USSR's Policy and Strategy in the Far North in the Context of Soviet-Norwegian Relations in the First Half of the 20th Century
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USSR's Policy and Strategy in the Far North in the Context of Soviet-Norwegian Relations in the First Half of the 20th Century
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Alexey Komarov 
Affiliation: Institute of World History RAS
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow

Norway gained independence in 1905. Since then its foreign and security policy went all the way from non-participation in political alliances to the membership in NATO after World War II. The USSR, for its part, initially showing little interest towards its northern neighbor, became Norway’s ally within the Anti-Hitler Coalition during World War II and, launching the Petsamo-Kirkenes offensive operation, liberated Eastern Finnmark from the Germans. The neighboring state’s accession to NATO membership in 1949 led to a cooling of Soviet-Norwegian relations. Moscow’s growing interest to the High North and the Arctic was to a large extent determined by the increased geopolitical and military strategic significance of these regions.

Soviet-Norwegian relations, Far North, Kola Bay, War in the Arctic, Liberation of Eastern Finnmark, Spitsbergen, Cold War, NATO
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When Norway gained independence in 1905 and diplomatic relations between St. Petersburg and Christiania were established, there was a substantial growth of interest in Russia towards its northern neighbor. Of course, this interest was not limited to Norway — it concerned the North (Norden) as a whole, both in the political and the cultural sphere. Scholars call this phenomenon “the Northern Wave” or “Scandinavia Mania.”

2 After the October revolution the situation changed. During the Civil War, accompanied by an economic disaster, interest to the North was less pronounced. Still, the signing of the Spitsbergen Treaty in 1920, that gave Norway sovereignty over this former terra nullius, did not pass unnoticed in Soviet Russia.
3 The weakness of Moscow’s Northern foreign-policy vector was reflected in the provisions of the Soviet-Finnish Peace Treaty, signed in Tartu on October 14, 1920. By that treaty the whole Pechenga region (Petsamo) and the western part of the Rybachy Peninsula were ceded to Finland. All islands to the west of the dividing line in the Barents Sea were also transferred to Finland. Therefore Finland acquired a direct access to the Arctic Ocean, while Soviet Russia lost a common border with Norway — it was restored only after World War II.
4 Soviet military experts educated in the Russian Empire pointed out that this decision was a mistake. Below we cite the opinion of the Commander of All [Soviet] Naval Forces on the necessary steps to safeguard Russia’s interests in the seas within the framework of peace agreements with Finland:

“While we have a common sea border with Norway we, in the light of this country’s traditional peaceful disposition and neutrality policy, can stay relatively tranquil about this region. But this situation would change radically if Finland — that apparently is tasked by the Entente to aggravate Russia’s maritime problems — will be wedged between us and Norway. The Rybachy Peninsula… will be in the hands of a state hostile to us...”1.

1. Записка командующего всеми морскими силами республики о мерах обеспечения морских интересов России при заключении мирных договоров с Финляндией // РГВА. Ф. 33988. Оп. 2. Д. 256. Л. 64.

As far as Soviet security policy is concerned, Norway in that period was mostly of little interest. In those years the strategic importance of the European North, and, particularly, the Nordkalotten, had not yet revealed itself fully. To confirm our thesis on Norway’s peripheral significance in Soviet priorities ranking we can quote a well-known statement of Vice Foreign Commissar Maxim M. Litvinov in his letter to the Soviet Envoy in Norway: “Of course you understand that small Norway... cannot and does not play a role of an independent factor in international life”2.

2. Письмо заместителя народного комиссара иностранных дел СССР М. М. Литвинова полномочному представителю СССР в Норвегии А. М. Макару о советской политике в отношении Норвегии. 18 мая 1926 г. // Советско-норвежские отношения 1917—1955. Сборник документов / редколлегия: Чубарьян А. О., Ристе У., Комаров А. А., Лебедев И. В., Хольтсмарк С. Г., Коробочкин М. Л., Рогинский В. В., Эгге О. М., 1997. С. 148.

