Eastern Sápmi: The Borderland and its People

I’m heading back from half a month of fieldwork on the Kola Peninsula, where I’ve been gathering data for NIBR’s project on Russian Sámi politics. Driving between the region’s main city, Murmansk, and Kirkenes on the Norwegian side of the border, we are travelling through an area thick with indigenous – and world – history, for Eastern Sápmi has long been a place where Russian and Western ambitions have collided.

by Mikkel Berg-Nordlie

Big map: Sápmi, the homeland of the indigenous Sámi people of Northwest Europe. The regions numbered 6 to 10 are the traditional territories of the Eastern cultural-linguistic subgroups Skolt, Inari, Kildin, Ter and Akkala. Small map: modern state borders (gray) and approximate siyt borders (blackthe siyts were semi-nomadic groups of Sámi who shared a delimited territory). Pictures: Wikimedia Commons, altered by author to incorporate information from Sergejeva 2000: 8.

The territory of the Eastern Sámi has, like Sápmi as such, been contested land ever since the arrival of southern powers in the area. During the Middle Ages, the Eastern Sámi had to pay tribute to both the Russians and the Norwegians, and some of them also to the Swedes. In the early 1600s, following a series of armed conflicts, the ‘joint tax lands’ system was partially replaced by distinct state borders (Hansen og Olsen 2004: 156, 173, 264-6). The establishment of these borders came to mean much for the subsequent history of Eastern Sápmi.

Map of Northern Europe from 1601 by Johannes Vrients: The Kola Peninsula is here marked “Biarmia”. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

The War-Child City

Romanov-na-Murmane was founded in 1916, and given a birthday gift of dubious value: the name of the unpopular imperial family. One year later, events ocurred that caused the city to lose its ‘first name’. According to Kalstad (2009: 37) two Eastern Sámi actually participated in these events: the soldiers Aleksey Galkin and Vladimir Matryokhin, who took part in the October Revolution. Great Britain decided to use the opportunity that the ensuing Russian Civil War represented, and the young city, now called Murmansk, had to endure two years of British occupation. Some mere decades later a vicious World War II front was established to the immediate west of the city. When the Cold War followed, Murmansk and the Kola Peninsula as such continued to have immense strategic value, due to its hosting a direct border between NATO and the USSR.

As I get into the car, heading for the Norwegian border, I nod goodbye to Alyosha – the gigantic concrete soldier who looms above Murmansk. His gaze is fixed on the West, and from the Russian point of view it has every reason to be.

Murmansk may not have a Statue of Liberty, but it does have a Statue of Liberation. Alyoshawas built to commemmorate the Soviet Union’s victory over the invading Germans in World War II. Photo by author.

New neighbours

In the experience of the local Sámi, though, trouble has also arrived from the south and east. Some of the monasteries that shot up during the 1500s exploited the locals: the monastery in Pechenga claimed ownership of several fiords of importance for the local indigenous people, and the Sámi were forced to pay for its upkeep (Utvik 1985: 34-35; Sergejeva 2000: 24). The aboriginals were reduced to a minority by the influx of ethnic Russians (russkiye) and Izhma Komi. When the latter arrived in the 1800s, they moved straight into Eastern Sámi heartlands. The indigenous people suddenly faced tough competition over resources they had earlier been alone to use. They soon found themselves at the bottom of an ethnic hierarchy with the russkiye on top and Izhma Komi in between. (Øverland 1999: 23-24).

The Izhma Komi are originally from inland areas east of the White Sea. Despite initial antagonisms, the Sámi and Izhma Komi bloodlines are today quite mixed with each other and the russkiye. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The ‘Sámi Parliament’ in Kola

In some ways, however, the Eastern Sámi have been better off than the Western Sámi: as we cross the bridge across the fiord where Murmansk is situated, we have the town of Kola on our left, further inland. Here, representatives of the Sámi under the Czar used to meet anually in an official indigenous assembly called Koladak Sobbar – dubbed ‘the first Sámi Parliament’ by Kalstad (2009: 20-28) – to debate and even decide on certain issues of relevance to them. Such recognition was in no way bestowed upon the Western Sámi at the time, it would take more than one hundred years before any similar institution appeared in the Nordic countries. However, as we drive westwards, into recent history, it becomes clear that those of the Eastern Sámi who ended up in the Soviet Union were set to experience problems their Nordic kin haven’t been close to suffering.

