On Wednesday I watched the premiere of the film Glory Days (Hoogtij Dagen) by Dutch film maker Ben van Lieshout at Eye filmmuseum in Amsterdam. It is a film about the Soviet times of the Kola Peninsula, situated at the extreme northwest of Russia, bordering Norway and Finland on its western end, its territory almost completely within the Arctic Circle.

The region has a long occupation history, but the focus in the film is on the glory days of the industrial development of the Soviet Union and its subsequent decline. The vibe of optimism can still be felt in the stories of people interviewed by van Lieshout, when the industrial complex took off  at the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of the discovery of premium industrial resources, such as apatite, nickel, nuclear power, aided by strategic position of Murmansk as the ice free coast. As a consequence of this exploitation however, the peninsula suffered major ecological damage and since the end of the Soviet Union, that particular industry is no longer supported like it was before. The economy went into decline, leaving a generation that is hoping their children will move elsewhere. Not all of them do. The film shows mainly the aftermath of a disillusioned older generation, and despite efforts of rebuilding the industrial economy in different ways, ecologically damaging production still continues. Besides the resource industry, another source of new income is spurred by the rise of “dark tourism,’ referring to tourism that involves travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy. As one hotel sign in the film proudly advertises ‘view on the smelters’.

The film shows a young man, who is content in the job he was offered as the director of an elementary school. A scene of playing children on a playground amidst the apartment blocks and a shot of children’s drawings shows that not all is desperate. And while the film focuses on people who moved here in the early 20th century, attracted by new opportunities, the drawings shown in the scene all depict Sami lifestyle and a Sami flag. Kildin Sami have lived in this region for the longest time. 

Absence of mention of Sami in the film is poignant, but not unexpected, as Indigenous peoples everywhere have been neglected, their rights been violated customarily. People have lived in the Kola Peninsula for a long time, especially the northern part, at least since a the 7th millennium, but by the 1st millennium only the Sami people remained. This changed beginning in the 12th century when Pomor traders became aware of the richness of natural resources, such as fish, and gradually the region became an appropriated part of Novgorodian lands. The Sami were forced to pay tribute to the Novgorodian republic as well as their Scandinavian neighbors, when a border between Novgorodian and Scandinavian countries became necessary,  and was formalized in a number af treaties, When the Novgorodians started to establish permanent settlements on the peninsula during the 16th century, the Sami were forced into serfdom, but traditional ways were shared within the community.

It was not until the Soviet period (1971-1991) that radical change occurred; rapid population increase, industrialization, militarization and urbanization.  At first, because of a focus on peasant-centered society  the state implemented laws that encouraged the development and protection of Sami language and culture, but this changed  during the Stalinist era. At that time the Sami people were subject to forced collectivization, (communal and collective farming), and relocation. The largest concentration of Sami people today live in villages around Lovozero, in the Murmansk region. The foundation of the Arctic Council was an important step in the acknowledgement of indigenous rights across the Arctic region, but challenges remain. 

Other than the earlier settlements and repressive government, the Soviet developments eventually led to ecological disasters, with new towns that were named after the mined resources, Nikel, Apatite in addition to natural gas winning and military, nuclear, development that had sparked economic optimisms in Cold War times.

It was not just the economic and the arms race, but also science was subject of fierce competition during the Cold War. One in particular, was won by the Russians. The story of the Kola Super Deep Borehole SG-3 features prominently in the film by van Lieshout. The scientific drilling project attempted to drill as deep as possible into the Earth’s crust. The project, largely forgotten, started in 1970, reaching its deepest point – 12,262 m-  in 1989 (about one third into the Baltic Shield).  Some interesting findings resulted from the research, such as  the discovery of large quantities of hydrogen gas and microscopic plankton fossils at 6 km deep. The project was abandoned in 2008 due to unprofitability. Up until this day, it is the deepest manmade hole in terms of depth below surface.

Removed from our regular gaze, it is time to pay more attention again to what is happening within the Arctic Circle. ‘Glory days’ may not be over yet. Sources of our energy dependency are abundant, as are sources of our ecological downfall. 

https://arctic-council.org/en/

Russian oil and gas – https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/SNAME/3383113f-3070-4ddd-acd4-504418eb35a9/UploadedImages/Files/2019/Russian_Arctic_OG_Developments_SNAME_Arctic__Oct_2019_-02.pdf