Economically the North of Russia was underdeveloped. Gennadiy Chirkin — an economist who participated in the development of the Russian European North in 1920s and 1930s — wrote in 1920: “Now this region is unpopulated and desolated and in economic sense is nothing more than a «geographical space»”3. An important role in the region’s development was assigned to the recently built Murmansk railway that ensured “access to ocean expanses for Russia”4. This access to the Atlantic Ocean was appraised by contemporaries as an emergence of “the second Dardanelles.” Tellingly, Aron Arnoldov, head of the Murmansk railway administration, called his brochure published in Petrograd in 1922 “The Second Dardanelles. The Murmansk route to Europe”. In this publication he argued for the transformation of a “weak railway line” into a “powerful network” that would drive the economic development of the Olonets-Murmansk region, giving it an opportunity “to live in tune with the whole Republic”5. Impressed by the recent Soviet—Finnish conflict of 1921—1922, Arnoldov emphasized: “This would be the best economic and strategic defense, eliminating every possibility of aggressive encroachments on the part of our neighbors”6.

3. Чиркин Г. Ф. Колонизация Севера и пути сообщения. Петроград, 1920. С. 3.

4. Арнольдов А. М. Вторые Дарданеллы. Мурманский выход в Европу. Петроград., 1922. С. 4.

5. Там же. С. 15.

6. Там же.

In Soviet military planning of that period the threat from Finland was deemed a significant one. The memories of the intervention of the Entente powers and their allies in the Russian North in 1918—1920 were also still fresh, and the European powers — Especially the British Navy — were perceived as a real threat7.

7. Семенов Д. Г. Кольский Север в советском военном планировании начала 1920-х гг. // Клио. 2011. № 9. С. 70—71.

Since the late 1920s Soviet Arctic policy became more active. From pure protection of its interests in the Arctic region the USSR moved to actions aimed at expanding its sphere of influence. On April 15, 1926 the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR passed a resolution “On declaring lands and islands in the Arctic Sea a part of Soviet territory”. The resolution defined as Soviet territory all lands and islands in the Arctic Ocean to the north of Soviet coastline up to the North Pole — both already discovered and those that might be discovered in the future. An exclusion was made only for territories of foreign states recognized by the Soviet Government by the date of the Resolution’s publication8.

8. Документы внешней политики СССР. Т. 9. М., 1964. С. 228.

As a consequence Franz Josef Land was declared a Soviet territory which caused anxiety in Norway as the archipelago was of some importance for seal-hunting. In January 1929 the archipelago was officially incorporated into the Arkhangelsk Region9.

9. Беляев Д. П. Государственная политика России в области изучения и освоения архипелагов акватории Баренцева моря во второй половине XIX — первой трети XX веков. Дисс. … канд. ист. наук. МГПУ. Мурманск, 2005. С. 113—126.

In the second half of 1920s increasing attention was paid to the condition of Soviet Naval forces — particularly the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets. And, in contrast to Finland — a Baltic Sea country — Norway at that time was not included in military calculations10.

10. Доклад председателю РВС СССР тов. К. Е. Ворошилову от 14 мая 1926 г. Возражения по проекту штаба РККА «Об изменении организации управления Наморси» // РГВА. Ф. 4. Оп. 2. Д. 107. Л. 238 и сл.

Still, access to the Arctic and Atlantic oceans was attracting more interest — due to economic recovery perceived military threats. The Naval Command also took the development of the country’s fishing fleet into consideration — this, in its opinion, required “the creation of a minimal necessary naval forces... to protect fisheries both in the Arctic and the Great [Pacific] Ocean...”11.

11. Тезисы доклада НМС РККА по вопросу о сокращении материального плана строительства ВМС РККА на 84 000 000 руб. в течение 1929/1930 — 1932/1933 гг. // РГВА. Ф. 4. Оп. 2. Д. 505. Л. 43, 43 об.
13 In 1933, as the danger of war was increasing, it was decided to create the Northern Naval Flotilla based in Murmansk and the Kola Bay. In 1937 the flotilla was transformed into the Northern Fleet. In these years, within the framework of the general industrialization of the country, a network of bases and airfields was actively built in the North, coastal defense and shipbuilding enterprises were created, the naval operations theatre infrastructure was developed. Murmansk became the biggest polar port in the world.

