish in order to be understood by their neighbours!

Living Finnish culture?

In many ways, the Finnish culture survived the pressure from the Norwegian authorities. Many of those who today live in Pasvik are of Finnish origin. Names like Beddari, Sotkajærvi, Rauhala, Nikkinen, Kalliainen, Kurthi, Bordi, Randa and Ollila bear witness to Finnish roots. In the shops, you can hear people speaking Finnish; many older people keep the language alive. The children learn Finnish at school and learn about Finnish culture and traditions. The ties with Finland are still strong, 150 years after their forefathers took the road north.

Petter and Frans Kalliainen with a big pike at Vaggetem. The Pasvik river was an important resource also for descendants of the first Finnish immigrants. (Photo: Arne Kalliainen)

Norwegian colonisation

When the border along the Pasvik river was established in 1826, it was the last piece of border to be laid down between Norway and another state. After the establishment of the border and the changes that brought with it for the original East Sami population, Finnish immigration to the area increased. The Norwegian authorities put into effect several initiatives designed to settle the area with Norwegians.

Norwegian concern

The Norwegian authorities were concerned about the loyalty of the population along the newly established border, as the area was dominated by immigrants from Finland. Various initiatives were debated to increase the proportion of Norwegian population in the area, as well as the use of the Norwegian language. One strategy was to invite people from southern Norway and provide them with good conditions encouraging them to settle, cultivate the land and increase the use of the Norwegian language in the area. The objective was to spread Norwegian culture. At the same time, there was a wish to limit the spread of Finnish culture, through various laws. This succeeded to varying degrees.

Why did people come from the south?

In the years from about 1850 and up to World War I, many people emigrated from North Østerdalen. Most went to the USA, but many also went north. They settled where there was work, or where they could clear land for farming. Many communities had a surplus population and unemployment, and many were forced to move in order to find a new means of livelihood for themselves and their families. The people who went north to Sør-Varanger had a desire for better living conditions and wanted to start a new life. Many of those living in the Pasvik valley today are descendants of Norwegians who settled and started new farms in the border area.

Nordre Namdalen farm, one of several in Pasvik from the 1800s. (Photo: Sør-Varanger Museum)

Military gamme at Svanvik. Perhaps the world’s largest gamme, it was erected in the 1920s, when Norway wanted to mark the border with Finland. (Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

Strand boarding school was an important institution for education and Norwegianisation. (Photo: Sør-Varanger Museum)

The Norwegian government’s initiatives to influence population development in Sør-Varanger:

1869: Roadbuilding

28 roadbuilders were sent to Sør-Varanger in 1869, and another ten the year after. In 1872, ten roadbuilders and their families applied to have land surveyed to create new settlements. The roadbuilders continued their life in the area as settlers. The census and other sources show that the population of the Pasvik valley is increasing in number in this period, Finns and Norwegians are inter-marrying, and Finnish is the dominant language.

1899: Agriculture

This year saw the establishment of the Society for the Advancement of Agriculture in Finnmark. The Society’s aim was to advance agriculture in Finnmark, and to protect Norwegian interests. The methods used were free land and cheap loans to settlers. Advertisements seeking settlers were placed in newspapers in Trøndelag, Romsdalen and the northern parts of Gudbrandsdalen and Østerdalen. The project was not a success. It was not easy to recruit settlers from these areas, and for those who did go north it appears that the conditions failed to match their expectations. At the end of 1903, ten settlers arrived. In 1907 only three remained. The rest had left.

1903: Forest rangers

Forest rangers were employed in Pasvik, and state-owned forestry operations were started. The forest rangers’ job also included keeping the border under surveillance. Their tasks could include ensuring that no-one unlawfully used resources as grazing areas or hunted on the Norwegian side of the river − apart from people living in Norway.

1905: Boarding schools

The government set up boarding schools in the same year that Norway became independent. The first boarding schools were Fossheim in Neiden and Strand in Pasvik. At the boarding schools it was permitted to speak Norwegian only. The government wanted to see Norwegian become the dominant language. This was probably an effective barrier to the development of reading skills and learning in general.

