A factual report of a research trip to the North
Thursday June 6th 2013
I am at the airport Oslo Gardemoen with Annette Wolfsberger. We are both working away at our laptops in a restaurant. We have five hours till our plane to Kirkenes departs. We were here before. A little more than a year ago. We have both been looking forward to our second trip to the far North of Norway, the border area of Sor-Varanger Municipality in Finnmark, the Pechenga Raion in the Murmansk Oblast and the city of Murmansk, in Russia. This time we have a mission.
The mission is to look for the possibilities to organise an art event, or a series of events, which connects to this region, but also reaches out further. To Amsterdam for instance, but also to other places. The event could connect to Sonic Acts - which we also both work on. We have to get to know the area better, meet people, see places and venues, get a feel for the culture and politics of the region. I also have to further develop the concept and a guiding idea for such an event, both in terms of formats, possible institutions and people involved, and as a theme. There is now a preliminary idea, based on the notion of 'dark ecology'.
The idea of 'dark ecology' takes its cue from by the theories of Timothy Morton, and his books Ecology Without Nature, The Ecological Thought, and Realist Magic). It is informed by the thought of Bruno Latour, especially his Politics of Nature and the idea of a Parliament of Things. It is also informed by the general interest in ecological matters by artists, the shift towards (or interest in) a radical non-human perspective in philosophy and the arts (think of the whole OOO-thing, for instance the articles of philosopher Graham Harman, and his interpretation of Latour in Prince of Networks), as well as by the geopolitical situation of the region (heavy pollution, pristine nature, nuclear waste, mining, oil exploration), which is closely connected to global warming. (For this, just read the Barents Observer and Bellona).
I received a generous grant from the Mondriaan Foundation to explore all of this. There are many connections to tease out, many contradictions as well, with the redefinition of 'nature', and maybe even 'world' as a fundamental thread running trough it. For whom is this world? What does it mean that we live in the Anthropocene? Many exhibitions start to take this as a starting point, for instance Anthropozaen at the Haus der Kulturen [see the lectures, the important collection of essays and materials Making the geologic Now, or for that matter, the Rietveld Studium Generale.
How do our curatorial ideas relate to this? In what sense do we take a different direction? As a side note, our approach, however preliminary, I think, fundamentally differs from the GEM-exhibition Ja Natuurlijk, which was also about different conceptualisations of nature, and had an essay by Tim Morton in the catalogue. But how, is something to make clear. That our idea has actually hardly anything in common with the design-oriented, and in its own way also very challenging NextNature project, should be clear. The recent NextNature book had an essay by Tim Morton in it which basically trashed the ideas of NextNature, a criticism with which I completely agree. Many, many exhibitions and books have lately pursued similar ideas as the one I'm trying to give form. Animism in Antwerp was another one, see the text by Anselm Frank. Or, very close to home, the project The Vibrancy Effect developed and presented at V2_. (I work at V2_ as well).
In Kirkenes, Nikel and Murmansk we have to talk to people about possibilities for collaboration. We have to know what is possible and feasible in terms of formats - we have to find a format which makes sense. To just fly in a few artists to Kirkenes, give them a commission, make a public artwork and leave again makes no sense. To organise a festival with local and international artists, fly in some international audience, a leave it at that, makes no sense. It does not make much sense to create art about the local context, and show it in the local context only. (Incidentally, it turns out people here have had enough of that already, it is more interesting to just show good art, or to somehow bring the local issues to bear on and in another place and context). In connection to the format, we have to further develop the ideas and concepts that I have been working on in the past months. You can have so many of ideas, but the ideas have to make sense in both the local context, and a larger context. They have to be inspiring, connect to the issues in the area, make sense...
Last year we were here in May. Especially I was so inspired that I decided to ask for a grant to further develop a concept and idea for an event connected to this region. The grant enabled not only this trip, but also enabled me to spend time on the research. In connection with these plans Hilde Methi, a curator based in Kirkenes, who is our main contact and collaborator here, also applied for research money, granted by Barents Kult. Even Annette did receive a travel grant from PNEK.
Hilde has been doing work in and on the border area for quite some time now. It is not that there is so much art happening in this region, as that there is simply a lot happening in this area, all closely connected to some of the geopolitical changes that we're witnessing at the moment. There is also the Barents Spektakel which has developed into a large festival and has been quite successfully run by Pikene pa Broen ('the girls on the bridge'), who, have earned an international reputation for themselves. Hilde organised the 'nomadic' Sami Art Festival between 2009 and 2011 - an interesting format.
How did it start? It must have been two years ago - or more - when Per Platou of PNEK said to Hilde Methi that she should visit the Sonic Acts festival. She came to Amsterdam. Per had also told Lucas van der Velden of Sonic Acts about Kirkenes, and pointed out that there might be interesting possibilities in the Barents region. I didn't know about this. Besides, how many of such suggestions are made over the years? How many actually lead to something? Little did Per know that this - for me - turns out into something that I have been hoping to do for a long time: connecting the artistic and curatorial approach of Sonic Acts to a let's say latourian view on arts, culture and the world.
The word 'Kirkenes' turned up in Lucas van der Velden's draft of the four year policy plan for Sonic Acts that I was asked to work on. There was a remark in between brackets in the paragraph on 'international relations': 'and maybe Kirkenes'. I made a note in the margin: 'Now that's where I'd like to go!' I don't like to travel generally, and Lucas knows that. He immediately got back to me. 'You meant that seriously, didn't you?' 'Yes'. That's when it started.
Right from that moment on I started to 'research' Kirkenes. I looked up maps, the history of Kirkenes, websites of various cultural activities, like the Barents Spektakel, the Border Crossing events, and the world's smallest hotel. I like to be 'fully' informed before visiting a place. It is funny, in the world we live in now, this means that I had looked up Hilde Methi's house in Kirkenes on Google Streetview, and thus already knew it had a view out on the fjord leading to the Barents Sea. I read The New North by Laurence C. Smith, which outlines a future scenario for cities in the far North, including Kirkenes. I looked at the ideas in the Transborder Kirkenes master thesis of Hans-Jorgen Wetlesen en Ostein Ro, I read everything connected to the Sami Art Festival, like he book Hotel Polar Capital. And looked at what was happening at other cultural centres in the far North, like the Sami Art Centre in Karasjok,and the Finnish Bioart Society in Kilipsjärvi.
