Arctic Ocean

Arctic Ocean

Reviews Cross-over contacts in the subarctic peripheries. Teamwork, description and synthesis

The Barents Region: A Transnational History of Subarctic Northern Europe, Chief editor Lars Elenius. PaxForlag, Oslo, 2015, 518 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 4 2016, p 95-96
Published on on February 3, 2017

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In 1987, the Swedish geographer Torsten Hägerstrand1 wrote, “The all-inclusive study of enclosed areas (regions) has long been at a low-water mark. Geographers and others compile adequate descriptions of regions for educational purposes, for physical planning or for commercial purposes. But this is, in large measure, done by means of an old, well-known layer-by-layer method” [Swedish plättläggningsmönster], meaning that different aspects of the region are included without disentangling inherent relations and modal changes.

Since that was written, the discourse on the concept of region has been revived, as evidenced by Vasileios Petrogiannis and Linn Rabe2 in the 2016 in-house edition of Baltic Worlds. But regardless of how the concept is defined, explaining a region means engaging with a number of challenges.

Writing history focused on an area which is part of a territorial state involves a range of problems.  Much of traditional history is an account of rulers and their territory, the state.  Focusing on one part of the state not defined by administrative areas entails the tedious work of assembling local information and synthesizing it into a story of the area in question. If, however, the area chosen consists of peripheral parts of four territorial states, the challenge seems almost insurmountable. But this was exactly the idea behind the project aiming at producing an encyclopedia and a history of the Barents Region.


The region is named after the Dutch navigator Willem Barents (c. 1550—1597), indicating an area devoid of a common name before its discovery. But while there was no common designation, the area’s history goes back much further. Obviously the knowledge of its early history is both scanty and piecemeal.

The Barents Region is a collaborative project between historians from the four countries covered by the Barents Region, states with widely differing histories, cultures, and political regimes. Writing about part of a territorial state is more difficult than describing the state as a whole: statistical information and sources are often badly adapted to the region chosen; many relations are trans-regional, not least in the semicolonial structures that dominate northernmost Europe. Coordinating four regional stories into one increases the complexity; the challenge is to avoid the “layer-by-layer method” when merging the individual discourses into one, instead detecting the crossborder relations that are too often made invisible by the framing into intra-state (“national”) distributions. Many phenomena of the Barents Region — stretching from western Norway via the Bothnian provinces of Sweden and Finland, the Kola Peninsula and the White Sea to the Komi Republic in the Russian Federation — are of a trans-border character. This is true not only as regards nature and climate and their repercussions on human cultivation, but also for cultures, religion, and geopolitical conditions. The different Sámi cultures do not follow contemporary political boundaries, but they have been subjected to the different, varying and often discriminatory policies of four different states. Religion was often seen as battle between paganism and true faith, or between Catholicism/Protestantism and Orthodoxy, but within the two hegemonic faiths in the area there are particular variations, Laestadianism and Old Order Orthodoxy.

The geopolitical development contains details that may surprise a southern reader. In the Stalin-style mining town of Nikel’ that takes its name from environmentally disruptive mineral extraction, there are some narrow slabs of housing typical of 1930s Finnish modernism, a reminder of the short time Finland was given access to the Barents Sea through the Petsamo corridor. In Norwegian Kirkenes, there is a statue of a Soviet solder, one of the liberators of Northern Norway from the Nazi German occupation. During the Cold War, with a direct boundary between NATO and the Soviet Union, the two border states cooperated to build a hydropower plant in the river, and Norway leases a small part of its territory to its neighbor in order to give access to the Orthodox monastery of Boris Gleb which, in an 1826 treaty between the Union of Norway and Sweden and Tsarist Russia, caused the border to make a sharp bend in the territorial division between the two states.


The history of the Barents region contains several moments of conflict, war, periods of oppression, and deliberate hiding of facts. The collective of historians, organized by professor Lars Elenius of Umeå University, has been successful in highlighting the darker sides of the region’s history, including the most difficult part, the Soviet denial of Gulag camps and ethnic cleansing.  The Nordic countries’ sometimes assimilatory, sometimes segregative policies towards their minorities are also openly discussed, but without any anachronistic condemnations.

The book is illustrated with photos and pictures, often little known, and by fact boxes covering particular people, events, and phenomena, e.g. the Swedish-Norwegian suffragette Elsa Laula (1877—1931), the ill-fated Finlandic president of Soviet Karelia, EdvardGylling (1881—1938: missing in the index!), and the organization of the Orthodox Church in 17th century Russian Karelia.

Every chapter has a reference section, but no references are given in the texts. This makes the book easy to read, but it may be difficult to find the sources of specific details. The index of places, names, and concepts is very valuable. The problem of translating local concepts has generally been well solved, but unfortunately the translator has chosen to use the US American concept of “nation” to mean an independent state, instead of the European and original meaning of nation as a people forming or demanding a territorial state, blurring e.g. the meaning of “national minority”.

These are minor issues in an impressive piece of work, to be used by students and scholars in, and hopefully beyond, the area, particularly within all the states that colonized the northernmost areas of the European continent. I think TorstenHägerstrand would have been satisfied with this study of a challenging region. ≈



1 Torsten Hägerstrand, “Den regionalgeografiska problematiken”, Ymer: Regionalgeografi (1987), 8—11.

2 Vasileios Petrogiannis, and Linn Rabe: “What is it that holds a region together?” Baltic Worlds, In-house edition (2016), 4—9.

The Barents Region: A Transnational History of Subarctic Northern Europe, Chief editor Lars Elenius. PaxForlag, Oslo, 2015, 518 pages.