In brief, quoting Soviet polar explorer Vladimir Yulievich Wize, “the era of active socialist onslaught in the Arctic” started12. In 1930 the All-Union Arctic Institute was created as the centre of Soviet Arctic research. Academic and popular books on the exploration of the Arctic, the problems of shipping via the Northern Sea Route and the organization of industries in the High North were published widely. The exploitation of the Northern Sea Route was regarded as an economic and political priority. Consequently, the Chief Directorate of the Northern Sea Route was created in 1932. The new institution, subordinated directly to the Council of People’s Commissars, was supervising the economic development in the Arctic and shipping via the Northern Sea Route.

12. Визе В. Ю. Предисловие // Ле Руа. Приключения четырех русских матросов на Шпицбергене. Издательство всесоюзного арктического института. Ленинград, 1933. С. 17.

The geographic potential of the Kola North (the Murman) for military purposes was highly estimated already in the late 19th century. In 1894 Finance Minister Sergei Yu. Witte visited the Murman on the instructions of Tsar Alexander III to choose the site for a future port and naval base. Returning to the capital, he submitted a report to the Emperor, arguing for the creation in the Ekaterininskaya Harbour near the entrance to the Kola Bay of a “military port as a stronghold giving the Russian Navy free access to the sea in any season and any circumstances”13. At that time the project was not implemented, but in the interwar period these plans were further developed in the context of creating a military grouping including both naval and land forces14. The Finnish threat image that was an important factor behind the military buildup in the northern part of the Kola peninsula expanded with time to embrace both the Finns and Germans15.

13. Витте С. Ю. Воспоминания: Детство. Царствования Александра II и Александра III (1849—1894). Берлин, 1923. С. 363.

14. Семенов Д. Г. История военного строительства на Мурмане. Март 1920 г. — июнь 1941 г. Дисс. … канд. ист. наук. Архангельск, 2012.

15. Там же. С. 106.
16 The beginning of World War II displayed the military-strategic significance of the Arctic in full. In that period the British Navy dominated the seas, so in the fall of 1939 three dozens of German ships found refugee in the Murman. Some German crews were even engaged in photographing and other intelligence activities16. This was possible because of the Soviet-German Nonaggression treaty (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).
16. База «Норд». Что делали немецкие суда в северных портах СССР в 1939—1940 гг. // Христофоров В. С., Черепков А. П. Секреты Российского флота. Из архивов ФСБ. М., 2014.

The period when that Pact was in force — up to the beginning of the Great-Patriotic War on June 22, 1941 — was marked for the USSR and Norway by a short-lived severance of diplomatic relations in May 1941 under German pressure (“because Norway is not a sovereign state at the moment”17). Soon, however, they were reestablished in August 1941 and supported by an alliance. The negotiations on the restoration of relations were conducted in London by the Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky and Trygve Lie, the Foreign Minister of the Norwegian government in exile. According to Maisky, Lie even then “expressed an ardent hope that in the near future Soviet troops would advance into Northern Norway…”18.

17. Вербальная нота НКИД СССР миссии Норвегии в СССР о прекращении дипломатических отношений между СССР и норвежским правительством. 8 мая 1941 г. // Советско-норвежские отношения. 1917—1955. Сборник документов. М., 1997. С. 308.

18. Майский И. М. Дневник дипломата. Лондон 1934—1943. В 2 кн. Кн. 2. М., 2009. С. 30.
18 Lie also told Maisky that the Norwegian “London government” has 27 thousand seamen from the merchant fleet, 1000 naval personnel, 1500 airmen and the same number of army soldiers at its disposal19.
19. Там же.

