Sami voices not heard in Finnmark liberation ceremony

Valentina Sovkina in Kirkenes on the 70th anniversary of liberation in Finnmark.

On the day where messages of thanks and remembrance are flying fast between the Norwegian and Russian peoples gathered in Kirkenes, the Sami felt excluded.


There’s a large delegation from Russia, there’s Norwegian royalty and there’s a full brass band, but there are no indigenous representatives in the 70th anniversary liberation ceremony for Finnmark.

On Saturday morning Kirkenes hosted several ceremonies to commemorate the 70th anniversary since the region was liberated from Nazi occupation during WWII. Major figures like King Harald V and the Foreign Minister for Russia, Sergey Lavrov, headlined the day with the appropriate entourage of aides and journalists tracking their every step though town.

King Harald V of Norway pays his respects to a statue to the mothers and children of war in Kirkenes town square as part of the liberation ceremonies.

In a small second floor café overlooking the main pedestrian street a well-known regional figure sits having lunch away from the crowds. Unlike the government figures outside she goes unnoticed in the crowd, but she represents a culture that lived for four years in the epicenter of the war.

Valentina Sovkina, the head of the Council of Authorized Representatives of the Sami in the Murmansk Oblast who recently became the face of indigenous oppression in Russia, had just attended the ceremonies – attended, but not participated. Warming up with tea and pizza after a cold wreath-laying ceremony in the town square she points out, “there are, unfortunately, no representatives of the indigenous populations here – either Sami or Nenets.”

When the Second World War came to Norway it arrived first in the south, to the capital city. But for the next four years the war was fought also in Finnmark– Norway’s nortnermost county – and like in northern Finland and on Russia’s Kola Peninsula - the homeland to the Sami people.

In Norway the stories of burning towns, bombings and Nazi occupation have become the stuff of legends and the Sami villages were not spared. The war blew apart the traditions and culture they had been cultivating and protecting for a thousand years – at least it did on the Norwegian side.

“Many say World War II was the main reason why many Sami left their identity,” says Mona Solbakk, leader for the Centre of Northern Peoples in Lyngenfjord, Norway. “One of the worst parts of our history is World War II.”

The war, Solbakk says, exposed the Norwegian Sami people to prejudice for the first time as they were forcibly evacuated from their villages and relocated to the south. Shunned for their traditional ways, mistrusted for their allegiance and mocked for their appearance and language the Sami began to deny their roots. As a result, the children born before the war were taught Sami, while the children born during or after learned Norwegian.

When Finnmark was liberated in 1944 the struggle for land and power may have ended, but the Norwegian Sami people’s struggle for identity would continue for years.
Sami who lived through the same war, but on the Russian side of the border, tell a different story.

“There were many reindeer herders and many Sami who participated in WWII,” says Sovkina. “Herders tried to send as many [reindeer] to the front as they could. Women sewed Sami clothes that were sent to the soldiers and it was very appreciated. The Sami identity was, in a way, strengthened.”

Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia, stands at the base of a statue commemorating the Soviet soldiers who liberated Kirkenes in 1944. Valentina Sovkina is fighting to have a monument erected in Murmansk to the Sami reindeer brigade, but is coming up against governmental opposition.

The Russian Sami seem to have avoided much of the discrimination during WWII, but as Sovkina knows from experience, the same cannot be said for the Sami experience today in Russia.

“Our people [Russian Sami] made their contribution during the war,” says Sovkina. “Being here [in Kirkenes] witnessing this commemoration I can see the local Sami and the local Norwegians are really being appreciated. I wish our voice on the Russian side was heard much more in a better way.”

Now, fighting for a memorial to be raised in Murmansk in honour of the reindeer brigades the Soviet military once relied so heavily on, the Russian Sami appear to be hitting a wall of opposition from the administration. But Sovkina is adamant: they won’t give up. “We want this monument to be a reality,” she says.

Sovkina’s determination to preserve memories stands in stark contrast to the distraught Norwegian Sami who returned to their villages after the war, intent on forgetting.

“My husband’s grandmother, when she came back from the evacuation, everything was burned away. There were only ruins,” says Solbakk. “If there were any Sami things left – any Sami shoes, anything that reminded them of the Sami identity – they burned it themselves. When you really find something precious, some memories left that are Sami and you burn it yourself that’s really strong.”

The initial despair after liberation has, today, turned into a quiet pride that is steadily growing louder as organizations and trans-border cooperations spring up and reconnect the Sami with one another and their identities.

On the official stage for the wreath laying ceremony back row from left to right: Børge Brende, Norway’s Foreign Minister; Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister; Lavrov’s translator. Front row, left to right: Prime Minister Erna Solberg, King Harald V of Norway; Cecilie Hansen, Kirkenes mayor; Bente Haug, deputy county mayor for Finnmark.

In light of this progress the Sami were entirely omitted from the liberation ceremonies.

Many soldiers, German, Norwegian and Russian, owe their lives to the Sami. As do many civilians, says Solbakk. “There were several Samis who helped Norwegians and others to escape to Sweden over the mountains,” she says.

On the day where messages of thanks and remembrance are flying fast between the Norwegian and Russian peoples gathered in Kirkenes, the Sami felt excluded.