Lucas van der Velden, Annette Wolfsberger and myself visited Kirkenes for the first time in early May 2012. We had arranged for visa to Russia, and we went on a sight-seeing trip to Nikel and Zapolyarny, two heavily polluted mining towns near the border. I have written an informal report in Dutch about this visit [pdf].
We were blown away, and inspired. So we started thinking seriously about developing a collaborative project for what we called in shorthand 'Kirkenes'. 'Kirkenes' meant the town Kirkenes just as much as the whole border area, and the geopolitical and socio-cultural situation there. Ultimately 'Kirkenes' acted as a metaphor for a certain situation and entanglement of our contemporary world.
I took it on me to develop an idea for the potential Kirkenes-collaboration. Basically this was because I saw direct connections between what I had seen in 'Kirkenes' and my interest in Timothy Morton's concept of 'Dark Ecology'. Though I did want to invite Morton to Sonic Acts 2013, and did invite him to contribute to the Sonic Acts book (an invitation to which he eventually reacted, much too late), I had a hard time making that idea cohere inside a Sonic Acts framework - especially since what Morton ultimately is doing in his work, and is - in my opinion a very philosophical endeavour. (That's also the level on which it is most interesting).
Morton's ideas seemed very relevant in relation to 'Kirkenes'. In Kirkenes all the ties that keep our world and economy upright, are very visible. Think of the iron ore mines in Bjornevatn, which are basically the reason why Kirkenes exists (without it, it would be a tiny village subsisting on fishery). The mine gives us the materials we need to keep our world running. The main aspect of ecology is very apparent here: how everything is connected to everything else (for good or for bad). And how this 'mesh' (Morton's term, see this video) is full of contradictions. Eat your heart out Timothy Morton, I thought. This is truly dark ecology. Standing in the black snow (yes, black snow exists, if you do not believe me, visit Nikel and Zapolyarny) on the edge of the road out Nikel to Zapolyarne, looking at the enormous factory which spits out smoke with about the highest concentrates of SO2 in the world. (It is worse in Norilsk, and when Nikel processed ore from Norilsk and levels were even higher than now). A poisoned landscape. We need to have this, it seems, if we want our world to be like it is. We cannot do without it. Dark Ecology - a truly ecological thought - takes all of this into account. We joked about inviting Morton to Nikel, to lecture on Dark Ecology. (It's even more complex, as the materials made from the ore smelted at Nikel are necessary for the catalysts that reduce pollution).
But that moment ('event') was decisive.
(Norway and Russia are in conflict about the pollution of the plant in Nikel. Just after we came back the mayor of Kirkenes tried again to make an issue of it, by applying for a law suit, but this didn't go through).
Sonic Acts might be the first choice as a 'framework' in which the proposed event should fit - as I have been for years now caught up intensively in the development of concepts for the Sonic Acts festivals. However it is not easy to make the ideas connected to Dark Ecology cohere with Sonic Acts. First, there is the time pressure, for Sonic Acts the time between development of an idea. putting it into practice and execution is short. And secondly, because the focus of 'dark ecology' is not only experimental audiovisual art, but also the political, economical and socio-cultural aspects that also art is involved with. Sonic Acts is developing more into a direction where it takes this more into account - as one can see from the last couple of editions.
What fitted Sonic Acts until now where rather ideas like 'The World Without Us' (the book by Alan Weisman, and the idea of Dark Tourism . The World Without Us imagines what becomes of our world when humans would suddenly not be there anymore. It has a lot to offer, but the approach of Weisman is a bit too much just a report - it lacks a philosophical perspective. I find the idea of Dark Tourism a bit problematic in our context. I am interested in places which are on the periphery, places of which many would say that 'nothing happens there' - to find out that there is just as much liveliness there as elsewhere. Kirkenes would be such a peripheral place too, maybe rather than a dark place. (Interestingly when Andrew Blackwell was doing Dark Tourism, visiting the most polluted places in the world, what he found there was not so much 'darkness', but a lively and thriving human population - though the place might be dirty, polluted, cancer-inducing. See his book Visit Sunny Chernobyl).
Sonic Acts is a possible point of reference and a node to be connected, but the research is also deliberately disconnected from Sonic Acts. (Which also means I'll have to make an effort to convince the others at Sonic Acts). 'Dark ecology' might be something for Sonic Acts, it might also go into a slightly different direction.
The North of Norway - far above the polar circle. You probably think: nature, enormous stretches of almost pristine nature. Barren lands, fjords, reindeer. Sure, that's there as well. But Kirkenes is about mining. Kirkenes is about the oil and gas in the Barents Sea. Kirkenes is about speculating that the exploitation of these oil and gas reserves will turn the town into an economic hub (its harbour has ice-free access to the sea the whole year through). This is why Kirkenes is more expensive than Oslo. Kirkenes is caught up in the discourse about the Future North. Global warming is melting the ice cap of the North Pole, leading to an increased navigability and accessibility of the North East Passage, increased transport along the coast of Siberia, and easier exploitation of the oil and gas reserves of the Barents Sea. And because elsewhere oil and gas is running out, but the world depend ever more heavily on fossil fuels, the exploitation of these reserves becomes more and more profitable. Kirkenes exists as a result of our global economic system. At the moment it prospers thanks to it. This is even more the case for Nikel and Zapolyarny - though these towns do not look as if they prosper, looking rather bombed-out. The rows of flats are built here in communist time because there's iron ore to be mined and smelted. And what would Murmansk be, if it was not in such a military strategic location? Murmansk is now a city of about 330.000 inhabitants (once there were even half a million). Without the 'mesh' of our economic system, without industrialisation, there would be a little extensive animal husbandry, and some fishery at the coast.
The fragility of our contemporary world is very apparent here - at least for someone who flies in from Amsterdam, and is not a tourist who wants to see the beautiful fjords.
Kirkenes is near the nature reserve of the Pasvik Valley, but Kirkenes is much closer to one of the most polluted areas in the world, the mining town Nikel - Kirkenes' twin town. Kirkenes hosts meetings of the world leaders, including meetings of the powerful with representatives of the indigenous peoples of the North. Kirkenes is right on the border of Russia, and has known a very troublesome history - which was especially tragic for the Skolt Sami of this region, see also
Regarding the weather: people do like to live in Kirkenes. And I guess the same is true for Murmansk. There is snow 6 months a year, but temperatures rarely drop beneath minus 20 (the farther east you go, the colder Russia becomes). Kirkenes is not wet, like the rest of Norway. It gets its summer from Russia, from Kola - and that usually means higher temperatures than for instance Trondheim, Bergen or even Oslo. This year May scored record temperatures. At the end of May - when it was 12 degrees Celsius in Amsterdam, and barely 18 in Marseille on the Mediterranean, it was 29 degrees in Kirkenes, and people swam in the lakes. Sure, 6 degrees is just as normal in June, and it can snow in June too. Generally the effects of global warming have been so apparent here (the record temperatures in May by the way are not related to it) that one does not even have to talk about it any more.