In the spring of 1944 contacts between Norway and the Soviet Union intensified — information on imminent talks about Finland’s withdrawal from the war served as a boost20. On March 8, 1944 a meeting between Trygve Lie and Viktor Lebedev, Soviet Ambassador to the allied governments in London, took place on the Norwegians’ initiative. At the beginning of the conversation Lie said: “If Finland withdraws from the war the Norwegian government intends to seek the Soviet government’s approval on the creation of a Norwegian military unit on Soviet territory”21, which would be subordinated to the Red Army High Command. The Norwegian side thought that arms and equipment for the unit could be supplied by the USSR. The Soviet side reacted to the proposal positively, but as a result of the asymmetry between the two countries it miscalculated the number of Norwegian servicemen who could fight in the ranks of the Red Army. The Soviet government answered that it “is ready to satisfy the Norwegian government’s request ... and accept Norwegian soldiers to organize a Norwegian military unit consisting of several battalions or even divisions to fight against the Germans on the Soviet-German front”22. In fact the Norwegian side meant, as Winston Churchill put it in his letter to Stalin, a “symbolic” military detachment23. This misunderstanding and red tape caused by inter-departmental correspondence and the need to issue Soviet entry visas for the members of the Norwegian soldiers resulted in a delay: this unit (“Force 138”) of 234 soldiers24 arrived to Kirkenes via Murmansk only in November 1944, i.e. when Eastern Finnmark was already liberated by the Red Army.

20. Комаров А. А. Выход Финляндии из второй мировой войны: (По материалам Архива внешней политики России МИД России) // Северная Европа. Проблемы истории. М., 1995. С. 117—129.

21. Заявление норвежского Министра Иностранных Дел Ли Советскому Послу в Лондоне тов. Лебедеву 8 марта 1944 г. // АВП РФ. Ф. 012. Оп. 5. Папка 63. Д. 149. Л. 1.

22. АВП РФ. Ф. 012. Оп. 5. Папка 63. Д. 149. Л. 3.

23. Личное и секретное послание г-на Черчилля маршалу Сталину // АВП РФ. Ф .012. Оп. 5. Папка 63. Д. 151. Л. 8.

24. Письмо помощника начальника Генерального штаба Красной Армии генерал-майора Н. В. Славина заместителю народного комиссара иностранных дел В. Г. Деканозову. 21 ноября 1944 г. // АВП РФ. Ф. 0116. Оп. 26. П. 126. Д. 10. Л. 85.

As we know, the liberation of Eastern Finnmark was a part of the Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation that started soon after the signing of the Armistice between the USSR and Finland on September 19, 1944. On September 28 Kirill Meretsov, commander of the Karelian Front, submitted a plan for capturing the Petsamo region to Stalin. In this report he informed the Supreme Commander that a three-stage operation was being planned: to break through enemy defenses at the first stage, to capture the Luostari-Petsamo area at the second one, and then to drive the Germans away from the Titovka district and reach the border with Norway on the Vuoremi-Salmijarvi line25. Next day — on September 29 — the Stavka (Supreme Command Headquarters) approved the plan26. The Petsamo-Kirkenes offensive started on October 7, 1944. On October 15, when the defeat of the German XIX Mountain Corps was completed and the Luostari-Petsamo region captured, the Command of the Karelian Front submitted a report on further combat operations of the 14th Army to Stalin. The Army’s next task was “to clear the Petsamo region from the Germans up to the Barents Sea in the north-west and the state border with Norway in the west, ... and to reach the state border on the Salmijarvi axis”27. The report also contained a request: “As the road to Salmijarvi and Nautsi is close to the Norwegian border and can be kept under enemy fire, to protect the road I ask permission to cross the border with Norway”28. The Stavka approved the proposals of the Karelian Front Command on October 1629. Two days later, as we know, Soviet forces crossed the border with Norway.

25. Доклад командующего войсками Карельского фронта № 00123/44/оп Верховному Главнокомандующему плана овладения районом Петсамо // Русский архив: Великая Отечественная. Ставка ВКГ: Документы и материалы 1944—1945. Т. 16 (5-4). М., 1999. С. 300—302.

26. Директива Ставки ВГК № 220228 командующему войсками Карельского фронта об утверждении плана операции по овладению Петсамо // Там же. С. 151.

