From Layers of Rocks

Critical Text: A close-up on land, memory and time in Teriberka. 

Land Circumpolar Collaboration Possible Futures
A sepia-toned old photograph shows a person sitting on a wooden bench with a toddler and a baby in his arms. A reindeer’s head is visible in the left corner, and several reindeer sit on the ground behind the bench.

“Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock. It is… difficult to think of a single natural system that has not, for better or worse, been substantially modified by human culture. The cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature.” – Simon Schama 

Note: This project was organized prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. See Barents Secretariat’s statement on the invasion and cross-border cooperation here.

A strong and quiet woman, dressed in a red apron draped over her regular attire complete with short, bright, white wellingtons boots, sits on a chair in the middle of a mixed group of 20 or so people gathered upstairs in a meeting room at the Culture Palace in Teriberka, a small coastal town in northwestern Russia. The night before, a small Komafest crew traveled for ten hours, crossing the Norwegian-Russian border in the dead of winter, during the dark Arctic days and arriving in a snowstorm. 

Driving nearer to the village, scattered lights peep out between the snowflakes. The snow clears, revealing a blanketed landscape. Quiet, still, calm. The only sound is of spiked winter tires biting into the freshly fallen snow. The car lights illuminate a battered blue road sign announcing Teriberka, we have arrived. Turning right, the tires rumble over the low bridge. Hard packed ice crumbles and crunches under the heavy 4×4 vehicle. The bridge is a conductor between the old settlement and world beyond. The nocturnal winterscape invites us to pass through. To breathe deeply, observe and orientate ourselves before retiring, exhausted after the grueling drive through a blizzard.

A sepia-toned old photograph shows a person sitting on a wooden bench with a toddler and a baby in his arms. A reindeer’s head is visible in the left corner, and several reindeer sit on the ground behind the bench.
Natalia with reindeer. COURTESY KOMAFEST.

Our delegation represents the Varanger Museum in Vardø and Komafest, and we are here to represent, present and propose an art project, “New Chapter.” We hope to work alongside and engage with the community in Teriberka. Vardø is a small fishing village in north Norway. Our home has historically been linked with Teriberka for hundreds of years through the Pomor trade, which moved from Russia’s White Sea, along coastal Norway and ino markets in the Iberian peninsula and Italy. Vardø, like many places along the northern coast, suffered economic decline resulting from a crash in the fishing industry and the subsequent depopulation resulted in abandonment of homes and redundant infrastructure. A painful reminder of a former golden era, dislocated family and absent friends, folded businesses and broken dreams. A harsh physical and visible scar in the streetscape for those that remained. Images of a crumbling harbourfront, decrepit buildings, vacant shop fronts flipp past on the large screen in front of our group. The heartbreak and pain of these images are talked about. The pain associated with such images, the dramatic changes in and impact on the character of Vardø in a short space of time still have ripple effects— traumas that continue to live on for those who still call it home. 

For us visitors, the  art project in 2012, Komafest, threw a spotlight on these same issues and helped to create a positive turn around, switch focus, reveal, unlock, inspire and create a sense of pride and identity—small fragile sparks and hopes of a rebirth. The presentation in Teriberka, to the gathered multigenerational audience in the bubblegum-pink painted room, was delivered with open hearts. The idea was to build a mobile library, crafted from recycled materials from abandoned buildings in the village, that would be used to transform an old military wagon. 

From experience, participatory inclusive process with the community is key to our methodology, and encouraging engagement with as many locals as possible is critical for us to gain a positive outcome. The process of engagement is as important as any physical project that may be the outcome. We hoped, where possible, that local craftspeople would work alongside a Norwegian team. Some mutterings ensue as image after image  are put up on the large screen. The project suggestion is met with intense discussion, internally and externally—perception, apprehension, caution, suspicion, optimism and ultimately a curious interest. The gathered are intrigued and understand that we cannot promise anything at this early stage, but wish to come and meet as many participants as possible at the very beginning of the process. This first interaction takes hours. 

