Saami Doing Much Better in Norway Than Across the Border in Russia

By Paul Goble
Members of the Saami nationality living in northern Norway are doing far better than their co-ethnics living on the other side of the Russian Federation border near Murmansk. Indeed, the differences between the standard of living of the two groups represents one of the most striking indictments of the achievement of Norway in helping this numerically small people of the North to successfully modernize and the almost utter failure of the Russian Federation to do the same.
The natural environment on the two sides of the border is remarkably similar, Ilya Klishin of Moscow’s independent Dozhd television says, and that makes the differences between the way the Saami live in Norway and the way they do in Russia even more striking. And because the Saami are a single nation, the elimination of that cultural factor as a source of differences make the system differences between Norway and Russia all that much more obvious (, September 29).
On the Russian side of the border, Klishin says, Murmansk, a city of 300,000, produces “an oppressive impression.” Docks are empty, buildings are in decay, soldiers are marching about and formerly important “industrial leviathans” are quiet, surrounded by “depressed” Khrushchev-era slums. The oblast has 700,000 people in all, and “almost all of them live in cities where the predominant color is the gray of concrete blocks” (, September 29).
In Norway’s Finmark, just over the border, there are just 70,000 people, but they live in brightly colored houses, have cafes, boats, bars, malls and hotels even in the smallest cities with populations of less than a thousand. Foreigners who come there to fish often “remain to live,” something that simply does not happen in Murmansk. The Russian city is not expecting any visitors and it does not receive any: air tickets are absurdly expensive, and the hotels are bad and usually empty.
Sometimes Norwegians from further away come in to drink—alcohol is cheaper—but the Saami and Norwegians living near the border do not. The only reason they go to Russia is for gasoline, but they do not stay any longer than they have to, Klishin continues. On the Norwegian side of the border, the Saami are thriving; on the Russian side, they, like the Pomors before them, are dying out and may disappear. The Pomors, a subgroup of Russians, numbered 260,000 in 1926; now they amount to only 20,000 or even fewer.
All this, the Dozhd journalist says, prompts the question: “Why can we not, even on our own land, settle ourselves in a normal way?” Is it because of the Soviet experiment? Or is it something in ourselves? As the collapse of the Soviet Union recedes into the past, the second hypothesis seems increasingly likely, he suggests.  And then he makes the most damning indictment of all: What one sees in Murmansk in comparison to Norway is not limited to that region but involves all of the Russian Federation (, September 29).

Clearly, at some point, “Vladimir Putin will leave”; but this problem, he says, tragically promises to remain.