Stalin vs. the Sámi

Some hours later we’re passing through the lands of the old Mue’tkk siyt, which was converted to the collective farm Tundra’ in 1931. Six years later, six people from Mue’tkk were arrested, found guilty in pro-Finnish espionage and shot. Several others were sent to GULAGs (labour camps). In the years 1937-38, 97 Soviet Sámi were arrested and 40 found guilty in crimes – mostly counterrevolutionary activities, espionage and anti-Soviet activities. The Stalinist purges had come to Sápmi, and border-transcending peoples were not appreciated. The most well-known case was that against the scientist Vasiliy K. Alymov and his mostly Sámi ‘co-conspirators’, who were accused of working for an independent Sámi republic. 13 of them were shot and the rest sent to GULAGs (Kalstad 2009: 39-42).

In 1940 the Sámi of Mue’tkk were forcibly moved further inland. Their main settlement on the banks of the Zapadnaya Litsa river was not a place you would want to stay, in any case: the northernmost part of the Eastern Front would soon be established here. In June 1941 the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa and the pretty little Litsa valley became the place young locals were sendt to die. The horrors lasted until 1944, when the Germans were driven out.

Above: Danilov street in Lovozero, the main Sámi settlement of Russia, is named after local Sámi reindeer herder Ivan Danilov, who participated in combats on the Kola Peninsula and died in Stalingrad. Below: The road between Murmansk and Kirkenes has plenty of memorials to commemorate the events that took place here 65 years ago. This one, in Pechenga, reads “No-one is forgotten”. Photos by author.


Lost Lands

Toponyms reveal that this is old Sámi land: we pass by rivers and lakes with obviously Sámi names. But when looking at census data, we find that not many people here claim to be Sámi. The majority of Russians that consider themselves Sámi are concentrated in inland areas of the eastern Kola Peninsula. This is partly due to assimilation, a phenomenon seen throughout Sápmi, where discrimination has caused people to reconstruct themselves as ‘Norwegians’, ‘Russians’ etc. But in Russia, there’s another reason as well.

While Nikita Khrushchyov’s rule was a relief after Stalin’s reign of terror, his policy of ukrupneniye (amalgamation) implied the forced abandonment of Soviet Sámi villages, and relocation of the inhabitants to larger towns – particularly Lovozero, a small town which was not at all prepared for such an influx of uprooted and landless people. This caused social problems that would pose a challenge to the Russian Sámi for decades to come (Sergejeva 2000: 31; Øverland 1999: 63-4). In the lands left behind, all that remains are occasional ruins and place-names – ghosts of a culture that was forcibly removed.

Above: Lovozero today is a centre of the Russian Sámi cultural revitalization that has been ongoing since the Perestroyka. The picture shows the municipal National Cultural Centre. Below: The post-Soviet Sámi have established a multitude of political and cultural organizations, the two biggest of which are AKS (Association of Kola Sámi) and OOSMO (Public Organization of the Sámi of Murmansk Province). Here are (until recently) leader of OOSMO Ivan Matryokhin and long-time AKS leader Nina Afanas’yeva, together with Valentina Sovkina (standing) who leads SUPS – a council of elected representatives that is intended to unite and represent all the Russian Sámi. Photos by author.

The Skolt Sámi – Victims of a Shifting Border

The last thirty years have seen better days for the Sámi of Russia, but our account is not over yet – we have now reached the Pechenga district and need to go back in history again. In 1826 a new border was drawn between Sweden-Norway and Russia straight through the Skolt Sámi siyts Peäccam, Paaččjokk and Njauddâm. The Njauddâm people became citizens of Norway, the rest citizens of Russia – though by international agreement still allowed to use their old lands in Norway. In 1920 most of Peäccam and Paaččjokk ended up on newly sovereign Finland’s hands, under the name Petsamo (Finnish) or Pechenga (Russian). According to Sergejeva (2000: 15-18), Norway paid Finland in gold to relinquish Paaččjokk’s rights on ‘their’ side of the border. After WWII, Finland lost Pechenga to the USSR, and many of the Sámi living there opted to move to the shores of Lake Inari in Finland, leaving their old siyt lands behind – they had by this time already been relocated several times.

