Russian-Norwegian Relations in Arctic Europe: The History of the "Barents Euro-Arctic Region"

By Nielsen, Jens Petter | East European Quarterly, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Russian-Norwegian Relations in Arctic Europe: The History of the "Barents Euro-Arctic Region"


Nielsen, Jens Petter, East European Quarterly


During the 1990's dissolution in Eastern Europe and integration in Western Europe combined to create extra political room for regions to develop--and all along the former East-West borderline transnational regional structures were organized; starting from the south--the Turkish-initiated "Black Sea Cooperation" in the former Ottoman Empire, the Central European Initiative in the former Habsburg-dominated areas,--the Alps-Adria Region, and the Baltic Sea Region. Finally--the region-building trend reached Arctic Europe--and in January 1993 the Barents Euro-Arctic Region, including the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia appeared. The Barents Region, which was initiated by the Norwegian government, has opened a new window or contact zone between Russia and Scandinavia on the top of Europe, in an area which during the cold war used to be one of the most militarised territories in the world.

The Barents Region has brought attention to the past of this area, which has been used by both Norwegian and Russian politicians as one of the main arguments for their enterprise. During the last years a lot of articles and books have been published by North-Norwegian and North-Russian historians on the very rich traditions of contact and historical relations in what has been labelled "the historical Barents Region."(1) Since the history of pre-revolutionary Russian-Norwegian relations had been virtually unknown outside the region itself, these writings came as a surprise to many and skeptical voices have been heard. Some political scientists, based in the Norwegian capital have accused the historians in more northerly latitudes of acting as "region-builders in disguise."(2) Inspired by research on nationalism they claim that it is always possible to construct a common history for a given geographic area and make it a natural unity, suggesting that this is exactly what historians have done in connection with the Barents Region.(3) In my opinion this is breaking a butterfly on a wheel. Most historians today will agree that every historical presentation is in a certain sense a "construction," but at the same time they will maintain that it is impossible to construct a past out of nothing.(4)

The aim of the present article is to show that the history of the Barents Region has not been conjured out of thin air, that it is indeed based on historical realities and historical bonds, which were broken off as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1917, but which are now being gradually resumed. I have chosen to deal with the subject from a predominantly Norwegian perspective. Unlike the northern parts of Sweden and Finland Northern Norway had maritime connections with Russia, which led to contacts in this area being both varied and intensive. History also played a more prominent role in the publicity campaign for the Barents Region in Norway than it did in the other Nordic countries.

THE SAMI CULTURE

It is problematic to mark out the geographical limits of what we could call the historical Barents region. Different population groups made use of the region in various ways, and their economic spaces overlapped only partly. Originally the area was culturally uniform: up until approx. AD 1200, the territorial unity called Finnmark ("the Land of the Sami"), comprising the coastline from Malangen in North Norway and eastwards to the White Sea area (including a vast territory of the interior of northern Fenno-Scandia, as well as the Kola Peninsula) made a uniform cultural region with a scattered but probably exclusively Sami (Lappish) population.

With the immigration of groups representing majority populations from the South in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, the Sami region was gradually pressed together. The immigrants established their own economic spaces, which in time were to become extensions of their national territories. Various national rivalries resulted in heavy tax burdens being put on the Sami population--the guiding principle being that greater tax gave greater rights to the land. …

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