History of the Region
Despite the relatively recent establishment of the Barents cooperation, the region has a long history of regional interdependence and relations. This page gives a brief overview of the key periods and events that have shaped the development in the Barents region. Key events in the history.
The first human settlement in the region is estimated to have occurred 36 000 years ago in today’s Komi Republic of Russia, while the oldest traces of settlements in Scandinavia date back 8000 years ago in Finnmark county. Accounts of travels to the northern regions are also found among the Viking sagas, depicting relations of trade and tax collection.
Borders and Nation-States
Until the 13th century, the large parts of the Barents region was not subjected to state structures and its population was limited to indigenous people and small groups of hunters and fishermen. The initial establishment of the nation-state in the northern region came with the first border delimitations, when Norway and Novgorod entered a border agreement, and later the eastern Finnish border was established in a treaty between Sweden and the Novgorod Republic in 1323. Nonetheless, large areas of Finnmark and the Kola Peninsula remain a common land in practice, resulting in claims of the right to levy taxes in the region from both Russia, Sweden and Norway. In the 15th century, Russia expanded its Arctic territory as Tsar Ivan III conquered the Novgorod Republic, providing Russia with a coastline to the Barents Sea. Sweden also attempted to gain influence over the areas surrounding the White Sea, but the conquest attempts were unsuccessful and ended with the Treaty of Teusina in 1595.
Growing Interregional Trade
The interregional trade saw an increase during the Medieval Ages and remained largely unregulated until the 18th century. In many places, indigenous people played an important intermediary role in the early transboundary trade relations, as public market only first appeared in the 1500s.
Many attempts were made to map the Northeastern Passage and in the 16th century the Dutch pioneer, Willem Barentz, had the Barents Sea named after him and his search for a route to Asia. The passage was, however, not successfully crossed until nearly two centuries later, by the Finnish-Swedish explorer Finn N.A.E Nordenskjöld. While the idea of using the Northeastern Passage as a viable trade route to Asia has yet to be realised, the Barents region gained importance as a maritime centre of the north during this time.
In 1553, the British explorer established trade between Moscow and Britain via the northern river Dvina, which also led to the foundation of Arkhangelsk in 1584. The so-called Pomor trade that followed, between northern Norway and the Arkhangelsk region, had an important impact on the economic and cultural development in the region. From the beginning of the 18th century until the mid-19th century, shipping of goods between Russia and Norway grew from 5 to 400 ships and a new language emerged, “Russenorsk”, which was a mix of Russian and Norwegian. The region remained stable and prospered until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The First World War
The relationship of the Barents countries changed significantly as a result of WWI. The economic consequences for Norway were severe as the country had to balance the relations with its largest importers, Britain and German, at the same time as trade was hindered by blocades and submarine attacks.
Northeastern Russia underwent significant infrastructural development, as the only connection point to the Allied Powers, resulting in the foundation of Murmansk in 1916. Nonetheless, the establishment of the Soviet Republic ended the relations with the Allied Powers and the West.
The Kola Peninsula, with its natural resources, became central to the reconstruction of the Soviet economy, leading to modernisation and population growth in the northeastern regions. The large structural changes entailed the collectivisation of fish and reindeer industries and the industrial expansion led to increased militarisation to protect the industries in the area.
In Norway, Finnmark was struggling economically as a result of the earlier depreciation of the ruble and the end of Pomor trade. After strong advocacy from the northern population, Norway signed a trade agreement with Soviet Union and thus became the first country to recognise its statehood. The government also initiated several infrastructure projects and subsidised national industries.
In 1920, Finland declared its independence from Russia and also gained control of the territory of Pechanga, later renamed Petsamo, and thus linked Finland to the White Sea.
The Second World War
During WWII, the Soviet Union was a member of the Allied Forces, supported by Norway, while Sweden held a neutral position and Finland eventually allied with Germany following the Winter War (1939-1940) between Finland and the Soviet Union. In April 1940, Nazi troops invaded Norway and by the 10th June the latter had capitulated.
Control of the northern regions, and notably Murmansk Oblast, was important to Germany for several reasons. Not only did the region host significant industries that could supply Germany with military goods, but Murmansk was also the only ice-free harbour that linked Soviet to its allies. Nonetheless, Murmansk remained the only city near the Norwegian border that was not occupied by Germany.
The occupation in Norway implied a high presence of German military as well as scarcity of goods and food and the confiscation of transport vessels and both public and private building. However, the bombings of Finnmark had the most severe impact on the civil society and Kirkenes was one of the most bombed cities in Europe throughout the war.
The Red Army initiated a number of military operations to liberate the occupied areas in Soviet and allied territories. Partisan groups, including Russians, Finns and Norwegians, were established in the Barents region, but by 1943 most of the partisans in Finnmark were uncovered.
While allied with Germany, Finland sought to avoid conflicts with the Allied Forces and in 1944 Finland was forced to sign a ceasefire treaty with Soviet, also demanding that the Finns drove the German forces out of Finland in what would be known as the Lapland War. Despite the low number of casualties, the material losses were enormous as the Germans burnt down all Finnish villages on their retreat from Finnmark.
In October 1944, eastern Finnmark was liberated by Soviet Troops in the Petsamo-Kirkenes Offensive and Germany lost a key strategic point in the north as its troops were forced to retreat. The war officially ended in May 1945 and the Soviet troops left Norwegian territory in September the same year.
The Cold War
Through the ceasefire treaty in 1944, Soviet regained control of the previously Finnish Petsamo region and the Soviet-Norwegian border was closed. Allowance to cross the border was rare and nearly half a century passed with minimal contact between the two countries. Finland signed the YYA Treaty with Soviet in 1948, which prevented it from allying with the western military forces and notably NATO.
The Barents region became important in the arms race between Soviet and the USA and the Kola Peninsula hosted important naval bases and submarines and the Arctic Sea also provided the shortest distance for nuclear missiles to be launched over the Atlantic.
A New Era
Since the end of the Cold War, the interregional cooperation in the Barents region have improved drastically. This meant an increasing number of border crossings and a visa-free zone has been established for the inhabitants along the Norwegian-Russian border.
Several international institutions have been created to facilitate collaboration in the Arctic, such as the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Councils in the early 1990s. This has enabled cooperation in areas such as search and rescue and environmental protection. While the Barents region still hosts important military resources, the scope of military activities has changed and joint military exercises are held on a regular basis.