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20 October 2018
We are far from Stockholm. You are far from Moscow

Two evenings in a row, our special guest at the Foreign Language Literature Department was Swedish journalist and photographer Kenneth Mikko. He delivered a talk about Barents culture and cooperation to students of the Syktyvkar State University majoring in international relations and interpreting. We also invited a wider public who are interested in the culture of North European countries.  

Fifteen years ago, Kenneth Mikko wrote a book of travel notes about the Komi Republic – Komi by Motorcycle, one of the first popular publications about a new region in the Barents partnership.

For those who could not make it to the meeting, we prepared a thorough account of our conversation with illustrative photos.

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The White Partridge and the Iron Ore

Kenneth began his story from his hometown of Kiruna – the most northerly Swedish town on the border with Finnish Lapland. The local community speak not only Swedish, but also Finnish, Sámi and mysterious Meänkieli. The latter is the officially recognized language of the national minority and the mother tongue for about 150,000 people in Scandinavia. Meänkieli literally means ‘my tongue’. Compare with the Komi ‘mian kyv’ of the same meaning and you will notice a striking similarity typical for the related Finno-Ugric languages. The name ‘Kiruna’ is derived from Sámi – Giron that means ‘white partridge’. Indeed, the white northern bird decorates Kiruna’s coat of arms.

Kiruna in winter From the presentation by Kenneth Mikko

Kiruna is famous for the world’s largest deposit of iron ore. The tiny town with the population of mere 23,000 produces millions of tons of iron annually for global needs. A one-day production volume is enough to construct six Eiffel Towers! In 2015, the state-controlled company LKAB made an unprecedented and costly move: the old church, the roads and all the buildings in the town centre were cleared away to give space to the expanding mining area. With a heavy heart, the locals agreed for their homes to be relocated – to keep the jobs that the industry provides. Otherwise, their life has not changed much. Kenneth thinks Kiruna resembles Vorkuta a lot: same harsh winter, bleak northern scenery, and drab-looking houses. In the same way the economy of Vorkuta and people’s wellbeing are dependent on the mining industry.

The Kiruna mine, 540 meters underground www.dawn.com

Kenneth Mikko shared another fact from the history of his hometown. During World War II, when Sweden maintained the policy of neutrality, exports of iron ore from Kiruna to Nazi Germany did not stop. In the 1940s iron was a strategic raw material for the growing military industry of the Third Reich. It is sad to admit that bombs and bullets, killing the Soviet soldiers, were made from the iron produced in peaceful Kiruna. These are the paradoxes of history.

View of Kiruna city centre and the old minewww.nomadtraveller.com

The Icehotel

Can you build a hotel every year? Yes, if this hotel is from ice and snow. The Icehotel in Kiruna is made entirely from snow and ice blocks taken from the Torne River. Artists and sculpturers are invited every November to decorate each room and carve every piece of furniture and even the glasses in the bar – from sparkling ice. Guests from many countries enjoy sleeping in polar-tested sleeping bags and on reindeer skins, drinking from ice glasses and enjoying the magnificent Northern Lights. Kiruna’s experience demonstrates that with a bit of imagination, even ice, darkness and cold can be an attractive tourist adventure. Similar hotels and bars have appeared in Tokyo and Oslo, but Kiruna was the first.

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All is Quiet on the Border

The next point on the map of the Barents Region in Kenneth’s talk was Haparanda – a city on the Finnish-Swedish border in the picturesque Torne River Valley. Although Haparanda is even smaller than Kiruna, less than 5,000 people, it is traditionally referred to as a city for its historical importance.

In 1809, the Finnish war between the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Sweden was over. The autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland was established and Finnish people found themselves on both sides of the new border. Russian czar Alexander I, took a red pencil and drew the borderline dividing the Torne River Valley into two parts.

Torne River Valley, Swedish on the left and Finnish on the right

In 1880s, the Swedish state decided that all citizens of the country should speak Swedish. The Finnish people, who inhabited the valley since the twelfth century, were not allowed to speak their mother tongue. School was taught in Swedish and even in class breaks, the Finnish children could not speak their own language under a risk of strict punishment.

This was in the 19th century. Today the Finnish city of Tornio and the Swedish city of Haparanda are both in the European Union and the state borders are no longer a problem for dwellers of both cities. Moreover, language and cultural boundaries do not coincide with the official boundaries on the map. Kenneth Mikko, now living in Haparanda, commented on how nice it is to live on the border and get the best things from both sides: shopping, entertainment, communication. Another country is just a walking distance from home.

Haparanda and Tornio at bird's eye viewPresentation by Kenneth Mikko

Salmon, Surströmming and Other Delicacies

The Torne River is not as big as the Pechora, but it can boast a large population of salmon – about 100,000 of fish migrate to the Torne to spawn every year. This is a fishing paradise for tourists and locals.