1920s: New settlement

Fresh attempts were made to settle the Pasvik valley. This was part of a nationwide campaign to settle the area, and was justified by the need for increased self-sufficiency and to relieve the widespread unemployment. This time, too, the desire for a loyal Norwegian population in the border area was an argument for starting settlement initiatives in the Pasvik valley in particular. The Svanvik experimental farm was built up in the years 1934 to 1939. Svanvik was intended to focus on breeding of farm animals and plants, and to provide an educational and training institution for farmers.

Finnish neighbours

In 1920, Finland became Norway’s neighbour also on the east side of the Pasvik valley. Finland wanted to mark its new territory and began building farms, shops, tourist stations and roads. Contact and trade increased between the peoples along the river.

Finland gets Petsamo

The peace treaty between the Soviet Union and Finland was signed in Dorpat on 14 October 1920 and Russia was obliged to surrender the Petsamo area to Finland. This meant that the independent state of Finland gained access to the Arctic Ocean. Already over Christmas 1920, Finland began marking its new territory and soldiers were sent north. Finland established its own administration in the area and began building roads, schools, shops, churches, hotels and inns. Finland remained Norway’s neighbour east of the Pasvik river right up until 1944 when it had to surrender the area to the Soviet Union.

Kolltaköngäs tourist station in Boris Gleb before the fire in 1937. The Finns built several tourist stations in the Petsamo area. (Photo: Finnish Tourist Association, Eva Sundelin’s Collections)

Good contacts across the river

There were already many Finns living on the east side of the river when the area was Russian. But when the area became Finnish in 1920, many people went to live on the Finnish side of the river. Many on the Norwegian side had Finnish roots and had kept the language and the culture alive. There were good, close contacts between the people on each side of the river and they would often meet on festive occasions. Some found their sweethearts across the border. Stories are also told of football matches and other competitions between Norwegian and Finnish youth.

Border trade

There were frequent visits to the shops in Boris Gleb, Salmijärvi (Svanvannet) and Pitkäjärvi (Langvannet) in the inter-war years. Sugar, coffee and flour were cheaper there than in Norway, likewise tobacco and other goods. Not everything was imported lawfully into Norway, but the customsmen along the long Pasvik river had no possibility of checking all the traffic. For many, the Finnish shops were closer than the Norwegian shops.

Salmijärvi on the Finnish side of the Pasvik river before the war. (Photo: Unknown. Lent by Hans Kristian Eriksen. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

Birger Erlandsen points over the Pasvik river and remembers his Finnish neighbours. (Photo: Ingar G Henriksen, Sør-Varanger Museum)

Salminen family

“On the other side of the river lived the Salminens.” Birger Erlandsen is one of many Pasvik valley dwellers who remember the contacts across the river. When Birger was a boy, it was Finland on the other side of the river. Until 1944. “We had a lot of contact with the Salminen family on the other side of the river. They were part of the family’s circle of acquaintance.” The Salminen family had a smallholding and also hunted and fished. “Some of the Salminen children have since visited us on the Norwegian side. Higher up from the Salminen place there was a shop and an inn. We used to shop there. For us it was cheaper and a shorter way to the shops. Of course, it wasn’t quite legal to go around the customs station, but that was a good bit further down the river,” says Birger, laughing.

The risk posed by Finland

In Finland during the years between the two world wars, ideas and plans were circulating in right-wing extremist environments, such as the Lappo Movement and the Academic Karelian Society, concerning the establishment of a Greater Finland. The objective of these organisations was to annex areas outside Finland where many Finns were living. Norwegian newspapers wrote frequently of the Finnish danger, and that Finland could pose a threat in the north. This created unease among the Norwegian authorities, but the Finnish authorities denied that Finland had plans to expand its territory.

Norwegian marking of the area

Norway marked the fact that the area was Norwegian by building a chapel, a lower secondary school, a military garrison, roads, an experimental farm, and customs and tourist stations. They also initiated the third big settlement project in the Pasvik valley. The contacts between Finns on the Norwegian and Finnish sides were good. And there is nothing to indicate that the Finns on the Norwegian side of the Pasvik river wanted to become Finnish citizens. Their loyalty to Norway was without doubt great.

World War II

Germany invaded Norway on 9 April 1940. The German occupation lasted until May 1945. Sør-Varanger’s location meant that it was of great importance to Nazi Germany’s campaign against the Soviet Union. The German war machine became part of everyday life for the people of the border country.

