From gunboats to cultural diplomacy

Grense Jakobselv is at the very end of the road by the rocky shores of the Barents Sea.


Grense Jakobselv is at the very end of the road by the rocky shores of the Barents Sea. There is a quiet drama in the captivating but austere beauty of this remote spot on the coast. A little river tumbles down to the sea at Grense Jakobselv – on its west bank the Finnmark region of Norway, to the east the Russian Federation’s Murmansk Oblast. 

Border markers in a multi-ethnic region
Grense Jakobselv is a good spot to reflect on the wider Barents region – a part of Europe where there are border markers aplenty. Norway, Finland and Russia converge in and around this region. Borders are of course marked in land areas by conventional border posts. In the valley leading down to Grense Jakobselv, Norway’s distinctive yellow and black border pillars line the west bank of the river. On the east bank are Russia’s red and green counterparts.

Churches as border markers
These border pillars are clean, neat and unambiguous. But issues of nationality, identity and territory are rarely neat and unambiguous – especially in the Barents region. This is a part of Europe where Sami, Russian, Norwegian and Finnish interests mingle. And markers of cultural identity often underpin territorial claims. 

In the mid-19th century, the District Commissioner for the Finnmark region worried about the movement of goods and people over the river at Grense Jakobselv. Despite a small customs house on the west bank of the estuary, there was still scope for inshore shipping to inadvertently cross the frontier into Norwegian waters. 

The District Commissioner was anxious that there be a visible marker at Grense Jakobselv, something that would deter cross-border forays into Norwegian waters. He suggested that having a Norwegian gunboat permanently positioned at the estuary would be a good idea. 

It was a military officer who countered the District Commissioner’s proposal with an alternative plan. The officer noted that gunboats are expensive to maintain and so too are their crews. He indicated that building a Norwegian church at Grense Jakobselv would be a far better option.

King Oskar II Chapel
The church proposal was accepted. Cultural diplomacy won out over the gunboat. The church, built in a traditional Norwegian style, was dedicated in 1869 and retrospectively renamed in honour of King Oskar II who visited this remote outpost of his kingdom shortly after his coronation in May 1873. The church is an important cultural border marker, and one of several churches in the Barents region that discharge more than merely ecclesiastical functions. 

The Russian Orthodox church at Boris Gleb is a clear statement of Russian presence and authority – and it is curiously located on the sole fragment of Russian territory that lies on the west side of the Pasvik Valley. When the modern border was first defined in 1826, Imperial Russia was anxious that this flagship chapel should remain in the tsarist realm. And so it did, with Norway receiving in exchange a large parcel of land east of the Pasvik which includes Grense Jakobselv. 

In 1874, the church at Boris Gleb was given a thorough makeover – a sort of Russian riposte to the opening of the church at Grense Jakobselv. A few years later Norway opened a magnificent new church at Neiden, a bold assertion of both national and Lutheran identity in a village that already had a beautiful small Orthodox tserkva (chapel). The Norwegian church in Neiden is a building that appeals to history – it recalls the Norwegian stave churches of the Middle Ages. Architectural purists may argue that it is preposterously out of place in Neiden. But that’s to miss the point. The church was (and still is) a mark of Norwegian cultural space in the multicultural and multilingual Barents region. It proclaims to Pomors, Kvens and Sami: “You are now in Norway.” 

Orthodoxy meets western Christianity
Throughout the region there is the imprint of Orthodoxy – at that chapel at Neiden in Norway, in the handsome village church at Sevettijärvi in Finland and most profoundly in the Orthodox monastery at Luostari in Russia – now being rebuilt in grand style to revive a monastic tradition that dates back to St Triphon’s evangelical efforts among Sami communities along the Murman coast and its hinterland. 

This scatter of Orthodox churches across the Barents region is a reminder that religion (like other forms of cultural expression) is not constrained by frontiers. And that very point is also evident in the ethnic mix suggested by the names of those that lie in the cemeteries whose churches strongly proclaim a more simple definition of borders and identity. The cemetery at Grense Jakobselv, which is overshadowed by King Oskar II chapel, records the lives of people with Finnish, Norwegian and Russian names. It is here that history reveals the borderlands as more fragmented than their cultural border markers might suggest.

Borders as zones of opportunity
Sitting on the steps of the King Oskar II chapel at Grense Jakobselv last week, I was struck by all the good things about the Barents region. Its borders may be clearly marked, but Barents life has moved way beyond gunboats. Borders are regions of opportunity rather than fracture lines on the map of Europe. Cultural diplomacy has achieved more in the Barents region than military muscle ever could. Therein surely lie a few lessons for the rest of Europe – particularly at a time when nations in our divided continent are perhaps becoming a little too confrontational.