hidden europe 44

Marking frontiers: churches in the Far North

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Church bells at the new Russian Orthodox monastery near Pechenga (photo © hidden europe).


In the northernmost reaches of the European mainland there are multiple strands of Christianity. In this region, churches are often important markers of identity and religion is part of the soft diplomacy game.

The Norwegian-Russian border reaches the Barents Sea coast at a remote spot called Grense Jakobselv. This is a fabulous place, one with a real end-of-the-road feel.

The road that drops down through the Jakobselva Valley towards the coast hugs the west bank of the river. A solitary angler loses track of time while he waits for salmon. A short way downstream, two Norwegian border guards look idly over the river towards Russia on the opposite bank. The shallower glides of the river look tempting spots for paddling, but the border guards caution against venturing into the water, ever aware that accidentally crossing the frontier might create an incident. While those inclined to the serious pursuit of angling are tolerated, devotees of paddling are not.

How things have changed from 200 years ago when this valley was part of the fellesdistrikt — a barren region administered jointly by Russia and Norway. The fixing of the frontier between the countries in 1826 curbed mobility in the region. But of course there were those who neither knew nor cared about the border. This troubled the authorities on the Norwegian side who worried about the fishermen and traders who sailed west along the coast into Norwegian waters. There were calls for a Norwegian gunboat to be permanently stationed at the estuary of the Jakobselva.

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