"Fortress Kirkenes"

“Fortress Kirkenes” was the Germans’ most northerly entrenchment in Europe. Hitler’s plan was to attack the Soviet Union in both the north and the south. Sør-Varanger was to be the bridgehead in the attack against Murmansk. The ports of both Kirkenes and Murmansk are free of ice all year round; this was important for warships and supply ships.

Military build-up

The first German soldiers came to East Finnmark in June-July 1940. During the autumn and winter huge forces and colossal amounts of arms and materials were transported to the border with Finland. The attack on the Soviet Union began on 22 June 1941 after a huge military build-up in Finnmark, particularly in the Kirkenes area. The German attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 made Norway an important strategic point in the war between the great powers. Finnmark and Finland became military deployment areas on the northern front.

German parade at Skansen in Storgata, Kirkenes, 1942. (Photo: Edvardsen. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

German ships in the fjord

“I remember when German ships sailed into Bøkfjorden for the first time. It was in June 1940. We were salmon fishing at sea. The Germans had a band on deck playing military marches. It resounded all round the fjord. My grandfather said: «Hope they get out again fast»,” recounted Ingvald Henriksen, who was 13 years old in 1940.

Over a thousand air raids

The Germans completely dominated the lives of the local population of this north-eastern area, both in their workplaces and in their homes. The fact that Fortress Kirkenes was of course an important target for the Soviet Russian allies did not make the situation easier. Over a thousand air raids during the war years say it all. Kirkenes was bombed to destruction.

Bombing. Fires. Fear. Daily life for the people of Kirkenes during the war. (Photo: Bundesarkiv, Germany. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

4 July 1944, when over 140 houses and buildings burned in Soviet bombing attacks. (Photo: Bundesarkiv, Germany. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

Contact with the soldiers

The war left deep traces among the population of the Pasvik valley and Sør-Varanger. In many ways, the rural communities came out of it better than Kirkenes, and most buildings in the countryside were still standing after the war. Many people who were children during the war tell of their good contact with the soldiers. “They were only young boys sent to the north. Most of them behaved well,” say many in the Pasvik valley. “They would sometimes give us sweets or a bit of food.”

Overview of German installations in Sør-Varanger. (Illustration: Johan B. Siira. «Sør-Varanger under 2. verdenskrig», Sør-Varanger Historielag)

Prison camps

The Germans took many Russian soldiers prisoner during the fighting. Several prison camps were built in Sør-Varanger, with a total of 14 camps in Pasvik. The prisoners were treated virtually like animals. Very many Russian prisoners lost their lives due to malnutrition or exhaustion, or they were simply executed. The sight of the emaciated prisoners made an indelible impression on the local population. Many managed to smuggle a piece of bread or other food to the Russian prisoners. Sometimes the prisoners gave the locals carved wooden figures, tin boxes or other handmade objects in gratitude for their help.


Many individuals enrolled in the service of the Soviet Union during the war in order to fight the Nazis. They received training in the Soviet Union before being sent back to Norway to report to the Soviets. These people were called partisans. One of the most well-known is probably Osvald Harjo from Pasvik, who spent more than ten years in Soviet prison camps. He did not return to Norway until Prime Minister Gerhardsen took up his case in a meeting in Moscow. The partisans lived a dangerous life, as they could be discovered by the Germans at any time. Or they could be informed on. If they were caught, execution and death awaited them. Many partisans ended their lives in the border area.

The Arctic Ocean front against Murmansk

There was little in the soldiers’ exhausting journey across marshes and rivers that resembled the dreams their generals had had about marching gloriously into Murmansk. There were long distances over a roadless, sometimes ice-cold and barren landscape. Stones, mountains and precipices, deep mud, swift rapids and Russian soldiers offering stubborn resistance barred the way to Murmansk. The frost came and the cold crept through clothing and into the bones. The thrust against the Soviet Union stranded in the Litsa valley, not far from Murmansk. The Germans had underestimated both the terrain and the Russian resistance. The Russians made better use of the terrain than the invaders, and many Russians had experience from the Finnish-Russian war.

The Russian winter

Both the Germans and Russians got lost in one fateful storm at Litsa and many perished from cold and exhaustion. Their forces were halved because of snow blindness and frostbite. The fight caused incomprehensible suffering.