It is very popular to fish in the rapids of the Torne River. The traditional method is to use long hand-held loop nets to catch not only salmon, but also whitefish – or sig in Komi. The nets are an old invention dating back to the 13th century, but they are still hand-made.

Torne River in springPhoto by Kenneth Mikko

During the spring flood, the river carries a lot of nourishing sediments for the soil, which creates perfect conditions for agriculture. Haparanda people are very proud of the yellow almond-shaped potatoes grown in the river valley. The young potatoes taste delicious with butter and onion. They are normally eaten in August with crayfish or surströmming – lightly salted fermented herring of the ancient recipe. This Swedish delicacy smells so bad, but tastes so good.

Sweden's smelly fermented herring and almond-shaped potatoesbp-computerart.blogspot.com

We Do it Twice

Haparanda and Tornio happen to be not only in different countries, but also in different time zones. This means you can celebrate the New Year twice, starting in Finnish Tornio, then walking across the bridge and meeting the New Year again in Swedish Haparanda, with another round of fireworks and another round of New Year wishes. If the ice on the river is thick enough, people would walk on the ice to get the real feeling of the winter holidays.

Another brand festival that takes place jointly in Haparanda and Tornio in July is a meeting of lovers of classic American-made cars called Wheels Nationals – MotorMeet in Haparanda. 1,000+ Buicks, Fords, Chryslers and Cadillacs are parked at the riverbank to allow their owner to network with each other, enjoy music and drinks, and exchange their drivers’ stories.

MotorMeet in HaparandaPresentation by Kenneth Mikko

Another War – Another Lesson Learnt

Talking about the history of his city, Kenneth made a stop at the railway station. The story that he shared came from his father who was a little boy when World War I was raging in Europe.

Despite the fact that Sweden was not involved in the war of 1914 – 1918, Haparanda was the only open railway border crossing for international exchange of the wounded soldiers. The Red Cross had a mission to ensure peaceful transition of invalids to their home countries. Austrian, German and Russian military, maimed and crippled, crossed the border in Haparanda to go back home. They were a sore sight for the local children who used to come to the railway, stand and watch, with tears in their eyes, as the soldiers limped by in pain, sometimes on their knees. For the little ones, it was probably the best lesson in peace – to pass to the next generation of children.

Haparanda during World War IPhoto from the Art Journal, Syktyvkar

How the Swedish Giant Helped the Small Town

No town can survive without a steady business support. To Haparanda this came on behalf of IKEA – a Swedish retail giant operating in 49 countries worldwide.

When in 2005 mayor of Haparanda Sven-Erik Bucht approached founder of IKEA Ingvar Kamprad with an idea of establishing another IKEA outlet on the border of Sweden and Finland, there were quite a few skeptical remarks about the project. Some said it was unwise, some said it was crazy. Nevertheless, Kamprad said it would be. Built on the instinct of two people, the project proved to be a roaring business success. IKEA on the border of Haparanda and Tornio makes stable profits. Sven-Erik Bucht is now the Swedish Minister for Rural Affairs and he remembers: his political career started with an idea that was deemed foolish.

IKEA founder Ingmar Kampradwww.nationalpost.com

When Foreign Ministers Agree

The last part of the talk was a brief overview of the history of Barents cooperation. With a diverse hands-on experience in Barents cultural projects, Kenneth was among those who witnessed its evolution from the very start. His comprehensive guide was worth pages of reading and hours of lectures.   

The idea for a Nordic cross-border partnership emerged in the early 1970s when the North Calotte Council was established embracing northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and part of Murmansk Oblast. The Nordic Council of Ministers addressed not only the issues of business, labor market and cross-border mobility, but also the sensitive nature and environment of the North Calotte.

In the same way the Tornio River Valley partnership of Finland and Sweden has also been beneficial for communities on both sides of the border, boosting tourism opportunities and creating shared services and infrastructure.

Barents regional cooperation was launched in 1993, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was initiated by Norway under foreign minister Thorvald Stoltenberg whose son, also a politician, now heads the NATO. Russian foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev attended a Foreign Ministers Conference in Kirkenes to sign the historical declaration that created Barents Euro-Arctic Council. Alongside with Norway, Finland, Sweden and north-west Russia, Iceland, Denmark and the European Commission are also members. The chairmanship in the council rotates between the first four countries.

Barents cooperation overviewwww.barentscooperation.org

Kenneth believes the northernmost territories of Europe have a great potential. Today’s new buzz word is the Arctic: Arctic tourism, Arctic oil, Arctic nature, living in the Arctic…

Summing up his talk, Kenneth once again drew a parallel between the place he comes from and Komi. “We are far from Stockholm”, he said, “You are far from Moscow. The centre uses the power of our rivers, the wood from our forests, and the minerals from our deposits. They must share the enormous wealth with people who produce it”.

Sámi childrenPresentation by Kenneth Mikko
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