Norway, Relations with

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Geographically driven relations between northern Norway and the Russian Arctic coast predate the Slavic and Scandinavian colonization of the northern periphery of Europe starting in the twelfth century. Norwegian Vikings referred to the White Sea region as Bjarmeland, and had at least sporadic contacts with the local inhabitants by 900 c.e. Norwegian trading expeditions to the northern Dvina estuary took place regularly until the early thirteenth century, and there were at least occasional journeys into the Russian interior. A 1276 law code refers to Norwegian commercial expeditions via the Baltic to Novgorod.

Interest in the northern fisheries attracted a growing number of settlers to the Arctic coast in the Middle Ages. Commercial and military interaction in the area included raids that sometimes escalated to open warfare. The Norwegian-Novgorodian peace treaty of 1326 reaffirmed the status quo and ensured free shipping and trade. No formal border was demarcated and many regions were de jure placed under joint administration in the fourteenth century. Some Norwegian settlers may have lived on the Kola Peninsula early on, and the Norwegians claimed control over the peninsula for centuries, notwithstanding its steady Russification. The Russian word murmasky, referring to the northern Kola coast, is derived from nordmann ("Norwegian").

The Norwegian fortress of Vardøhus near the present-day border was built around 1300, whereas the main economic center on the Russian side came to be the Orthodox Solovki Island monastery in the White Sea. The first Russian town in the region, Kola (near the present-day Murmansk), was not founded until 1583, but soon had a Norwegian guesthouse. Perhaps during the fifteenth century, but definitely by the 1550s, another Orthodox monastery was founded in the ill-defined border region of the Pechenga Valley. The monks regularly traded with Vardøhus. Norwegian merchants, often from the ports of Bergen (with historic monopoly rights over the northern waters) and Trondheim, regularly attended the Russian border market of Kegor, as well as Kola. However, trade with the Murman coast appears to have stagnated during the seventeenth century and been limited to local products. Merchants from Bergen and Trondheim periodically also visited the Russian port of Arkhangelsk, especially to ship sporadic Russian grain subsidies to Denmark-Norway. Conflicting territorial claims made border disputes quite common during the sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century, and the Norwegian castellan of eastern Finnmark made symbolic visits to Kola to demand tribute from the local population until 1813.

Regular commercial contacts between the neighboring coastal regions, with Vardøhus as the main center, were well established by the late seventeenth century, driven primarily by Russians. Russian flour, cloth, hides, and tallow became important products for the northern Norwegian economy. By the 1760s, Russian vessels made annual trips to the Finnmark and Troms coasts, and Russian fishing in northern Norwegian waters was common. This was countenanced with some limitations by the Danish government because of its good relations with Russia. Norwegians are known to have settled in northern Russia starting in the eighteenth century. The interaction between Norwegians and Russians produced a unique local pidgin language known as russenorsk, "Russian Norwegian." The regime of open borders continued until an 1826 treaty delineated the frontier and granted two-thirds of the shared territory to Russia.

Trade in northern Norway was gradually liberalized in 1789 as part of a plan to stimulate the region's economic development. New port towns were built and direct Russian trade with Norwegian fishermen was formally authorized. Most remaining restrictions were eliminated in 1839, and regular steamship traffic between northern Russia and Finnmark began during the 1870s. Up to 350 Russian ships visited northern Norway each year during the course of the eighteenth century. Attempts to control Russian trade and fishing in Norway became more serious during the period when Norway was under Swedish rule. All foreign fishing was formally banned in 1913.

Political relations became more tense during the nineteenth century because of Russian concern about perceived Norwegian expansionism in the Arctic. In contrast, the Norwegian administration in the United Kingdom of Sweden-Norway often found itself moderating the growing Swedish Russophobia. However, its pragmatism was repeatedly tempered by fears that Russia might be eyeing some of the ice-free harbors of Finnmark. The accelerating Russian settlement on the Kola Peninsula and the steady stream of immigrants to northern Norway from Russian-controlled Finland heightened the sense of alarm during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Norwegian popular mood began to favor a more nationalistic policy in the north. Systematic Norwegianization was seen as a way to effectively control the ethnically mixed territory. Russia was perceived negatively because of its authoritarianism even though it was the only great power lending active support to Norwegian independence in 1905, albeit clearly with a view to weakening Sweden. Newly independent Norway unsuccessfully sought to regain control of the Russian borderlands at the Versailles Conference.

The October Revolution led to a freeze in Russian-Norwegian relations, with devastating consequence to some northern Norweigian communities, as well as a geographic separation when Finland gained control of the Pechenga-Petsamo region. Although the Finnish threat in some ways replaced the weakened Bolshevik regime as a source of concern, diplomatic relations between Norway and the Soviet state were not established until 1924. The Norwegian government actively sought to curb the activities of leftist pro-Soviet organizations and reinforced the garrisons in northern Norway. During World War II the Norwegian government-in-exile was very worried about Soviet territorial ambitions in northern Norway. Its fears seemed confirmed when the Red Army temporarily occupied eastern Finnmark in 1944. The Soviets also claimed some of the Norwegian-controlled northern Atlantic islands (Bear Isle, Spitsbergen).

Norwegian Russophobia and a sense of vulnerability after the German occupation led to a strong cross-party consensus in favor of NATO membership in 1949. Although it continued to distrust the Soviets, the Oslo government adopted a pragmatic stance, de-emphasizing the defense of Finnmark and prohibiting the stationing of foreign troops and nuclear weapons in the country. Intergovernmental relations remained formal, and most Norwegian-Russian interaction was localized to the northern border regions. Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union did a great deal to restore the historically close ties between northern Russia and Finnmark, and during the early twenty-first century there are many lively economic, political, and cultural ties.

See also: cold war; finland; sweden, relations with; vikings


Kirby, David. (1990). Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World, 14921772. London: Longman.

Kirby, David. (1995). The Baltic World, 17721993: Europe's Northern Periphery in an Age of Change. London: Longman.

Larsen, Karen. (1948). A History of Norway. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Libaek, Ivar. (1991). History of Norway: From the Ice Age to the Oil Age. Oslo: Grondahl and Son.

Jarmo T. Kotilaine