The following day, we return to the Culture Palace to arrange meetings with some of the local actors in the cultural life of the community. This includes the local librarian, Nina, and her neighbour and friend Natalia. I recognize those rubber boots from the previous evening. We exchange gentle, warm smiles  and make arrangements to meet later to talk about Teriberka and its history. The mood is very different from the previous day. Many different people come in and out of the Culture Palace as a hub, making it busy with activity and movement. More informal introductions happen, we take tea with the leader of the Culture Palace, Olga, and her cohort of colleagues, a cheery band of trusted advisors. Hot water boils. We consume sweet teas, caramel coloured coffee, Long Life Milk, individual indulgent chocolates wrapped like gifts and sweet pastries transported by us from Murmansk. Meanwhile, word gets around the village that “the Norwegians” are in town and are interested in learning about Teriberka and the community that calls it home. In truth, few people come at this time: Weather is unpredictable, and the road to Murmansk is often closed for days at a time. The population in Teriberka today is a small fraction of what it once was, a brutal and devastating 90% reduction. Hundreds of families have voluntarily moved or were moved to the neighbouring settlement of Kola, a larger settlement on the outskirts of Murmansk, a two-and-a-half hour drive along an unsealed gravel road. More were scheduled to move in the near future, including Natalia, and many of their homes were tagged with bright yellow signs— death notices for their demolition the coming year. 

A cobalt blue Renault, engine humming, sits on the white snow outside the Culture Palace in Teriberka. There is no new black asphalt to be seen now. It is hiding, covered by a blanket of snow. Tiny birds flit and chirp about in the small trees outside the adjacent apartment building. An eldery lady walking with a stick throws food for them, and a flurry of feathers and avian activity ensues as they eat the seeded delights hungrily. Sergei, Natalia’s husband, is one of the few who has a car, and is in high demand as a makeshift taxi service, ferrying the women who work in the Culture Palace to and from home. Three in the back and one in the front, they chatter at high speed about the day’s activities and plans for the evening. Petrol is in short supply and must be bought and brought in from Murmansk or Kola, two and a half hours away. The commute between old Teriberka and Lodeinoe—only a few kilometres but challenging during winter in the exposed tundra—is very necessary. The local administration had to make cutbacks and stopped the twice daily minibus service between Lodeinoe and Teriberka.

Like many in the community, Natalia and Sergei live in a building scheduled for demolition. She offers to walk us around one of her old apartments, another one of the buildings with the yellow death warrant emblazoned on its silvered wooden facade. A myriad of memories imbued and embedded in the wallpapered walls of the rooms unfold before us. She moves through the building filled with ghosts and memories of times past. On so many occasions she has been forced to move from a place she calls home in circumstances outside her control. Each move causes heartache and sadness. Memories of meals, laughter, children, friends, neighbours, fragrances, pain and the kaleidoscope of life and interactions that happen within four walls. She stands gazing out of the window, floral wallpaper hanging from the walls, a window swinging to the rhythm of the invisible wind infused with the smell of the ocean. She used to watch the fishing boats from here. A keen fisherwoman herself, she would often go to sea fishing for cod, pollok, haddock, halibut and capilene with her husband. Some she keeps for herself; others she shares with her friends and neighbours who do not have access to these resources in the way she does. An elderly Sámi woman in one apartment block, a good friend, is a chosen beneficiary on this occasion. Kindness begets kindness, reciprocity reigns.

A sepia-toned old photograph shows a man in a sweater and fur hat in a crowd of people. He holds a bear cub in each hand and lifts them out above his shoulders.
Natalia’s father. COURTESY KOMAFEST.

Natalia has brought along some old photographs to share. Despite being uprooted so many times in her life, these images have always followed her. Momento mori, constants in the shifting tides. The first image shows a bright red metallic snow scooter, her behind the handles, the bright sunshine reflecting off the snow. It is taken high up above the village, on a seasonal ice fishing expedition, a favourite pastime in spring. The catch could be eaten fresh, frozen, smoked or perhaps pickled. Another image captures Natalia driving a different scooter, with her husband Sergei smiling behind her. Both are cocooned by layers protecting them from the bracing wind that blows unhindered across the high plateau landscape. Exposed skin is burnt by the wind and sun, kissed by the strong glare from the Arctic sun in springtime. An older image depicts her father, strikingly handsome, complete with a high fur hat with outstretched arms. A bear cub in each hand held by the scruff of the neck. He is surrounded by smiling children who look on in amazement. He was a ranger and trapper and kept a detailed catalogue of the wildlife and nature he encountered, describing what he saw for decades. His daughter now has his notebooks and adds information and keeps hold of that tradition. Soon she will pass them on to her son, and Natalia hopes the cataloguing will continue. In another image, she is around two years of age, looking away from the camera, shy even then. In the background, multiple animal hides, evidence of her fathers skills as a hunter. 