But we are still at the airport. We have five hours. We need these hours. Annette needs them to catch up with unfinished work. I use them to look at all the webpages, pdfs, pictures and other documents that I have saved in the folder '_verwerken' ('_to_process') in the past few months. My plans have been too ambitious again. I planned to keep a research blog for myself, collecting material, with reflections on it, as a record of the process. The idea was to do it semi-public. Everything would be visible for those who would know the URL, but I would not actively promote the blog. It's a matter of status, a matter of how informal (and possible misdirected) the things you publish can be. I had made folders for the various types of information, keeping local copies of stuff which I found online, and a structure. I planned to keep it old-skool and simple. Writing simple html-pages with my notes, and make links to both my locally saved data, as to the online sources. (This would reflect the semi-public status of the blog. No special domain name, a URL pointing to folders within folders). Of course, there is not always time to process what you find. Clicking apple-S is quick. Save it to the right location: _verwerken. Look at that folder later on, read, reflect, write a few lines. Sure. What happens in these times of internet access (and the knowledge to quickly find sources) is that in five minutes you can gather more data than you can read in six months times. (For instance I gathered about forty books (pdfs) on the Arctic, both history, ecology and on the culture, in about twenty minutes - and those twenty minutes were used to simply find and save a selection of the pdfs. I also gathered about thirty geological papers that mentioned the Kola Superdeep Borehole (see also here). The folder _verwerken grew and grew. I used my time to add to that folder. I did eventually keep that folder on dropbox, and a few others had access to it. Now, at the airport in Oslo, I had five hours, and clicked on almost each pdf and webpage, retracing my unprocessed research path.
I had worked hard in the previous weeks, finishing the editorial process of the new Sonic Acts book (334 pages). I felt as if I was lagging behind with everything. Sometimes I felt as if I had hardly started the research at all. This is a contemporary condition. Of course I had done a lot of preparation, but with all the available information, all the documents, pdfs, pictures, videos and websites that you have had a short look at, you only know there is even much more that you could have, or should have looked at. Thus there is an inherent feeling of lagging behind, of being not prepared enough. That feeling is false. Nevertheless, you can't get rid off the feeling that, of all the documents that you have looked at, all potentially relevant and interesting, you have only read a really small part. And how many did you study closely? About how many did you think?
I had found time to consult, read and re-read a several texts, especially those of Bruno Latour. (By the way, he had just received the Holberg Prize in Norway). And (again) I had found that a lot of what I was trying to do, was rather closely connected to and inspired by his ideas. Even more so than the ideas of Tim Morton. The whole issue of 'nature' is - I think - explained clearer by Latour, and with a more clearly defined societal and political approach. All kinds of ideas that I had been going over, connected to ecology, to making things speak (the pipes of the plants in Nikel do 'speak' and 'act'), animism, science and technology, the knowledge of indigenous cultures (various forms of knowledge), the concept of nature - are developed or at least touched on in the books of Latour.
I like to think that good art is local first, connects to a local situation. Think of Dante who in his Divina Commedia wrote about very local politics, and thus created an enduring classic. (Dante mentions names of real people, he writes about what happened without forcing it into a mythological or larger scheme, and through doing that creates a text which can be read on different levels - (also according to his own theories on interpretation).
Five hours in limbo, five extra hours to at least start feeling a bit prepared. Because the plane to Kirkenes came in late, we even had an extra hour.
On the plane to Kirkenes I slept, and woke up just before landing. I recognised the landscape. There was still snow at some places. Hilde picked us up from the airport, rode us to her house. She had prepared dinner. It felt good to be back.
I had a room at the house of the Barents Institute, a bit further up the road from Hilde's house. Though it can house something like 16 persons, and is often used by visiting artists and researchers, I was the only one staying there. In the next days I spent some hours reading in de sun, sitting on a chair at the side of the house. It was warm. I should have brought shorts.
The sun did not disappear under de horizon. I had no problems sleeping. I was simply too tired to stay awake. It felt completely normal that the sun did not set and there was daylight continually.
Friday June 7th
The first full day in Kirkenes. Warm. Bright sun, strong sunshine. Full on summer. Most of the day was spent making visits and talking to possible partners, collaborators, and looking at venues.
The first visit was early morning, to the public library of Kirkenes, where we had a meeting with the librarian, Hildur Eikas. (Btw, this time we did not visit the local museum, as we had been there already in 2012). It's a normal public library, but considering it's for a community of 15.000 people it is astonishingly well stocked and intensively used. Hildur Eikas is very motivated, especially now the function of the public library is under attack and is often questioned. Her strategy is to makes sure the library is an active place. It's used for small exhibitions, there are lectures, workshops, reading groups, collaboration with migrant and volunteer organisations. I was reminded also of how the OBA in Amsterdam works. She had visited it. I might have a weak spot for public libraries - I still go there once a week to get 'fresh books'. I have been doing that since I was 6. For me the public library is still a place to connect to culture and knowledge. I think it should (and can) have that function in times of electronic communication. Kirkenes has a library that takes this seriously. Hildur Eikas focusses on the connection with Russia, and stocks many books in Russian, which are lent to the Russian sailors who are waiting in the harbour of Kirkenes. Russians are fervent readers. She is very active in the development of border relations. For the rest it looks like a normal public library. Nothing special (until you compare it with other libraries), and very connected to the local culture. The Kirkenes public library won the big prize for best library in Norway this year. They'd be very willing to co-operate.
Next door is a community hall. It has a proud socialist history, a union history, back from the time when socialists still thought that it was their job to educate the people culturally, that it was important to make sure that the people can also enjoy the fruits of culture, and that this enjoyment is a way to a better life. I wish there was still a bit of that left. If art and enjoying (high) culture are not a way to a better life, why bother?
We had a bit miscalculated our trip to Kirkenes in the sense that many people at the Barents Institute were not there. Urban Wrakberg (see also here), who we'd shortly met in 2012, and who, though he is a sociologist, often also co-operates in cultural events (for instance he'd written a text in the publication that Chto Delat? made for the Barents Spektakel in 2013). He had been planning to write a history of the industry in Kola - which would have been very interesting - but Hilde told us that his application for subsidy had not been successful.
