Powerful Opening of Barents Spektakel, One Year After the Invasion

Fiery and airy opening of Barents Spektakel 2023. The festival is organised by Pikene på Broen (the Girls on the Bridge), a group of curators and producers based in Kirkenes, Northern Norway. (Photo: Ivaylo Donchev/Pikene på Broen)

Kirkenes: Last Friday, in the Norwegian border town of Kirkenes, there was strong advocacy for Ukrainian freedom and for art as a point of contact with Russian regime and war opponents. Within this contact lies a vital fight against dehumanization and therefore against authoritarian Russia, says Director of the Fritt Ord foundation.

24th of February: Heavy snow encompasses the Norwegian town of Kirkenes at the border with Russia. But it is not enough to keep people at home. Streets and town squares are the scenes of torches and appeals for peace. Here are light shows, sounds, and speeches for the restoration of trust and future on this day when one year has passed since the Russian war of invasion in Ukraine. This is also the opening day for the festival Barents Spektakel 2023. 

"Stop Putin. Stop the war. Stop Putin. Stop the war. Slava Ukraini!" says the assembly in tune at the peace marking outside the Russian Consulate General in Kirkenes.

From the loudspeaker, Ukrainian songs provide an atmospheric soundboard as appeals in Norwegian, English, Ukrainian, and Russian are held. The flames of the torches provide warmth, just as the community against war provides warmth. Above everyone's heads, Ukrainian flags flutter in the wind.

The journey continues to the town square. Here, the scene is a wooden bridge, built by the Russian engineering theatre AKHE. Around it, people are crowding to admire the bridge's tall lighted torches against the dark evening sky.

The construction alludes to being in an era where bridges are burnt – and desperate measures are made to stop the world from collapsing, describes Pikene på Broen (the Girls on the Bridge), who are behind this border crossing cultural-political festival.

Belt out

The Finnish screaming choir Mieskuoro Huutajat and the local Kirkenes choir Crescendo take their place on the bridge.

The choirs belt out lyrics from a famous Norwegian children's song about a boy who misbehaves and gets scolded for it.

On the anniversary of the war, one may interpret a more serious undertone in this song. That it is a rallying cry against Putin and his acts of war.

During the performance, the balance artist Ian Eisenberg embarks on a dangerous journey on a line high above the crowd – symbolic of taking a risk for a better world.


Boycott is not the answer

The evening's main speaker is Knut Olav Åmås, Executive Director of the Fritt Ord Foundation. This is a Norwegian private non-profit foundation that promotes freedom of expression, public debate, art and culture. In his speech, Åmås addresses the issue of boycotting Russian artists and the festival's theme of trust.

Knut Olav Åmås, direktør i Stiftelsen Fritt Ord. (Foto: Astri Edvardsen)
Knut Olav Åmås, Executive Director of the Fritt Ord Foundation. (Photo: Astri Edvardsen)

"Fritt Ord is proud to support Barents Spektakel this year, as in previous years, and we will continue to do so. Art and culture help us understand what is currently happening. Art and culture has something to do with our identity – who we are and who we want to be or not be. It makes us able to see life and reality more clearly. It creates connections and understanding – or simply digs into what is difficult to understand, which there is currently a lot of," says Åmås and continues:

"In art and culture, a sort of conversation is held about ourselves and society – also when there is crisis and war in Europe. That is why boycotting art, culture, and knowledge is such a failed way of thinking unless it applies to persons and institutions that directly represent Putin's regime. But being in contact, of which this festival is such a good example, counteracts the dehumanization of the Others – the dehumanization for which authoritarian Russia has been responsible the past year."

Highlight independent voices

Åmås points out that Pikene på Broen, early after the outbreak of the war, took a stand for continued interaction with independent Russian art and culture actors who oppose the Kreml regime and its war. 

"This is not the time to turn our backs to Russian democracy advocates and cooperation partners who protest the war, Pikene på Broen pointed out. If we stop all cooperation, we also limit our opportunity to support Russians in the fight for change from within, is the reasoning. Throughout the past year, Pikene på Broen has highlighted independent, critical Russian voices. They will continue to do so with this festival. Over 30 artists from Russia, as well as participants from Sàpmi, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and the US, are present."

"That Ukrainians are not seeking Russian culture in today's extreme situation is very understandable. But it does not mean that the rest of the world should boycott it. We do not censor the cultural heritage, because then we would censor who we are ourselves. And that would entail not understanding ourselves, understanding Russia, or understanding Ukraine. And the trust in each other will be broken instead of built," says the Fritt Ord Executive Director.

Trust, human dignity, and peace

Åmås looks out over the square and concludes:

"We must keep the channels open, continue cooperating, and practice our freedom of expression. That is what creates trust. The Russian regime has, for its part, broken all relations of trust for the foreseeable future. But precisely in such a situation, the trust between regular people in various environments becomes even more important – and thereby arenas such as Barents Spektakel. To say it like this: The festival would not be meaningless without the 30 participating Russian artists, but it would have had much less meaning."

"The doctor and social commentator Per Fugelli once said: "Trust is the substance from which curiosity is made. Trust brings courage and the desire to explore the other's world." Trust also creates human dignity, I would like to add. As Nordahl Grieg wrote in 1936 in the poem To the Youth: "If we create human dignity, we create peace." So, the most important festival in the world right now starts tonight. I want to declare Barents Spektakel 2023 officially opened with the most important words we can say today: Long live Ukraine! Slava Ukraini!"

Community and inspiration

Others also made opening remarks for the festival, such as Lena Norum Bergeng, Mayor of Sør-Varanger Municipality (Labor).

"Last year, when I took this stage during the opening of Barents Spektakel, the world looked completely different from the perspective of Sør-Varanger and Kirkenes. The pandemic was over and we were just waiting to resume the people-to-people cooperation with Russia. That did not happen. Russia went to war against Ukraine. For us in Sør-Varanger, there will always be a before and an after the 24th of February 2022, says Bergeng and goes on:

"Now, after a year of war, it is more important than ever to get together and take a break from everyday life. Let yourself be inspired and engaged – yes, perhaps even provoked – by everything art and culture have to offer. So come, join the festival! Now, it is of utmost importance that we trust each other, that we are able to get to know and show trust towards new people – and that we trust that peace will come once again."

The spirit of communication

The Norwegian Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, Sigbjørn Gjelsvik (Center), is also present for the opening of the festival, after several meetings in Kirkenes this day with Ukrainian refugees, among others.

"Russia's terrible acts of war have driven millions of people to flee. Many have sought refuge in other countries, such as Norway, and several have come here to Kirkenes. I met some of them earlier today," says Gjelsvik and continues:

"Despite the war, international cooperation in the Arctic will continue and it will still be important. We will take leadership in matters that are central to Norway, the High North, and the Arctic region. The Barents cooperation is 30 years this year. Over many years, there have been significant efforts to build people-to-people cooperation and contact across national borders. The government wants to contribute to the cooperation for which there is still a basis to continue – in good dialogue with our neighbors in Finland and Sweden."

"That is why I am also happy that we can meet in this international arena for art and culture in the North. Through creating good meetings between people across borders, trust is developed, as well as a dialogue that contributes to developing policy and our culture," says the minister.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.