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The changes hidden behind the smokescreen

The changes hidden behind the smokescreen

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

As the Iron Curtain came down, contacts between the Nordic region and Russia multiplied. Yet the image of the Eastern neighbour needs updating, even in the part of the Nordic region which has enjoyed the friendliest relationship - the Norwegian municipality of Sør-Varanger on the border with Russia. The nickel plant across the border has been a smokescreen both literally and figuratively.

When the Norwegian daily Dagsavisen decided to do a story on the Russian neighbouring city, reporter Jens Marius Sæther considered writing about 'the good life in Nikel':

"That story has yet to be written, hasn't it? We entertain the thought for a few minutes, but then everything turns black. The vegetation disappears. The road ploughs through a cemetery. The chimney stacks from the dreaded smelter appear on the horizon. The smoke billows and blows toward the deforested hills to the East. On the other side, towards Norway, the forest is still green."

Nikel symbolises everything that is negative about Russia. The ruthless pollution. The sad, barracks-like houses. Workers drink themselves to death before they have time to die from the emissions they inhale at the plant. Since its start in 1946 it has emitted enough sulphur dioxide to turn the surrounding areas into a moon landscape covering tens of kilometres.

Nikel is also one reason why so many people in Kirkenes have not visited the neighbouring country. 

"I can see Russia from my living room but I've never been there," says dentist Roger Daldorff. He runs a Kirkenes dentistry clinic with seven employees.

"I'd like to go salmon fishing in some of the rivers on the Kola peninsula. I have some friends who have done that."

He has noticed a certain change from the neighbouring city of Nikel on the other side. 

"We get customers from there several times a year who want major dentistry. Bridges and other stuff which costs 100,000 to 150,000 kroner (€12,000 - €18,000). And they pay cash," he says.

Big profits

The companies behind the Nikel rendering plant and the mines in Monchegorsk and Zapolyarny, as well as in Siberian Norilsk, make enormous amounts of money. The profit from the first half of this year alone was 13 billion kroner (€1.6b). Nothing is invested in cleaning up emissions, but some money trickles down to local bosses. 

In 1990 the Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish governments promised to help the Nikel plant reduce its emissions. Norway's contribution of 270 million kroner (€33m) sat in a bank account for nearly 20 years before the government retracted the offer. 

Luckily for Norway the wind is nearly always an easterly, and its rare for emissions to end up on Norwegian soil. Nikel is the very symbol of the lack of change in Russia. 

Ingunn Derås works in a Kirkenes handicraft shop.

"I visited Murmansk 35 years ago. They have a different system. I saw enough, really, and have no desire to go back," she says.

The different political system is highlighted too by Rune Rafaelsen, head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.

"The border between Norway and Russia marks the greatest political division in Europe," he says.

Asymmetrical neighbours

Asymmetry between the neighbouring countries has always been highlighted up here in the high North, and it also gives name to a joint history project: 'Neighbourly Asymmetry', which aims to describe Norwegian-Russian history between 1814 and 2014.

Russia is most often the big brother in the relationship. Murmansk has a population of 300,000, Kirkenes has 3,000. But when it comes to living standards and resources, Norway has become so rich lately that it can begin to measure up to its big neighbour.

"Russia has 140 million people, but the national budget is only three times that of Norway," says Rune Rafaelsen.

I visited Nikel and Murmansk for the fist time in 1986. It is thought-provoking to read my story and see my pictures from that time. The contrasts are remarkable.

Hoping for oil

An interview with the then Governor Valdimir Gorjachkin centred on the first test drillings on the Russian side of the Barents Sea. The hopes for what oil would be able to bring were as high then as they are for natural gas today.

"The city has 400,000 citizens and it is growing by 2,000 each year. There are many advantages to living there which should tempt people. Salaries are double - 120 percent  - of what you get in southern parts of the Soviet Union. Holidays are 49 days rather than 24 and every third year you get a free trip to a city of your choosing. Those who have been working for at least 15 years in Murmansk can retire at 55 if they're men, 50 if they're women. The normal ages are 60 and 55," I wrote back then. 

Today there are no incentives left. There was no oil. 100,000 people have moved away from Murmansk, but those who stayed have bought cars. There has always been something grandiose about the city but now it is being given some content. Traffic is busy and shops are full of goods. Some of the women look as if they're on their way to a photo shoot with Cosmopolitan or Elle. The concrete slabs that are flats might look the same on the outside, but inside they are being knocked together and done up.

You could become nostalgic looking at the pictures from the 1980s day nursery, but times have changed forever. While we couldn't see through the Nikel smokescreen the Russians on the other side have turned punk and vegetarian, they're on Facebook, use Wikipedia and travel to other parts of the world nearly as matter-of-factly as we do.


Murmansk old1Murmansk new1

Murmansk street life has changed. What used to be sparsely used roads are teaming with traffic and on the pavement a pink elephant advertises a new car model.


Murmansk old2Murmansk new2

Not long ago there was still an abacus next to the shop till. Today the department store Okei has 46 tills and a better choice of meat, fish and vegetables than what you'll find in Oslo.

Murmansk old3Murmansk old2

A visit to a day nursery was obligatory during a friendship visit to Murmansk in the 1980s. Now other toys are on offer.

Filed under:
On the other side of the border

The Russian nickel plant sits no more than a few kilometres from the border with Norway and emits five times Norway's total yearly amount of sulphur dioxide. The nickel plant also colours many Norwegians' view of Russia. 


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