The Barents Secretariat stimulates the cross border collaboration between Russia and Norway. In the first place this is about economy, but they also have Barents Kult, which funds cultural initiatives. We had a nice and informative meeting with Aileen Espiritu, the director of the Barents Institute (see also here. I tried to explain our ideas, also the philosophical ideas underpinning the research. The discourse about the New North is fundamental for Barents, and as long as we can come up with an idea that connects Russia and Norway and the international context, and that concerns border issues, we would stand a fair chance of being funded. They have a research strand about Future North, to which we could connect. There is a new PhD-position researching landscapes in relation to technology; they envision an ethnography of the landscape which would have also a visual element, thus combining design and ethnography. Aileen said it was not easy to find a good candidate - which surprised us, because it seems like a very attractive research, and is very reminiscent of what artists are interested in at the moment. It reminded me a lot of the work of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, who both Hilde and me had thought of as possible candidates for our project. The research of the Barents Institute is often about how people in the polar region envision their future. The industrial discourse is overwhelming, and the question is how the inhabitants negotiate their space. The architect Kjerstin Uhre also works on the mapping of people versus the mapping of resources in the North, and shows how maps and language are use as the power tools to exploit natural resources. Aileen mentioned another project that BAI has developed, a drone app, for which I cannot find any information, but which seems to bear a lot of similarities to the 'tactical media' work by Matthew Biederman for the Arctic Perspective Initiative. (Matthew had a work in the 2012 Kontraste festival and was also at Sonic Acts in 2013. I interviewed him on that occasion, and thoroughly read the two books he made for API). BAI of course also researches urban spaces in the circumpolar region Russia, Finland, Norway, Canada, Nunavut and Kallallit Nunaat, as there are many common issues ([see for instance the Arctic Urban Sustainability research, also here). The Barents Institute could also offer us space (the house they have), internship and residence opportunities for artists and students, and they are open to discuss other formats of collaboration.
Next up was a meeting at the Svanhovd Environmental Center, about 40 minutes drive up the beautiful Pasvik valley. It was extremely warm and sunny. We were sitting outside, between the flowers in a nature reserve, talking with Arne Bjorn, one of the directors. And behind us, just a few kilometre further, on the other side of the Pasvik, there are the pipes of Nikel that spit out yellow, poisonous smoke. Here we also shortly met Honna, from the East Sami museum in Neiden - who was there to discuss a new exhibition at the centre. We'd be going camping with her later.
The Svanhovd Center conducts ecological research, it has approximately 30 staff, but only 5 to 6 researchers, and 2 PhD-students. They usually have to fight hard for funding, and part of their research is directed by the interest of third parties. The focus is mainly on brown bear research (genetics, population - there are bears in the Pasvik valley) and climate change (or rather, global warming - they look at phenology, and shifts in nature, they do data registration and monitor for instance the behaviour of water birds.). One problem is that they aim at producing long-term data on changes, but as research agenda's change, there are hardly long-term data. The Russians are much better at that, they have collected data over much longer periods of time. There are quite a few projects on which the Russians and Norwegians co-operate. The co-operation turns out to be easy, despite methodological differences. Their closest Russian partner is Pasvik Zapovednik, in Rayakoski (close to the Russian border line along the Pasvik River - one needs one month time to get permission to go there. The Svanhovd Center used to have their own information department which made small brochures about the research, but it has been discontinued due to lack of funds.
There are pollution and radiation measurement instruments in the garden, but those are not their own. This summer they start a new three-year project on the soil, looking at the effects of climate change.
We visited the center mainly because we thought there might be interesting possibilities here for an artist in residence, to work with the reserach of the center, using their data, developing different stories from it. They have never done an artist in residence, but they are principally open to the idea, they could facilitate an artist to do research - as long as we could figure the out how to finance it. It could be beneficial to the center, we think, and the Center could provide interesting research data and sources for artists to make work with or about.
In the afternoon we also visited the new theatre of Kirkenes, which is the home stage of the Samowar theatre. It's about as big as Frascati in Amsterdam. The stage is nice, fully equipped, a luxury resource little used for shows (as it is also the rehearsal space for the theatre and the theatre school). It presents possibilities..
Late afternoon the four of us, Hilde, Annette, Honna - the director of the Sami Museum in Neiden - and me drove half an hour over an unsurfaced road to the east, to camp in the wild, at a lake, near the Russian border. We made a fire, made food. Saw the sun set - and not go under. The weather was splendid. We slept in a tent. Alas, the mosquitos were already back - unusually early, and they bothered us quite a bit (though not as much as I had feared). I got up at 6, walked about 2 kilometre further up the road and back. We left before noon the next day, (Honna stayed with her dog), we could use the time to prepare to days in Russia. The night camping outside was for me the high point of the trip, though it might not have been so important for the project.
Saturday June 8th
The morning we spent out in the wild, and driving back to Kirkenes. The afternoon I spent mostly on my own. Catching some rest, reading in the sun. Making notes. I took a walk through Kirkenes, revisiting the places I'd seen before.
In the evening we had dinner with Luba and Guro from Pikene Pa Broen. It was much fun to talk with them again. They are so full of energy, and what they produce in Kirkenes is amazing. Not only the Barents Spektakel, which might be a bit too popular (strictly in a positive sense) to my Sonic Acts tastes, but which is the right approach here. They do connect avant-garde with a public friendly approach. It is a popular, maybe even a 'populist' approach, but they do it in a good way. The Barents Spektakel will take one year off - they had simply been too busy. They provided us with a lot of contacts in Russia (Luba is from Severodvinsk), and very generously sent out e-mails for us.
Sunday June 9th
Sunday, started with free time. I needed that. I wrote more notes for this report, and read in the sun. I was catching up. The weather was glorious. Later in the afternoon we'd be leaving for Nikel.
I'm not a traveller. I do travel, but leaving, and crossing borders is always a reason for stress. It's the insecurity, other people might interpret that as adventure, I'm feel bothered and it plays on my nerves. This is why I am unproductive when I travel. Luckily for this travel everything had been arranged and taken care of, and what had not been arranged was arranged by Hilde in the days we were there. I do not speak Russian, I do not know Russia - Hilde does, and that was very helpful.
Since last summer inhabitants of Sor-Varanger and Pechenga living 30 kilometers from the border on each side are allowed to travel across the border without having to apply for a visa. They have a border citizen ID card. This has intensified the traffic between Pechenga and Kirkenes (people from Russia go shopping in Kirkenes - despite the Norwegian prizes), and has made crossing the border less of an issue. There are little busses running between Murmansk and Kirkenes.