The next photo takes me by surprise. She may be age four, and another child sits with a man, surrounded by reindeer. She explains that she was quite young when her parents passed, and she and her siblings were welcomed by the Sámi community that lived in the area. Here, the late 1950s and 1960s were periods of extended hardship. People had little, but they shared whatever little they had. When the Sámi slaughtered reindeer, they gave to those who were hungry, and when the fishers had plenty they shared with the rest of the community. Exchange, trade, good neighbours, kindness and caring. There was an instinctive sense of collective responsibility for everyone, and this was part of being and living in a small place. Her affinity and understanding, respect and curiosity for land and nature in the surrounding area was forged in the beginning from these two key formative relationships. A sense of place, a sense of timeless solidarity, community, connectivity with a landscape and understanding and respect for all things in nature and those that use it. The land that surrounds us is a palimpsest. The passion and compassion for the irreducible essence of the space, and her unapologetic connection to nature and land are at her core.

Before departing from Teriberka, she hands me a large jar full of tiny bronzed fish swimming in a briny glass sea, another stuffed with pale cod tongue, a jar containing deep purple blueberry jam, fruit she collected in the summer further up the river near her Dacha, her home for the summer, and another jar stuffed with vibrant saffron coloured cloudberry jam from a nearby mountain. A palate of colour, textures, aromas and flavours gathered in nature throughout the year. Next visit, a small jar of homemade cheese, some pastries stuffed with home-caught halibut and others stuffed with her pale homemade soft cheese, using milk from the local dairy herd. The farm, now privately owned, is one of two that were established as collective farms during the communist era. In exchange I give strong black tea, butter biscuits, pungent cheese, chocolate and some dried fish, reindeer heart and beef. This trading of cornucopias reflects our differences and similarities, and our desire to use food as a vehicle for storytelling, coming together and sharing.

A season has passed and we meet again. This time she has moved again, or rather been removed. We stand in her now-vacated home. A melancholic mood is palpable and I try to understand what memories she is reliving. She moves through the house visibly becoming drained by the emotion that the place holds for her. The building was dangerous and they had to move, they were told. It will be pulled down. She and another woman in the village approached the authorities and asked to buy the building they wanted to continue to live in. “No, impossible, it was too unsafe for habitation, it must go.” Yet subsequently the authorities rented some of the apartments to tourists. Natalia had, in a previous role, worked as a building inspector and understands the structural materiality of these buildings well. They could have been repaired. There is no need to terminate their life and raze them to the ground. 

Diggers and construction machinery appear periodically in areas around the village and tear down these silvered wooden relics. Alternatively they are set alight by accident—a convenient, effective, but brutal method of eradication. If the buildings remain and fall into further disrepair, they further compound the sadness. If repaired, they breathe again. If erased, the memories will fade as a new scheme is begun. Most of this work is scheduled to be undertaken as part of the beautification of the place, to encourage the much-anticipated tourist boom. The previous buildings and memories are buried forever under the foundations of the new tourist infrastructure and tarmacked roads. 

Standing at the door of a garage, a small composition of maybe five units. The door is unlocked, and the unit is like Aladdin’s cave, stuffed with memorabilia. She hands me an old iron, a gift for the museum in Vardø, and an old oil lamp for myself. She pulls out some old tools  and her arms swiftly cut through the air, taking form, completing invisible tasks to demonstrate function. Further back in the shed are plastic containers up-cycled as plant pots, garden tools, stakes, string, and then she throws open a door to the outside world. A verdant garden, tall foliage of potatoes in neat rows, opposite raspberry canes standing upright, laden with ripening fruit destined for the jam pot and freezer. At her dacha, five kilometres upstream from the village, she grows many additional crops during the summer. Most of her free time is spent there with Sergei.They relax, make repairs, fish, bathe, garden and hunt. That space in the tundra forest, she feels, is truly theirs. No one comes to disturb her and she can absorb the nature around her. The conversation turns to family and memory, and I explain that I live on a farm in rural Ireland that belonged to my family for five generations, yet have never lived there for longer than six months at a time. But it is somehow part of me, in my essence, my DNA. It soothes and comforts to be part of the place, where the drumlins in the landscape comfort and sustain. They are imbued with the memories and a sense of place, longing and belonging. She asks to see images, we discuss my landscape, history, nature and place. The conversation always flows easily, though it is painful at times, respectful and informative for both of us.

“Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is a work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”  – Simon Schama

A small plot in the village near the garage is our next destination. This narrow strip of land, she relays to us, sweeping down to the Teriberka river, she has been allowed to buy after many years of discussion with the administration. When they do come up formally for sale, most of the land parcels are snapped up by city investors from Moscow, St. Petersburg and occasionally neighbouring Murmansk. These prime filets ripe and aged for development are earmarked as construction sites for lucrative tourist infrastructure. Many locals have also tried to buy land in the old village and have failed. Her success likely owes something to her dogged determination and unwillingness to accept no as an answer. She knows owning this land, building her own house, is the best way to take control of her home and put down roots that are not so easy to shift and move on again to fulfill someone else’s agenda. She and Sergei will gather materials from some of the condemned buildings, including her previous homes in the village, and use these to build her future home. 

We meet outside her new apartment in Lodeinoe—a brightly coloured building built on the abandoned foundation of a previous development. The foundations were set in marshland and continue to shift and sink as they are absorbed by nature. The top floor has water ingress and only the middle sections are stable. The outlook for the front of the apartment is the school and playground, but her apartment faces to the back. The vast seascape from her previous home has been traded down to a view foreshortened by a sheer bank of rock. By contrast, it is oppressive, dominating and dark. She spends as much time as possible at her dacha, working in her garden or out on the sea, not wanting to be in her new home. At least the halls are filled with familiar faces and work colleagues from the Culture Palace and elsewhere in old Teriberka. The friends are all swaddled against the Arctic winter, laden down with plastic bags, chatting outside the building and in the local store. They have each other and this is what makes things much better. Having lost their homes and been uprooted from their original villages, they see familiar faces and swap stories, and share information about their daily comings and goings.

A sepia-toned old photograph shows a toddler wearing a floral shirt and wool hat, standing amongst various blankets and furs.

So much has been witnessed in one lifetime. Action, reaction, change adjustment, the metronome of this seemingly small quiet village in rural Russia. Natalia has experienced dynamic shifts: From the Stalinist era, to collectivization, the Sámi’s forced relocation to Lovozero, the booming era of Teriberkas fishing activity, militarization and then demilitarization with the subsequent opening of the region. She has seen the decline of the old village, the emergence of neighbouring Lodeinoe, residents’ relocation to different communities. She has also witnessed the selling of land to external stakeholders from faraway places, the invasion of tourism and the whitewashing of the old village, the building of new tourist infrastructure, the emergence of capitalism and the privatization of resources. Meanwhile, Natalia experiences the feeling of being overwhelmed, a stranger and surplus, or a novelty in her home place, to the massive influx of visitors to this small hamlet from elsewhere in Russia and abroad. It is so much change and adjustment in one lifetime, but she does this stoically. In her heart, she has a longing for the past, people and places that have been part of her life, a sense of belonging to a place which is once more in rapid flux. This sits alongside an ingrained sense of defiant optimism activated by building a new home, on ground that belongs to her. Using materials from her previous homes and other buildings in the village that have since been erased, she now feels a little more secure, with the knowledge that perhaps next time it will be more difficult to pry her from her home—should that time ever come again.

The Norwegian Barents Secretariat strongly condemns Russia’s unprecedented military aggression against Ukraine.

The Barents Cooperation was established as a peace project in 1993, after 45 years of cold war. The foundation of the Barents Cooperation has always been people-to-people contact. The goal of the Barents cooperation is to remove cultural barriers and to build bridges across borders. During almost 30 years, we have gone from closed borders to close ties between the people in the Barents Region. The cooperation between people from all areas of society like schools, municipalities, NGOs and cultural institutions, the so-called people-to people-perspective, is an important keystone. Through meetings between people in the region we build down barriers and increase our mutual understanding.

Unfortunately, people-to-people cross-border cooperation in the North has long been constrained due to the increasingly authoritarian regime in Russia. The situation for civil society is now extremely difficult, and the uncertainty arising from Russia’s military attacks makes effective cross-border cooperation even more challenging. Unfortunately, the impacts of this will be felt at the local level, particularly by people living in the north.

In our spotlight the Norwegian Barents Secretariat will focus on the positive and successful cooperation between artists and cultural institutions that normally takes place across the Norwegian-Russian border.

While the Norwegian Barents Secretariat stands behind the Norwegian government’s demand that Russia immediately ceases its military operations and seeks a peaceful solution, we will continue to support people-to-people cooperation and contact. In the current situation we have suspended contact and cooperation with official Russian entities, but encourage contact and cooperation with independent Russian artists and organizations.

This story is part of the Barents Secretariat Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.