"I just want Russians and Norwegians to be friends"

April 20, 2023
There is chill and unpeace in the air, but Father Boris from Murmansk continues to cross the border to neighboring Norway to serve his parish in Kirkenes.

The Church of Saint Trifon is located in a regular town house, and only a roadside icon of Saint Trifon distinguishes the building from the surrounding neighborhood. The view is towards the east, and there is only a few kilometers to the Russian border

This is the place where Father Boris comes every month to follow up the local Russian Orthodox congregation. He has been doing it for ten years, since he was only 24 years old.

The border town has over the past 30 years become home to a significant number of Russians and about 5 percent of the population today have their roots in the neighboring country. Most of them consider themselves Orthodox.

The small town is the second home also to Father Boris. “In the beginning, the churchgoers saw me as their son, or even grandson. Back then, I could not even grow a proper beard,” he says with a smile.

The beard has grown more now, and he is already an experienced and well-established prelate in the Russian-Orthodox Church. In addition to his service at the Saint Trifon Church in Kirkenes he works in one of the major churches in Murmansk.


Father Boris (third from right) with Metropolitan Mitrofan in his home church in Murmansk. Photo: diocese of Murmansk



Norwegian passport

His full name is Boris Abdullaev, and he is himself a product of the cross-border relations that developed between the two neighboring countries after the early 1990s.

The priest has both Russian and Norwegian citizenships. When he was 13 his mother moved to the north Norwegian town of Narvik and married a Norwegian. It was a big change for the young boy who had to find new friends and learn the new language. The years in Norway became instrumental for his future. He caught an interest in religion and faith in God, and when he turned 20, he decided to return to Murmansk to study theology.

Soon, he became a close assistant to Bishop Simon, the top Church leader at the time, and was then appointed to lead the congregation in Kirkenes.

When Father Boris started his service in the Norwegian town, more than 200,000 people crossed the Norwegian-Russian border every year. Cross-border relations flourished and the two neighboring regions built new bonds.

Ten years later, a big wall is again rising between the countries, and traveling is becoming increasingly difficult. But for Father Boris, who has both Russian and Norwegian passports, border-crossing is no problem.

“It is like a gift from God,” he says.

Legacy of Trifon

A small icon of Saint Trifon hangs on the wall in the small meeting room in the back of the church. The 16th century monk who moved north from Novgorod is one of the most holy men of the Kola Peninsula. But Trifon also worked on the territory that today belongs to Norway.

Back then, this was no man’s land and the indigenous Sámi population was exploited by authorities and tax collectors from all the surrounding countries. Trifon was instrumental in christening the Skolt Sámi population and he built churches and chapels both the territory that today partly belongs to Russia’s Pechenga region and Norway’s Sør-Varanger municipality.

“Trifon left a heritage here. He came, christened people, gradually won trust among the Sámi, made friends and talked about God,” Father Boris explains.

“He is extremely important for us, we pray to him and ask him for blessing and help in all cases. He worked with goodness, smiled to people and showed affection. He was gracious with his neighbors, with everyone here.”

“We try to follow his example,” Boris says.

The priest believes in friendship and good relations between Russia and Norway.

“I do not want to talk about politics,” he underlines.

“But I want us to be good friends, and that there are no dividing lines between us. I say from the bottom of my heart that I want us to be like one people here in the North.”


An icon of Saint Trifon in front of the Orthodox church in Kirkenes. Photo: Atle Staalesen


He believes relations in the North are unique and that Trifon must serve as an example. It is different in the South, he argues.

“The history shows that, for a long time back, Russians and Norwegians were connected. There was something else in the south, between Moscow and Oslo, let that be so. Here in the North, we have our own life.”

Also the Second World War should serve as example, he argues, and recalls the 75 years anniversary celebration of Soviet liberation of Kirkenes in 2019 when Norway’s King Harald and Prime Minister Erna Solberg came to town together with Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, Northern Fleet Commander Aleksandr Moiseev and others.

“Soviet forces liberated Kirkenes and I know that locals here are grateful to Russians.”