We travelled with a private driver, Anatolya. Hilde already knew him had used his services for years. He was his own man, making a living from his car, driving between Kirkenes and Murmansk. He picked us up in Kirkenes, and drove us to Nikel. Hilde has worked a lot in the border area of Russia. In many ways she was a pioneer when she started to do cultural collaboration with Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. One of her recent projects is Luja (see also this pdf), in which she works together with the artist Yvette Brackman with the Sami from Lujavre, Lovozero in Kola. As a member of the art-trio Mobile Kultur Byro, she recently issued the publication, Russian Market Intervention, giving insight into the small-scale cross-border trade enterprise that constitute the Russian Market in Kirkenes.
It was still a warm summer's day. It was Sunday, and people from Nikel had gone 'out', they were swimming and sunbathing in the lakes and the river a few kilometres outside Nikel. Many were walking back over the road. It made Nikel immediately more human and welcoming than it had seemed last year in May. Nikel is ugly, it looks like a war-zone. It is overlooked by a big polluting smelter and an enormous mountain of black dirt. Almost all of the people on their day out would be working in that factory the next day. Nikel exists only because of the factory.
Nikel is a polar town. This means that road surfaces are broken, because of the frost in the winter. It looks dirty, for the same reason as many polar town look dirty. Broken cars are everywhere. Nikel had more inhabitants in the 'glorious' Soviet days, so some of the flats are empty. But the green has come out in between all sand and the broken road surfaces.
The invitation you need for a visa to Russia, of course stated that we would be staying in a hotel, and that all the fees had been paid. (There is a hotel in Zapolyarny - that's where we were staying officially. There is also a small hotel in Nikel which has only one heated room. Bjarge Fors, who we would meed later, has once stayed there in the winter, in the unheated room). But we weren't staying in a hotel. Hilde had arranged an apartment through an acquaintance in Kirkenes who was originally from Nikel, had kept her 3-room flat there, and sometimes rented it out.
We opened the iron door with a big old-fashioned key. We heard sound on the other side. A man in boxer shorts, a horrible smell of alcohol, cigarettes appeared at the door. He immediately began to excuse himself. He was was allowed to use the apartment, but, as he claimed, he had not been informed that it was rented for these days. He was very apologetic, immediately started to pack his stuff, said he was moving out. He was from Turkmenistan and spoke Russian, German, Dutch, and we later heard also Japanese and Turkish, and had lived all over the world. He said that he had had a bit of a drink, and that the son-in-law of the owner had suddenly turned up the other day. They had been out all the night. That guy was still asleep in the other room. When he had finally woken up, he was pushed by the other guy to get his stuff and shake hands with us. This was going really slow. When finally he came to shake hands with us, we saw he was heavily beaten up, and still very drunk. He was a strong, big guy. His face was red and swollen, he could barely open his eyes. He told a story about women, fist fighting in the streets, money. The situation was beginning to be awkward and then tense. He was slow to move.By now Roman Khoroshilko, our friend from Nikel, had arrived at the apartment, so there was another man present. There was an issue about keys. The beaten-up guy couldn't find his key, and Hilde had accidentally picked up his key thinking it was hers. When I understood this, I got the key from Hilde. I wanted to give it to the friendly guy, but the beaten up guy was suddenly in front of me and I gave presented his key. It dawned on him, and he exclaimed in English: 'This is my apartment, what are you doing here, go out'. He threw me outside. Nt to make the situation worse, I decided to stay outside for a little while. I heard the situation became aggressive. My luggage was inside, I did not have my phone on me, not even my passport. As the tension did not seem to subside, I went downstairs, also to be out of the way if he would leave. I saw Roman was making sings from the kitchen window, indicating that it was going to be okay. I signed that I was going to take a little walk, and be back in fifteen minutes.
There I was, in sunny Nikel, walking, looking at the flats, the cars, the people outside. It still looked like a war zone, but the longer I was there, the more human it became. On almost every 'green' area in between the flats there was a playground, mostly painted in bright colours. The weather was nice. Next to the car wrecks there were many new and even brand new cars. Grocery stores in the flats, inside, behind closed doors. You have to look close to see the human face of Nikel. And though it might not become beautiful, I think Nikel is a lot more normal than it seems - a lot more like any industrial town.
In the middle of Nikel, there is a large, almost open area. It's not a park, it's a sandy open area with some trees and old buildings that are completely renovated, next to complete ruins. That makes it so strange. There is a playground, freshly planted trees (small ones, and Roman explained, they are trying to develop the park since years, but it is all without a real effort).
Part of the ugliness of Nikel is simply the ugliness of any polar town. As I said. The tarmac that breaks in the winter. The sand everywhere. The little bit of green, often birches and smallish plants. No lush green. Few flowers. The dirt and garbage on the streets - which are hidden under the snow 6 months a year. Because the town is so big, you forget you are in the Arctic.
When I came back to the flat the first time, Roman indicated it was going to be okay. I went for another walk. When I returned, there was a police car in front of the building. From the window Annette said it was going to be fine, and that I rather should not come up. I went for another walk. I walked up and down Nikel three times, taking slightly different routes each time.
When I came back the third time, Roman was waiting in front of the building with my bag. The drunk and beaten-up guy had been taken in, his keys were confiscated. The nicer guy had left. That evening we had beers and dinner at the restaurant Barracuda in the central 'square', the open area, looking out towards derelict buildings. We were sitting outside in the setting sun. The food was excellent.
Monday June 10th
The next two days we explored Nikel together with Roman. First he showed us the 'bunker', a small building at the side of the square. It had an almost invisible side door, which he told, leads to an illegal internet casino Everybody knew it houses an illegal casino. Also the police.
In the morning we visited the local museum of Kirkenes, which opened especially for us. An nice old fashioned (in the good sense) local museum. Of course, we are interested in Nikel, so the museum and what it displays is interesting to us. Not so much the whole story from the Second World War, much more so the room about the Kola Superdeep Borehole. We were the only visitors, and judging by the guest books, there were about 4 visitors each day, apart from the school classes. Mostly from Sor-Varanger, but also quite a few international visitors (from Sweden, Germany, Canada, Austria). As this was a battle area during World War II, one can guess the interest and the background of some of the visitors. I saw at least one entry which deplored the Nazi defeat. Another note was from a European environmental youth group who had visited Nikel in the early 1990s, had talked with representatives of the smelter, and voiced the hope that the emissions would be lower in twenty years time. Well, they are not.
