KIRKENES, NORWAY — An Arctic Norwegian town that once lived in fear of the Red Army has flourished thanks to an influx of Russians who freely cross the NATO member’s border to shop, work and get married.
Street names in Kirkenes, in Norway’s far northeast, are also displayed in Cyrillic characters, a sign of the friendly coexistence between the former Cold War foes.
“Sometimes we hear more Russian than Norwegian,” said Hildur Eikaas, director of Kirkenes’ library, a big yellow building topped with a bilingual sign.
Two staff members are Russian, and so are many of the books on the shelves.
Most of the Russian borrowers are expatriate women married to Norwegian locals, who come to find reading material for their children. There are also sailors from passing cod fishing trawlers in the Barents Sea.
Around eight percent of Kirkenes’ population is estimated to be Russian.
Having long feared an invasion by the mighty Soviet Union’s Red Army once stationed nearby, the 10,000 inhabitants of Kirkenes and its surrounding area are now living in harmony with their post-Soviet neighbor.
The border lies around 15 kilometers (nine miles) from town, and last year Norway and Russia decided to lift costly and time consuming visa requirements so that people could cross freely.
The change has been dramatic. When the Cold War ended two decades ago, only 8,000 people crossed the frontier every year. This year, around 250,000 people are expected to pass through the border, and in 2014 authorities believe the number will rise to 400,000.
Even though Norway is one of the most expensive countries in the world, Russians make day trips to Kirkenes to stock up on products and brands that are cheaper or unavailable at home, including coffee.
“You can sometimes see people buying a trolley full of diapers,” said a cashier at the Coop supermarket, where again the signs are in the two languages.
As the mayor of a town nicknamed “Little Murmansk” after the Russian port city across the border, Cecilie Hansen couldn’t be more pleased about its growing ties with Norway’s eastern neighbor.
“The Russians saved us twice. In 1944 when they chased away the Germans, and in 1996 when the mine closed. That coincided with the opening of the border, and their money became our life line,” she said.
After being almost completely destroyed during World War II, Kirkenes — like many other European towns — was quickly rebuilt with an emphasis on functionality and cost effectiveness.
It’s a charmless but thriving town where visitors can enjoy dining on whale steak, stewed reindeer and cod tongue. The unemployment rate is one of the world’s lowest at less than two percent.
Public administration, an iron ore mine that reopened in 2008, and shipyards provide jobs for locals as well as immigrants.
“In stores and offices, almost everyone speaks Russian,” Nadja Alexeyeva, a 57-year-old nurse, said in a second-hand shop owned by the Salvation Army.
The store is run by one of her compatriots, Luba — short for Lyubov, meaning “love” — who arrived from Murmansk 16 years ago for that very reason.
“We have almost everything we need here. There are Russian women everywhere,” she said.
The midnight sun lights up Kirkenes in the summer, but in winter it’s plunged into permanent darkness for two months.
“It’s a difficult climate, but where we’re from we’re used to it,” said Nina Strimp Remeskova, one of the Russian librarians who is also from Murmansk.
It remains to be seen whether the Russo-Norwegian love story in a border town can be emulated in other parts of the world.
Hansen, the mayor, hopes others will follow and has traveled to fellow NATO member Turkey to share her success story.