On the fence

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The town museum in Kirkenes didn’t do at all badly, considering the various different forces dragging on its objectivity. To try and understand it, you have to first try and forget the black and white canvas of the island-dweller, and think in terms of border country. It’s like when I read a biography of Conrad years ago, and it described him as being born into a landlocked country, and I thought hang on, he was Polish, wasn’t he? You look at a map and there is a vast swathe of coast cuddled up to the Baltic. But then you remember that back then, scarcely a hundred or so years ago, Europe looked pretty different. One forgets these things.

So anyway, with regards to Kirkenes, its region is a thin sliver of Norway that slips down between Finland and Russia, at the end of which all three countries meet. The Russians have fought both the Finns and the Swedes, and though the Norwegians themselves were not actually at war, they have sheltered successive generations of refugees.

In the Second World War, Norway was occupied by the Germans, and around Kirkenes prison camps were set up for Russian prisoners of war and civil dissidents, including a large number of teachers who refused to teach the requisite propaganda. The people of the town did not, by all accounts, suffer under the Germans, though they were aware of the conditions in the camps. Where it becomes complicated is that the town was then smashed to pieces by one of the most devastating bombing campaigns of the whole war, with over 1000 air raid alerts and almost nothing left standing.

But it was the Russians who bombed them. The Germans didn’t have time to burn Kirkenes, as they did with the rest of Finnmark, and they didn’t need to. The liberators, to whom there is a fine monument, were responsible for the almost total annihilation of the town, and the deaths of many of its inhabitants. Not only this, but there were many partisans in the region working for the Russians. I wonder how the people must have felt about the vile paradox that each piece of their life destroyed brought them closer to freedom. Especially as freedom is almost always a flexible term anyway.

Move forward a few decades, rebuilding the town along the way, and the waters muddy further, when the iron ore mine which was the town’s lifeblood closed down in the 1990s (it is, incidentally, about to reopen), and the indomitable people of Kirkenes found new ways to sustain themselves. One was ship repairs for the weathered Russian hulks that sit in the harbour, which brought with it a wave of immigrants from Murmansk; the other was tourism. Since I stepped off the boat in Finnmark, every single tourist I have met has been German. So you see, there is a fine line to be walked here in this museum.

It was only small, with its English guide on large print, laminated sheets, written in a strange sort of epic verse. All round the walls were propaganda posters from both sides. I find these things rather a guilty pleasure, just like the cartoon-heroic Soviet art that desperately tried to crush the life out of modern art back in the 50s. Their vicious portrayals of good and evil; the straight, clean-cut profiles of square-shouldered soldiers towering over the viewer, their neat flops of hair and gleaming bayonets; the wicked curves, hump-backs and stubbly jaws of encroaching goblins, their helmets emblazoned with swastikas or hammer and sickles. A friend once told me that those kinds of curves, like at the ends of Bowie knives, are, in modern product propaganda, supposed to elicit feelings of fear and negativity. This interested me enough to ask for a repeat explanation, which I’ve pasted in at the bottom of this post*.

One of my favourite posters was a picture of two attractive housewives in headscarves gossiping, while a wicked-looking little man with enormous ears leaned out of the clouds, with ‘LONDON’ emblazoned around the edge of his ear trumpet.

The centerpiece was a magnificent Russian bomber of the sort known by German soldiers of the time as ‘The Black Death’, shot down over Sor Varanger, dragged from a mountain lake some years later, and restored by the Russian government at no cost. Next to it was an account of its history, and the story of its pilot, portrayed in a glowing light. On the run where it was shot down, they were taking out a bridge, and the pilot’s account tells of how thankful he was that they were not bombing the town. Perhaps this is true. I suspect few airmen ever wanted to bomb civilians, but the fact remains that as commander of a group of bombers, this man, now celebrated in the town museum, must have killed citizens of Kirkenes and blown up its buildings.

A different story, strangely sad, despite its lack of drama, was in one corner, where there was a collection of stories by a lady who’d been a little girl during the occupation. One afternoon, she’d been out collecting shells on the rocks in the harbour, and hadn’t noticed the tide coming in. She got stuck on the rock, and couldn’t swim. The rock got smaller and smaller, and just as the water was wetting her feet, someone heard her shouts. It was a passing German unit. Two of them put down their rifles, waded out, and carried her back to safety. She felt humiliated to have been saved by the enemy, and her sister teased her mercilessly about it. An old man who lived nearby passed no judgement, but shook his head slowly and bought her a new pair of summer shoes to replace the ones she’d left on the beach.

Coming from the generation that I do, it would be misguided to express ill-informed opinions on any of this, but it made me think. It’s interesting to see the past written not by the winners or losers, but by the people in between. Wherever you learn your history, facts are only the sketch that the painting starts from.

*[It is called a cusp. The basic theory is that the physical and metaphorical composition of an image can be loaded with “sensory triggers” a bit like this:
cusps – lean, mean, dangerous, potent (like dragon’s claws, hooked witches’ noses, scythes)
rounded objects – touchable, sexy, cuddleable, generally enticing desire of some sort (like Apple products, peaches, babies)
paths or bridges in an image draw the eye and engage the viewer in a sense of purpose.
low camera angle looking up at product – hero product
straight on camera angle – the product is your friend
looking down from above – this product is a cute, genius little thing you need in your life.
And so on and so forth.]

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