We visited the local art school for children, in which we spoke with one of the teachers, Marina Ivanovna. They opened up especially for us, as the holidays had started by the beginning of June. It is good building for workshops. The art school is flourishing, up to 200 children go there to learn to paint and draw. Of course, typically for Russia, it's geared very much toward acquiring technique, and all the results look more or less the same. But the quality is higher than what you'd see from children in the rest of Europe. The building also houses the new Kant-Bakhtin Institute, set up by a.o. the philosopher Viggo Rossvaer. It is a co-operation between Norwegian and Russian universities. This could also provide a possible link for us. (I just like the idea that there is such an institute in Nikel, of all places. And I think it would be a stunt to commission someone who works on ecology and literature to do a short residency here). We had a really good and sympathetic talk with the teacher, and they seem very interested in collaborating. It might be a children's art school, but they are looking for outside input, and they have done projects with MA-architecture students, focusing on the future of cities which are dependent on one industry - like Nikel.
We took a walk to the outskirts, to see the remains of the Nikel sovchoz. We passed through an area with garages - Russians have to have a garage, for their hobby, to be away from the family, to drink. We walked a bit through the green area near the polluted river. Almost immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union the sovchoz collapsed and had been abandoned. There is no sign of agriculture or husbandry - or better, there are lots of sign that there was husbandry in the past. But none in the present. It is now an area where wild dogs live. We were very cautious, and had brought an anti-dog weapon. There is a story about a massive death of cattle in Russia, millions of cows died. It it rumoured that the corpses were brought here by train, and buried outside Nikel. No one knows if the story is true - Roman said. Nevertheless, when you close you eyes to the garbage and the ruins, and turn away from the black mountains behind the smelter, and look at the yellow flowers in the ditch, the green, and the cotton grass, and imagine clear flowing water, you can almost see how the landscape could be beautiful.
We had beers and dinner again at Barracuda, and had another early night.
Tuesday June 11th
The next morning we had our official visit to the cultural committee of Nikel, to 'the Directorate for Culture, Sport, Youth Policy, the development of entrepreneurship in the municipality of Pechenga Murmansk region'. We spoke with Marina Yurevna, the Deputee Head, a typical Russian woman, in her sixties. She listened with a certain interest to our story, explained in Russian by Hilde, and sometimes explained by me in English, and translated by Roman. She became more interested when we talked about the arts-science connection. When we presented the book from last years Kontraste and explained what it was about (dark matter, astronomy), and she started to look at the pages, a smile grew on her face. 'I'm a physicist' she said. So we might have the politics in Nikel on our side. She could be important to provide contacts and introductions to official institutions, and made a quick telephone to the Cultural Palace to arrange for a visit there.
This part of Nikel, just a kilometre further up the road from Barracuda, was covered in smog. The clouds from the smelter just descended through these streets. I did not feel it so much, but both Annette and Hilde developed a sore throat from it.
We then made a visit to the Nikel Cultural Palace. A large building. Soviet style. We'd been there in May, but then were not allowed to see the two stages. Now we were officially introduced, and the director, Alexandra Frolova, showed us around (in fact almost all the official persons we spoke with in Russia were women). For us westerners it is strange to see such a large theatre in a town like Nikel. Two stages, mostly used for local presentations, for instance of dance groups. There was a rock festival every year, featuring bands from the Murmansk Oblast. (Roman claimed this had a lot to do with the fact that the son of the director was playing in a rock band). The local activities were attracting audience. But once she had booked the Bolshoi Ballet, and had sold just one ticket... In the hall there was a second hand clothes market. The small stage was apparently used as an indoor playground for kids. The large hall, with 400 seats, is impressive, but not easy to fill. Definitely also not for us.
Then a quick visit to the library. A normal public library, but one which still had the boxes with index cards. They had one book on the Kola Superdeep Borehole. They had to get it from the cellar. It was the final book on the project, published in 1997 I think. It was in Russian, with a few English abstracts. It was useful, because from it I could glimpse what Yuri Smirnov - who we were going to meet that afternoon - had worked on.
A taxi ride to Zapolyarny. A quick 'business lunch' at an Azerbaijan restaurant (again a restaurant that you could not even recognise as a restaurant from the outside. An unmarked door in a back street leading to it). Then our meeting with Yuri Smirnov.
Yuri Pavlovitch Smirnov is a 83 year old veteran, geophysicist, and one of the leading scientists of the Kola Superdeep Borehole project. Near Zapolyarny they have drilled to a but over 12 kilometres deep, for research on the Earth crust. The site is now a ruin, and the project seems largely forgotten. All the scientific references I could find are from at least 20 years ago. Once it had been the deepest borehole - and it still is one of the deepest ever drilled. We had arranged an interview with Yuri Smirnov because we were interested in this abandoned project. There is a certain mystique around it. Yuri Smirnov was waiting for us. He sure was waiting for us. He was outside of his flat, waiting the arrival of the taxi. What a character! His brother was also there - turned out they had not seen each other for years. (The brother was 76 and had been a professional wrestler, he had the physique of a man of 60). Yuri Smirnov lived just in one of these small Russian flats that everybody lives in. And it seemed as if he had been waiting for years for our arrival. (That's what he said. Almost all the other scientists who had worked at the Kola Superdeep Borehole have died. He is one of the last remaining.) He is cheerful. He has humour. He writes poetry. In his room many maps of the project, and many memorabilia. Also he collects cups. Cups relating to Kola and Zapolyarny, but also other ones. A portrait of Stalin, prominent in his bookcase. Through Roman we interviewed him. I had prepared questions, and Roman translated them in Russian. He was still a committed communist. He is an outspoken atheist. He believes in science. When he was 13 he run away from home to join the war. We had to make sure that he wasn't taking all our time to talk about the war in the North. He had always had good connections with Kirkenes and the Norwegians. He deplored that the Kola Superdeep Borehole was now a ruin, and the project half forgotten. We had to accept his gift of a book with his original photographs and poetry, part of his personal archive. He put on his coat with all his medals. He is a true 'original'.