«Arktis ist nichts»
The General’s words at Litsa
Arctic is nothing
Arktis ist nichts
The General's lies and fictions
to those who felt the cold
The soldiers in the snow
in the nights on Musta Tunturi
and the snow storm at Litsa

From «Krig i Grenseland» (“War in the Border Country”) by Hans-Kristian Eriksen


The Germans never reached Murmansk. In the autumn of 1944, the Soviet forces managed to press the German troops westwards. In October that same year the first Soviet soldiers crossed the border into Norway. Sør-Varanger was liberated as the first area in Norway.

Russian war veterans at a memorial service in Kirkenes Church to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Sør-Varanger. (Photo: Yngve Grønvik, Sør-Varanger Avis)

Cold war

After World War II, the world was divided into two power blocks, the Soviet Union and the USA. This was a time of suspicion and both blocks were on guard. The border was under constant surveillance and anyone who had Communist sympathies and any contact with the Soviet Union was monitored. However, despite the Cold War, there were examples of contact between the countries, including a variety of cultural exchanges.

The Cold War

The Cold War is the name given to the period from after World War II and until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The period was characterised by the rivalry between two groups of nations that practised different ideologies and political systems. On the one side was the Soviet Union and its allies (the Eastern Block), and on the other the USA and its allies (the Western Block). The situation was referred to as the Cold War because it never led to any direct fighting or war.

Road sign at Storskog. (Photo: Unknown, Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

New neighbour in the east

After the armistice of 19 September 1944, Finland had to give back the Petsamo area to the Soviet Union and Norway acquired a new neighbour in the east. This meant many changes for the people of the area. The Pasvik river, which had hitherto been a connecting link between neighbours, now became a barrier between them. On the Soviet side, a border fence and many observation towers were set up to register all movements on the Norwegian side. It was forbidden to cross the river and any non-compliance resulted in stiff fines.

Under the Order in Council of 1950, it is not permitted to cross the border line on land, in the water or in the air. Nor is it permitted to speak to or to have any other kind of contact or dealings with persons on the other side of the border.

Sign by the border street. (Photo: Ingar Henriksen, Sør-Varanger Museum)

Norwegian and Russian border markers, with Boris Gleb in the background. (Photo: Gry Andreassen, Sør-Varanger Museum)

My fishing spot!

The story is told of an elderly fellow living on the Norwegian side of the border at Melkefoss. He had been neighbours with both Russia and Finland, and had always fished in the same spot without any problems. When the Soviet Union became his neighbour after World War II, he continued fishing where he had always fished. His fishing spot was on the other side of the Norwegian-Soviet border, but he did not care which country and which laws applied. He was determined to fish, and continued as though nothing had happened. In the end, the story goes, the border guards got fed up of reprimanding him; so he simply carried on fishing in «his» spot in the Soviet Union.

Hammer, sickle and star. (Photo: Ingar G Henriksen, Sør-Varanger Museum)


After the Red Army left East Finnmark in September 1945, the border was guarded by divisions from the Norwegian Army and the Police. The Sør-Varanger Garrison (GSV) was given its current name in 1947, and it was decided to build up the garrison again at the Høybuktmoen airfield that had been built by the Germans during the war.

When Norway became a member of NATO in 1949, the Norwegian-Soviet border also became a border between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries. This led to a further stepping up of surveillance on both sides of the border, and the ensuing period was dominated by mutual suspicion between the two countries.


The intelligence service in Sør-Varanger was expanded after the war and Sør-Varanger Police Headquarters became one of Norway’s largest in terms of numbers of employees as the Police Surveillance Service (POT) was based there. Communism was strong in Sør-Varanger after the war and as a result many people were put under surveillance as possible agents in the service of the Soviets. At the same time, it was important to have an overview and knowledge of the Soviet forces in order to be prepared if they should ever attack Norway.

The Cuba missile crisis

The most serious confrontation between the two super-powers of the USA and the Soviet Union arose between 15 and 28 October 1962, when a U2 plane on a routine mission discovered that the Soviet Union had missiles stationed on Cuba that were aimed at the USA. For 13 days, the entire world held its breath while negotiations went on between the USA’s President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khruschchev. Soldiers at the Sør-Varanger Garrison were called out with weapons loaded with live ammunition.

