Letter from Norway — From the March 2018 issue

If These Walls Could Talk

The strange history of our futile border fortifications

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Construction on the Storskog fence began in August 2016 and was finished about a month later. (The project had been delayed when surveyors realized that the fence had been built an inch or two into the buffer zone between the countries and had to be moved.) Now the “wall” stands several miles from the old Soviet border fence, which was recently updated with surveillance cameras, though its current purpose is unclear. Today, on the frozen cusp of northern Europe, the two fences stand opposite each other, as if in a face-off.

Outside the checkpoint, the ground was frozen with ice, which splintered underfoot like shards of glass. There was an uncanny atmosphere of temptation, rooted in the forbidden. Signs told me not to take pictures, which made me nervous that I would forget and do so all the same. I also worried that I might accidentally step over the line and violate international law, as if the border had a subliminal pull. Milan Kundera once described vertigo much the same way: not so much the fear of falling but the desire to jump.

A fresco of Troy from the Aeneid, Canto II © Nicolò dell’Abate/Galleria e Museo Estense, Modena, Italy/Ghigo Roli/Bridgeman Images

My phone pinged with a welcome message from a Russian telecom network, and I stepped inside the checkpoint — a low-set, caramel-colored building with a snow-covered roof. At a conference table decorated with miniature Russian and Norwegian flags, I sat down with Stein Kristian Hansen, the chief of the border station. Tall and blond, he poured coffee into mugs decorated with cartoon elves frolicking on the border. The mugs, he told me, I was allowed to photograph. Hansen explained that he had been asking for a fence ever since he took the job eight years ago. His desire “had nothing to do with migration,” he said, “but with security.”

In 2017, there were 265,000 crossings at Storskog, mostly Russians coming in to shop. (This was a massive increase from the Nineties, when only about 8,000 people crossed at Storskog each year.) When the government announced its plans, Hansen was most interested in the proposal for a retractable gate — one he could open and close with the touch of a button, so that, in an emergency, he could seal the border to stabilize the situation and protect the officers who serve alongside him. But he was certain that the fence would do nothing to curb a future flow of refugees. For one, people could simply walk through the forest and circumvent the checkpoint. Hansen lives in Kirkenes, and he is perplexed by the outrage against the wall. “They think it’s a message to Russia,” he said. “But Russia is a big country with a powerful army.” He gestured to the fence and smiled. “This fence isn’t going to stop Putin.”

Elf cups drained, Hansen and I walked outside. The fence was slightly burlier than one at a schoolyard, with tight chain link secured to metal posts set some three feet apart. It sliced a path through a low boreal forest, which had been clear-cut about ten feet on each side to allow for a clear view of anyone approaching. To the west, Lake Neitijärvi formed a natural boundary. To the east, the fence crested a slight hill and disappeared from sight, creating the impression that it continued on forever.

The Great Wall of China © Waldemar Abegg/akg-images

Recently, the border has become a tourist attraction. According to Lars Georg Fordal, the head of the Barents Secretariat, an organization that promotes cross-border cooperation, local tour operators use it as a selling point. In the summer, visitors can lunch on smoked salmon at a nearby restaurant with views of Russia and the lake. Fordal also told me that cruise ships dock at Kirkenes so passengers can travel to the border and say that they saw Russia with their own eyes. The fence promises to draw even more visitors.

Hansen showed me the slatted metal gate. It was open, nestled against the fence; with mechanized wheels, it is designed to slide shut across the tarmac. Unfortunately, he admitted, the design was off. The bottom wasn’t high enough to clear the snowpack, so the gate got stuck in place every time there was a freeze. For now, they kept it open at all times. “They’ll rebuild it during the summer,” he said with a shrug, giving the fence a final little jiggle. We turned our backs toward Russia and, breath freezing against our faces, walked back inside.

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