Meeting hism was sure a high point. Though I have no idea what he exactly told in answer to my questions. We'll have to transcribe the interview and translate it. Actually, it was not true that nobody came to visit him in over ten years, as he said. In Murmansk we met Bjarge, a scientist from the Barents Secretariat. He told us he had interviewed Yuri Smirnov two years ago, and especially asked him about all the superstitious and supernatural stories around the Superdeep Borehole. There is a popular story that when drilling they heard sound that they could not account for. Of course, according to some, these were the sounds of hell (some sources state this story was connected to another drilling in Kola). People were afraid they were drilling towards hell. (And there are Urban legends connected to it, though they seem to be mixed up). All superstition according to Smirnov - who does have a painting of it hanging above his couch, commissioned from a painter by himself...
We had brought a bottle of cognac for him, but indeed, he did not drink. It meant we had to drink (we chose one of the other bottles once presented to him, a Russian cognac). Had also prepared salmon and bread. We could not stay very long, as we had to get to Murmansk still, but we had to stay and eat the food, and drink the cognac. It was an impressive meeting. I hope the interview is good.
At the end of the afternoon we made our way to Murmansk - this time again with our driver Anatolya who'd taken us from Kirkenes to Nikel. We still had one other appointment on the way. We had arranged a visit at the small Yuri Gagarin museum in Korzunovo at the military base where he got his training. Of course that was nice, and small. Normally you'd look around there from 15 minutes and seen everything. But we were showed everything by the lady who normally led school classes through it. She spoke Russian, so either Hilde or Roman had to translate what she said... In the end Annette and I often nodded to indicate that we had understood her Russian too. (I have read a good biography on Gagarin a few years ago (I think it was Doran & Bizonzy's Starman, so I know the story).
Then a 2 or 3 hours drive to get to Murmansk. It was still nice weather, though not as warm any more. Except for a few military bases there is almost nothing in between Zapolyarny and Murmansk. No lone houses. No roads (except for a stray military road close to a military base). The landscape just goes on and goes on.
Murmansk is a big city. Industrial, but also with a certain Parisian flair - thanks to the large avenues - or that was my impression because of the contrast with Nikel. In June, all the trees, and the green in between the flats. It is incredible that there is such a big city so far north. Once half a million people lived here. The population severely declined after 1991, but Murmansk is growing again, and since almost a year there are not empty flats any more. The population is back at 330.000. This means it is more than an industrial city, more than a military harbour, where they store nuclear waste. It is a city with all the associated beauty and ugliness.
In Murmansk we were staying in a large old hotel from communist times next to the Norwegian and Swedish consulate. It seemed we were almost the only guests. (I imagine they try to get all the tourist and business to stay in the Park Inn, which is probably about five times as expensive.) Not having lived under Soviet rule, it had a certain charm to us, which was not shared by the Russians we met. It had what we called a 'landscape room', a lobby at the lift with a large photowall, where we were meeting people in the next days. The hotel definitely did not have internet. The other guests were Bjarge and his Russian assistant, who were here to interview people in Murmansk about twin cities. We met them every day at breakfast.
We had a late dinner at Krushka a chain of western style restaurants. It had free wifi, so we could finally catch up with the mail.
Wednesday June 12th
The next morning we met wit Pavel Borisov, a long thin guy who had studied philosophy (working on a PhD on hermeneutics) and was now employed as a technical assistant at the arts school. Hilde and Annette had been joking before that we might like each other, and they were right. (In the notes I saw that Annette had characterised him as 'a younger clone of Arie'). About ten seconds after meeting we were walking already in front of the others, enthusiastically discussing film, literature and philosophy. He started questioning me about Frans Zwartjes and the movie that Rem Koolhaas worked on in the early seventies (he nor me remembered the title - it was Witte Slavin). And it went from there. We simply took a walk towards the harbour, and as we were walking faster than Hilde and Annette, and were caught up in our discussion, we often were 100 metres in front of them. Today the internet brings me everything I need, he said. The culture that we shared was that of ubuweb and the books that Dusan Barock ups at Monoskop. He had read some of the OOO-things, as a preparation of our meeting. We will try to get him involved. I hadn't talked so much in a long time. So the joke of the day was about what we had in common (being thin, reading a lot, walking too fast). We liked the same writers (Cortazar!). He gave me a list of Russian writers to read, I gave him a list of Dutch writers to check out. (With of course some of my favourites). (His list included Sasja Sokolov, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Venedikt Yerofeyev. There are Dutch translations of Sokolov, Yerofeyev, and in 2007 Arnoud van Adrichem has translated Dragomoshchenko for the DWB. Not that this is very relevant to our project.
(By the way, the translation 'School voor Gekken' by Sokolov is from 1978. I picked it up second-hand for a few euro's. I'm always surprised to find out which books have been translated, have never been reissued, and though they were published by well-known publishers, are not available anymore and have even disappeared from public libraries. Another secret treasure which can be easily found by browsing online second hand bookstores).
In Murmansk we met with two young cultural entrepeneurs, Oleg (journalist) and Pavel (graphical designer). Oleg had opened a studio with a few others, Moloko ('milk'), and an associated non-commercial project Kuchnia. Kuchnia is financed by their commercial work. With Kuchnia they try to provide an active alternative and complement to the mainstream communication channels of Murmansk. They address a lack, and give voice to what happens in Murmansk, to the local scene. Also here people often know better what happens outside the city, e.g. in Moscow, than in their own city. Pavel and Oleg described Murmansk as a passive and entropic city. Murmansk has a reputation for being rather passive but having a culturally open-minded and higly educated audience. They try to create an open and free space for alternative culture.
Kuchnia understands itself as a subjectively curated platform, and does not claim to be representative for all of Murmansk. What they feature is what they like and they're interested in. This has resulted in features of bands from Murmansk (including videos that Moloko produced); Kuchnia offline, a discussion platform taking place in Ledokol Club in the Park Inn Hotel which provides an opportunity for discussion of civil society issues; and video interviews with interesting people. Kuchnia is careful not to be instrumentalised by other powers and actors in the field and want to retain their independent status. This means they were quite open, and it was clear they wanted to pursue their own path. When we would collaborate, it would be that they would invite us as part of their series of lectures and discussions. They prefer to keep their own curatorial independence.
They told us that for a long period, youth initiatives were based on state support, Now it's more counter-cultural. The younger generation in Murmansk has an increased awareness of possibilities of self-organisation for independent perspectives. (Though one gallery we were referred to was rather a new-age affair, they saud, and another one was closed, a third one had a good space, but was not interesting for the rest). The activities in Murmansk are often centred around certain people or special interest groups who have decided to start their own initiatives. A famous example is Mr. Pink, a semi-established organisation that works with teenagers and runs quite a few projects, sometimes in co-operation with public authorities. Countercultural does not necessarily imply an opposition to the state. Partly the initiatives receive some form of official funding. Moloko for example is a commercial structure, that received support through an innovation subsidy of the Murmansk economic department.