As for the Njauddâm people, they ended up as a double minority: the influx of workers to the new industrial town of Kirkenes and colonization by South Norwegian farmers ‘Norwegianized’ this part of Eastern Sápmi thoroughly; and ‘immigration’ of North Sámi (the largest Sámi subgroup) eventually made the Skolt Sámi a local minority within the minority.

Above: The lands left behind by the Russian Skolt Sámi – like the Kola Peninsula in general – are rich in minerals. The picture shows piles of debris the size of small mountains outside Zapol’yarniy, Pechenga district. Below: An Orthodox church on the shores of Lake Inari, Finland, built by Skolt Sámi who emigrated from the Soviet Union. Photos: Above by author, below from Wikipedia Commons.

The last division?

Russia’s northwestern border was only finalized in April this year, as Oslo and Moscow agreed on a division of the sea north of the 1826 border. In the spirit of new good relations, there is even talk about giving people living in a specified zone around the Russian-Norwegian border rights to visa-free border-crossing – a zone including most of Njauddâm, Paaččjokk and Peäccam. Hopefully, the peaceful atmosphere will last, allowing the Eastern Sámi to keep rebuilding their culture and society.

As I’m waiting for my plane at Kirkenes Airport, I’m thinking that these areas – not only Eastern Sápmi, but to some extent all of Sápmi – essentially have been treated as a big chessboard for hundreds of years now. And I’m due south, back to where the players are sitting: politicians and bureucrats who have given the orders and signed the documents to invade, divide, colonize, suppress and relocate.

In our days, the states that divided Sápmi between them are, to varying degrees, supportive of Sámi revitalization and society-building. Much of what has been achieved, has been done so with the help of the very states that earlier actively tried to destroy the Sámi as a people, and used Sámi lands to play out their wars. But a small etnhic minority is always, in the final analysis, dependent on the goodwill of the state – and the attitudes of the majority can always change back. The Sámi of today, Eastern and Western, have been given a unique opportunity: to revitalize as much as we can of our culture until the next time someone down south reaches for their pen to sign a fateful document. To build strong foundations that can last through the next disaster, and – who knows – perhaps we’ll even manage to avert a few of them.

Please visit the homepage of NIBR’s project Russia in pan-Sámi politics.

This blog post draws on the following sources for Eastern Sámi history:

– Hansen og Olsen: Samenes historie fram til 1750 (J. W. Cappelens forlag, Oslo, 2004).

– Kalstad, Yokhan Al’bert: Dorogoy Nadezhd. Politika Rossiyskogo gosudarstva i polozhenie saamskogo naroda v Rossii (1864 – 2003). (Murmanskoye Knizhnoye Izdatel’stvo 2009). Please note: This book is in fact not actually written by Johan Albert Kalstad, but by I. B. Tsirkunov, based on notes left behind by Kalstad when he passed away in 2008. The end product unfortunately suffers under a general lack of references. The sections about theKoladak Sobbar, however, refers to Yefimenko, A. I.: Yuridicheskiye obychai loparey (1878)and Tanner, V.: Skoltlapparna (1929).

Sergejeva, Jelena: “The Eastern Sámi: A short account of their history and identity” in Acta Borealia vol. 17, 2-2000 (Novus forlag). Sergejeva currently uses the last name Porsanger.

Utvik, Unni K.: Kolasamene. Fra tsarens undersåtter til sovjetiske borgere (1985).

Øverland, Indra Nobl: Politics and culture among the Russian Sami. Leadership, Representation and Legitimacy. (Scott Polar Research Institute 1999)

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Jan-Tore Berghei

Utdannet historiker, og er seniorrådgiver i NIBR ved OsloMet. Her jobber han med kommunikasjon og formidling av instituttets forskning og øvrige virksomhet. Han er redaktør for Bybloggen og instituttets øvrige nettsider. Berghei is a graduate Historian and Senior Communications Adviser at the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research at Oslo Metropolitan University. He is the editor of the City Blog (Bybloggen) and the Institute's other websites.

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