An Outpost on the Edge of Europe | Arctic Norway

Words and images by Matthew Traver. Archive photos by Ellisif Rannveig Wessel | Preus Museum

“Grense Jakobselv, a deserted Norwegian settlement on the edge of Russia’s border, possesses a little-known fact for being the most north-easterly point of mainland Europe. Although, as we discover in this piece, you don’t need to be a connoisseur of esoteric facts to appreciate its enchanting isolation and history.”

The entirety of Norway’s border with Russia runs for 195km through the Sør-Varanger Municipality of Finnmark County, located above the Arctic Circle. Two-thirds of this line of separation between the countries is determined by the Jakobselva and Pasvikelva Rivers which empty out into the Barents Sea.

Sør-Varanger, which is home to Grense Jakobselv, was first inhabited by the Skolts, a Sami ethnic group widely-considered to be the indigenous people of Fennoscandia; a geographical region which encompasses Russia’s Kola Peninsula, Karelia, the Scandinavian Peninsula, and the northern reaches of Finland and Norway.

The Skolts traveled with relative freedom throughout Fennoscandia until the early 14th Century when long-standing disputes over the ill-defined border region were settled in a 1326 treaty between the Republic of Novgorod and Norway. However, the delineation between the two nations wasn’t defined by a logical land boundary, or some arbitrary line on a map, as one might normally expect. Instead, it was designated as a territorial entity so the Sami communities could be taxed fairly between the Norwegians and Novogorodians. In Medieval times these jointly controlled zones were called marches, and were commonly used throughout Europe for maintaining security and stimulating inter-regional trade.

The established treaty remained for five hundred years until an official border line was drawn in 1826 between the Russian Empire and Norway, in order to settle minor disagreements over disputed areas of land. However, in Grense Jakobselv, Norwegian and Russian fisherman continued to feud over the demarcation of the border and ownership of fishing grounds at the mouth of the Jakobselv River and the wider area of Varangerfjord, Norway’s easternmost fjord.

Norway’s Interior Ministry was desperately seeking to control the ongoing maritime scuffles, so they sent Lieutenant Commander Heyerdahl north to assess whether regular fisheries surveillance by the Royal Norwegian Navy would be a simple solution. By this point, numerous Norwegians and Kvens, a Finnish ethnic minority, had already settled in the region, and with them they also brought Lutheranism. However, at the time of Heyerdahl’s arrival, the community did not have a chapel to worship in, and they were using the Prestestua, a wooden hut for traveling clergymen. Twenty miles to the south-west, in Boris Gleb, the Russian’s had an Orthodox church which acted as an effective border marker, so he decided to follow a similar approach and built the King Oscar II Lutheran chapel in Grense Jakobselv, which was completed in 1869 and still stands today just 500m from the Russian border.

Over the decades that followed, Finnmark’s population began to grow, partly due to the burgeoning iron ore industry. During this period, a young photographer, Ellisif Ranveig Wessel, had recently moved to nearby Kirkenes with her husband. Witnessing the demographic and industrial change that was occurring throughout the region, and its impact on the traditional Sami culture, Ellisif commenced a large scale project documenting the far north’s transition into the 20th Century. Through her studious work, she created one of the most recognised and comprehensive photographic collections of Grense Jakobselv, along with countless other locales and landscapes in Finnmark.

The remainder of the last century saw a whirlwind of historical events around these borderlands; ranging from the 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1939 Battle of Petsamo, German occupation during World War II, and the Cold War. Despite all this though, when one compares Ellisif’s photos with the present-day surroundings, much of it seems unchanged, aside from the distinct absence of any residents, who have instead chosen to settle in less-secluded towns elsewhere in Sør-Varanger. Anyone who ventures into this ghostly settlement today and wanders around its lifeless houses, is guaranteed to appreciate the stillness and feel intrigued by the history that unfolded in this much-overlooked outpost on the edge of Europe.

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