They did understand English, so I could explain our ideas, but speaking English was more difficult for them, so a lot of the conversation was in Russian, with either Roman or Hilde as an intermediary. We actually met them twice, first on Wednesday at our hotel, then on Thursday we came over to their studio which they are able to rent a space for a low rate from the city, in return for developing and rebuilding it. Pretty much the same 'model' that is used in many Western cities. Probably the Russians have also read Richard Florida.
Both seemed to have good contacts with the local administration. We asked them specifically about the new Putin rules for NGO's in Russia (those who collaborate with non-Russians have to register as 'foreign agent'), but they were quite relaxed about it. (Nevertheless, the Putin-foreign-agent rule is of course a big threat to collaboration. Russia is full of contradictions). They seemed to be able to pursue their own critical course. Generally the feeling I got this time is that the official line might be getting harsher, but the Russians themselves are quite relaxed about collaboration - maybe because they partly operate below the radar. It might be different for universities. On the other hand, it is impossible and fobidden to protest in public space. Only if you're on your own - a one-person-protest - the police will not arrest you.
The role of academies in the new culture of Murmansk seems to be small. Universities are very traditional, though Kuchnia has some contacts within the Faculty for Journalism. More interesting is that one of the leading journalists for pop culture and new music, whose name I now forget (and there are two names in my notes), is from Murmansk and has recently decided to move back. It would be very interesting for us to connect to him.
Pavel is also the initiator of mymurmansk.com, a project that is now supported via the economic incubator in Murmansk, and has achieved to find partners in the city administration. The main goal of the project is to create a tool to simplify the process for formulating collective public demands, and to explore how such a tool works in practice within the civil society of Murmansk.
The infrastructure of venues for presentation of culture events in Murmansk is rather weak. We visited the Murmansk Art Museum a very old fashioned and conservative institute, although Pikene Pa Broen has managed to collaborate with them in the past by bringing in her own funding.
For us Murmansk is important as it still belongs to the 'border area', and has a larger potential for audience. Not much seems to happen here, although the situation has improved over the past 5 years. (Though one should think Murmansk has the potential for 'alternative culture'.
One person we should have met, but in the end did not reply to our e-mails was Mombus, Sergey Bakanev. Hilde has worked with him in the past. He is an electronic musician and has also worked with experimental film, but now is predominantly researching the population patterns of Red king crabs and Northern shrimps at the Polar Research Institute PINRO. The King Crabs - not native to this area - have spread in the Arctic waters. A whole industry has grown around it (the crabs are eaten and exported). Actually, they are a threat to the ecosystem as well.
On Wednesday we had lots of talks in cafe's and while walking through Murmansk, or sitting on a bus. We went to different parts of town. We went to a neighbourhood in the south, we also visited a market (where it was very clear we were the only foreigners), we went to a neighbourhood in the north. What interested me most was just wandering through Murmansk, talking with Pavel, Walking aimlessly between the flats, through the green areas, looking and talking. Talking with Pavel also meant I could sharpen my ideas a bit (though, yes, in the end we also did discuss cycling and my love for it).
Wednesday night we went to the 'Club Ledokol', at this moment pretty much the only place where something happens. Also the Milk Factory, Moloko, uses it when they organise a debate or lecture, and it is where Franz Pomassl performed, together with Mombus and elecronic music from a.o. Karelia. On Wednesday night they have live music. The atmosphere was fine, though it was inside the Park Inn, and the live music was, alas very general (though well-played) free rock. It would be a possible venue, and it had a nice, mixed audience. The trumpet player - who seems to be one of the most interesting musicians in Murmansk - was there too.
Thursday June 13th
On Thursday we made the classic Murmansk walk to Alyosha', the big statue for the anonymous soldier. The Second World War is important in this region. You have a great view over Kola Bay from there. Again the time was filled with talk. In the afternoon we went to see the studio of Moloko, and had a longer talk with Oleg. In the evening we had an early dinner, as Hilde and Annette were travelling on to Petrozavodosk by train that evening. It meant I had an extra evening - it was a nice evening (the wednesday had been cold, 6 degrees...), and Pavel made another walk through town, discussing literature, film, philosophy, sports and life in general.
Friday June 14th
I had to get up extremely early, to get the bus at 7 o'clock at the Park Inn, about 20 minutes walk from our hotel. I was a bit stressed about it, as I had a plane to catch in Kirkenes at 11:30. Now the time difference is 2 hours, so 11:30 was 13:30 Russian time, but still, that gave me about 5.5 hours for the whole travel, including crossing the border. Roman was with me on the same bus. Our bus was a Mercedes with a big crack in the window and a driver who wasn't wearing his belt in Russia, driving on the left side of the road when the surface was better there, and traffic permitting - as everyone seems to do. All of the others travelling on this bus were Russians, going shopping in Kirkenes. (There were more taxi busses leaving at the same time at the same place, and it looked like the tourists were on the other ones. I actually swapped to another one just after Kirkenes, as I was the only one needing a drop off at the airport, and the drivers collaborated together to make sure they did not have to do double work).
I enjoyed the bus ride back. I was tired, but I was able to take the landscape in and look better that the first time. I did see more traces of life, though most will have been military, there were also a few signs of cross country skiing tracks - or maybe I imagined that. Halfway we had a coffee stop at Titkova, and well, there was a cyclist, fully packed. I approached him and he told me that he was Polish, and had travelled through the Baltic states, then Finland, to the North Cape, had camped there two days in the snow, then through Norway on his way to Murmansk. He planned to go straight through Russia, as far south as Sotsji and then through Turkey, Bulgaria, Rumania, Slovakia, back to Poland. I wished him luck, hoping he would be unharmed on the road to Murmansk. Though the traffic is sparse, it is an extremely dangerous road for cyclists. But there is no other road. (Actually a week later a promoter of cycling in the Barents region was hit by a car and died on that road. He was guiding a group of youth on their yearly cycling trip through the Barents region). Of course I arrived in time in Kirkenes. Had still an hour to wait for the plane. Then another two hours at Oslo Gardemoen. Time to write notes. Tired from all the meetings. Back in Amsterdam in the evening. Back to work.
Arie Altena, June 2013
This report includes observations based on notes by Annette Wolfsberger.
Photos © Annette Wolfsberger. Thanks to Hilde Mehti, Annette Wolfsberger, Roman Khoroshilov, and all the people who we met and who helped out.