27. Донесение командования Карельского фронта Верховному Главнокомандующему о дальнейших боевых действиях 14-й армии // Там же. Т. 14-3 (2). М., 2000. С. 573—574.

28. Там же. С. 574.

29. Там же.
21 On October 26 the Soviet Information Bureau officially reported that “the forces of the Karelian Front, pursuing German troops, crossed Norway’s state border, and on October 25, in the harsh environment of the High North, captured an important port on the Barents Sea — the city Kirkenes”30.
30. Правда. 26 октября 1944 г. С. 1.

That same day King Haakon VII delivered a radio appeal to the Norwegian nation from London. Among other things he stated that: “the Norwegian troops will take part in joint operations with the Soviet forces and, therefore, fight on the Norwegian soil again”31. As we know, these assumptions were not implemented in practice. The Soviet leadership had no plans for a Red Army advance deeper into Northern Norway and beyond.

31. Обращение норвежского короля к народу Норвегии, Правда, 29 октября 1944 г. Л. 3.

Liberating Kirkenes and the Neiden area, driving the Germans away from the Petsamo region, the Karelian Front, actively supported by the Northern Fleet, fully accomplished the task they were assigned with. The occupied regions of the Soviet High North were liberated, assistance was given to the Norwegian people in its struggle against the invaders, the German XIX Mountain Corps suffered serious losses. In the operation — from the 7th to the 29th of October — Soviet forces lost 21 233 servicemen, including 6 084 dead and missing32. It is worth noting that the liberation of Eastern Finnmark was a secondary mission, while the main objective was to drive the Germans away from the Soviet High North.

32. Абатуров В. Петсамо-Киркенесская наступательная операция // Сайт Министерства обороны Российской Федерации [Электронный ресурс]. URL: >>>.

On November 6, 1944, Stalin, giving a speech on the anniversary of the October revolution, mentioned that the Red Army had advanced into “the territory of our ally — Norway”33. The audience burst into applause. That same day Trygve Lie, who came to Moscow from London, met with Vyacheslav M. Molotov. At the beginning of his conversation with the Foreign Commissar Lie thanked the Soviets for liberating a part of Norway. Molotov answered: “Now it is the Norwegians’ job to complete the liberation of Norway. The start was already made”34. He also enquired whether his Norwegian guest had any difficult questions to discuss. Lie said that: “he has no difficult questions, and the Norwegian government has had none of them generally in its relations with the Soviet government”35.

33. И. Сталин. Доклад на торжественном заседании Московского Совета депутатов трудящихся с партийными и общественными организациями города Москвы. 6 ноября 1944 года // Правда. 7 ноября 1944 г.

34. Запись беседы Молотова с Ли 7 ноября // АВП РФ. Ф. 06. Оп. 6. П. 41. Д. 536. Л. 2.

35. Там же. Л. 3.

However, when Lie was about to leave Moscow, one “difficult question” arose. During the night from November 11 to November 12, 1944 he had another meeting with Molotov, where the Foreign Commissar proposed to denounce the Spitsbergen Treaty of February 9, 1920, establish a Soviet-Norwegian con-dominion over Spitsbergen,and cede the Bear Island to the Soviet Union36. Subsequently Moscow’s interest to this idea diminished markedly37, but the damage to bilateral relations had already been done. Later this incident contributed to the demise of the Norwegian concept of “bridge-building” between East and West.

36. Советская запись беседы народного комиссара иностранных дел СССР В.М. Молотова с министром иностранных дел Норвегии Т. Ли о статусе Шпицбергена и о-ва Медвежий // Советско-норвежские отношения. 1917—1955. Сборник документов. М., 1997. С. 364.

37. Holtsmark Sven G. Fra verdenskrig til kald krig — Svalbard, Sovjetunionen og Norge 1939—1953 [Электронный ресурс]. URL: >>>.