1968 - Soviet demonstration of strength

Early in June 1968, the Norwegian border stations observed increasing activity on the Soviet side. Several columns of vehicles were driving eastwards on the Russian Highway and, on the evening of 6 June, tanks, track-driven vehicles and artillery were observed on the Arctic Ocean Highway and moving northwards towards Boris Gleb. Because of bad weather it was difficult to estimate the scope of the advance and the size of the forces involved. On the morning of 7 June it was clear that large Soviet forces had grouped and taken up positions right behind the border line.

Soviet pins were popular to collect during the Cold War. (Lent by Kjell Erik Andreassen)

Alarm! Alarm!

On the night of 7 June 1968, the alarm went and soldiers from the Sør-Varanger Garrison set out for the border line and prepared to fight. The Soviet divisions dug themselves down and aimed all their weapons at the Norwegian positions, observation posts and border stations. It was clear to all that this was not a routine exercise. Not since World War II had there been such large Soviet army divisions so near to the border. The Soviet forces remained in the border area until 12 June.


Mikhail Gorbatchev, President of the Soviet Union from 1988 to 1991, initiated a campaign for greater openness, or "glasnost" as it was known. As a result, political and historical issues that had previously been taboo were now the subject of public debate. Under the collective term "perestroika", political and economic reforms were put into effect. This was the beginning of the end of the power monopoly that had ruled and the start of the development of democratic government in the USSR, later Russia.

More open borders

After Russia was declared a new, independent state in 1991, the border was opened for traffic. It became easier to travel to Russia and there was an increase in the number of people crossing the border both ways. However, the biggest change was the increase that took place in cross-border co-operation, not least in business and culture. A number of Norwegian companies became established in Russia, and in the building and construction sector in particular there was a lot of investment in the east. Major building projects in Murmansk, Zapoljarnij and Nikel were given to Norwegian firms.

Increased trade

In recent years there has been a huge increase in cross-border trade. Not only has there been very substantial co-operation in business development, but we are now seeing a big increase in trade in the private sector. There is a large and varied selection of shops in Kirkenes, and the growth in Russian purchasing power has also tempted many Russians to make their shopping trips to the town. That Russian customers form part of the target group for Kirkenes’ shops is evidenced by the fact that many now label their goods in Russian. But trade goes the other way, too. It has become customary to take shopping trips to Nikel, Zapoljarnij and Murmansk. A number of firms hold their Christmas parties over the border in Russia and people often take weekend trips to Murmansk to shop.

Russian trawlers at the quayside in Kirkenes. (Photo: Gry Andreassen, Sør-Varanger Museum)

The Kirkenes Declaration

On 11 January 1993, a conference was held in Kirkenes on the theme of co-operation in The Euro-Arctic Barents Region. Present at the conference were representatives from all the Nordic countries and The Russian Federation. Extended co-operation within The Euro-Arctic Barents Region would create stability and prosperity in the area, and teamwork would now replace previous confrontation and division. The co-operation was also intended to contribute to international peace and security. In the wake of the declaration, the Barents Secretariat was set up and the Barents Region was established as a concept.

Storskog, 31.12.91. The Soviet Union changes its name to Russia. (Photo: Border Commission)

Little Murmansk

Kirkenes has been called Little Murmansk because of its rapprochement and co-operation with Russia. The main streets of the town have street signs in both Norwegian and Russian. There are always Russian trawlers in at the quayside to take provisions on board and to repair their boats. It has become common to hear Russian spoken in the streets of Kirkenes and a large number of the municipality’s inhabitants come from Russia. Today, approximately 600 of the municipality’s 9,500 inhabitants are Russian.

Russian market

A highly popular initiative under the auspices of the Barents Region Co-operation is the Russian market. On the last Thursday of every month, Russian stall-holders come to Kirkenes to sell their goods. Most things can be bought here, including Russian crystal, wooden articles, jewellery and clothing, as well as a large selection of other goods.


Kirkenes has approximately 750 calls from Russian ships during the course of a year. On average, there are 25 trawlers in port every day. Port activities account for a turnover of around NOK 1 billion. Several companies specialise in shipping, providing ships’ supplies, legal assistance, paying wages to ships’ crews and organising any ships’ repairs needed.