In one of its “political reports” the Soviet Embassy in Oslo stated: “Both in the bourgeois parties and the Labour one an opinion was circulated that the USSR would inevitably request from Norway a compensation for its assistance in the country’s liberation, and, particularly, make a claim for the Finnmark region”38. However, Norwegian fears that the Red Army would stay in Eastern Finnmark for long, proved to be misplaced. On September 11, 1945 Vice Foreign Commissar Andrei Ya. Vyshinsky invited the Norwegian Charge d’affairs for a talk. He informed the Norwegian diplomat that Moscow had decided to withdraw Red Army forces from the Norwegian territory39. The Charge d’affairs answered that “he will be pleased to pass this information” to Oslo, and added that “his compatriots will be saddened by this decision (to withdraw Red Army forces — A. K.), as they were already able to make friends with Soviet soldiers and officers”40. By the end of September 1945, after a ten-month stay, all Soviet units were withdrawn from Northern Norway.

38. Из отчета посольства СССР в Норвегии за 1946 г. // Советско-норвежские отношения 1917—1955. С. 428.

39. Запись беседы советника посольства Норвегии в СССР Э. Крог-Хансена с заместителем народного комиссара иностранных дел СССР А. Я. Вышинским о выводе советских войск из Норвегии. 12 сентября 1945 г. / Советско-норвежские отношения 1917—1955. С. 392.

40. Из дневника А. Я. Вышинского. 13 сентября 1945 г. Прием поверенного в делах Норвегии Крог-Хансена. 11 сентября 1945 г. // АВП РФ. Ф. 0116. Оп. 27. П. 127. Д. 6. Л. 12.

In July 1946 the Soviet Foreign Ministry informed the Norwegian side that the Soviet government was ready to carry out the demarcation of the border taking the Russian-Norwegian borderline of 1826 as a basis. The Soviet-Norwegian Treaty on the Border Regime and the Procedure to Settle Border Conflicts and Incidents41 was signed in Oslo on December 29, 194942.

41. Сайт ЗАО «Кодекс» [Электронный ресурс]. URL: >>> (дата обращения: 16.03.2019).

42. Комаров А. А. К вопросу о восстановлении советско-норвежской границы в результате Второй мировой войны // Россия и страны Северной Европы: Физические и Символические Границы. Сборник статей V Киркенесского международного семинара историков. Издательство Петрозаводского государственного университета. Петрозаводск, 2016. С. 132—142.

It should be mentioned that 1949 marked a period of considerable estrangement in Soviet-Norwegian relations due to Norway’s joining NATO in April. Therefore the Norwegian Foreign Ministry’s proposal “to include into the communiqué on the signing of the Soviet-Norwegian Border Regime Treaty a special statement on the friendly atmosphere of the negotiations”43 was rejected by the Soviet side. According to Ambassador Sergei A. Afanasiev the aim of this refusal was “to deny the Norwegian authorities an opportunity to reassure the Norwegian public that everything is ostensibly still all right in Soviet-Norwegian relations and that the Norwegian government, after joining the North Atlantic Alliance, has managed to preserve the former friendly attitude of the Soviet Union”44.

43. Сопроводительное письмо к отчету Посольства СССР в Норвегии за 1949 г. 21 февраля 1950 г. // АВП РФ. Ф. 0116. Оп. 39. П. 156. Д. 10. Л. 3.

44. Там же.
29 The elaboration of the USSR’s foreign policy line in the postwar period was influenced by two main factors: first, to ensure maximum security of its borders in the event of another war, and, second, to use the country’s increased weight on the international scene to the utmost to achieve Moscow’s aims. This set of foreign policy concepts served as a basis for Soviet line towards Norway as well. Its architects first and foremost took into consideration the factor of relations with the principal adversary, the United States; and, secondly the European context, while the Nordic context came third. One the one hand, Norway was a small country, but it was a neighbor state on the other. As a small country it would have been of little interest (as it had been the case in the interwar period), but, in the light of the North’s radically increased strategic significance, it was of significant importance as a NATO member bordering the USSR. Moscow was deeply disappointed by Norway’s membership in NATO: a recent war ally and a border state that could have become a barrier against the threat of war, had joined a military-political alliance against its Eastern neighbor.


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