“I believe that this must be preserved in our memory, and that we can all be together. In a simple and good way.”

“Friends forever”

The priest admits that he is concerned about today’s situation. But he is not afraid.

“I do not want it to be this way, and I hope things will not get worse. I do not want the Devil to ruin the relationship.”

He has stopped watching television and reading the news, because “there is so much news out there.”

“And I ask myself, where is the truth?” he says.

He fears that cross-border relations and friendships are suffering.

“We can not waste friendship. If you are a friend, then you are a friend until the end. In bad times and happy times. We have to be friends, and therefore I hope that everything will continue and that everything will be fine.”


“We cannot waste our friendship,” Boris underlines. Photo: Atle Staalesen


The cathedral

The Orthodox congregation in Kirkenes bought two buildings from the local municipality in 2015. Since then, the small group of churchgoers have developed the aging property into their community center and place of worship.

Church services are held at least once a month and the building includes all the prerequisites of a Russian Orthodox church. It has a service room with the traditional iconostasis. On the walls are icons and the smell of candles and incense fills the room.

A technical upgrade of the building is under planning.

“We have a leakage in the roof,” Father Boris says. When the congregation can afford, it intends to repair it and add a cupola on top.

“It will be easier to see that this actually is a church,” he explains.

But the prelate admits that he dreams about a new and bigger building.

“In the church tradition the building is important, and it should be in the Russian style. Of course it would have been good and we do have such a desire. But it is another thing how to realize such a project. We would need money, therefore we are happy to be here.”


The building of a cupola is planned on the roof of the church building in Kirkenes. Picture from the website of the local orthodox church 


Interest from Kremlin

There have been several projects on Orthodox Church building in Kirkenes. But none of them have come further than a planning stage.

The Orthodox congregation itself planned to erect a new church on the estate that it obtained in 2015. But little progress has happened since the plans were announced.

In the early 2000s, a working group with members from the local municipality elaborated plans to build a seamen’s church in town. The group had members also from the local Lutheran Church and the project was reportedly positively assessed by the Norwegian government that at the time was headed by Kjell Magne Bondevik, the prime minister from the Christian People’s Party and himself a theologist by profession.

The church was to be built in Russian Orthodox tradition and have service functions for the many Russian sailors that visited Kirkenes at the time.

Even Vladimir Putin, who visited Oslo in 2002, is said to have expressed interest in the project.

Lutheran priest Trond Gran was one of the members of the working group. 

“It all started with the hunger and poverty among Russian fishermen that came to Kirkenes, and we decided to open our church so that they could come and light candles. Then we opened also our parish hall and other facilities and loads of sailors started to come. After a while came the idea to build a separate building with inspiration from the Russian side, and there came lots of input, also from the Russian General Consulate and Bishop Simon himself.”

A Russian architect made the first drawings of the building. But the ambitious project soon stranded. 

Gran also recalls how Russian Archbishop Simon for a while held services in the local Lutheran church in Kirkenes.

“In the beginning, Archbishop Simon had services in the premises of the General Consulate, and we asked him if he rather would like to move into our church. Initially, he was skeptic about serving in the church house of another denomination, but then he came to have a look and it all became quite natural.”


Archbishop Simon leads Orthodox church service in the Kirkenes Lutheran Church in 2006. Photo: Atle Staalesen


It was a remarkable sign of openness by a representative of a church known for its conservatism and hardline world views. Simon was also member of a regional cross-border cooperation body with the Lutheran churches of Finland, Norway and Sweden, and on regular basis travelled between the countries.

“It was a quite strange and unusual experience to be in one’s own church at a Russian Orthodox service and not understand a single word of what was said. At the same time, it was beautiful and graceful, and we felt like the outside world had came to here to expand our vision,” says Trond Gran. “When we had our own services on the subsequent day, the scent of incense was still in the air,” the Norwegian priest recalls. 

In 2019, Simon was replaced by Mitrofan, the metropolitan known for his extreme and inexorable views on patriotism, relations with the West and the war in Ukraine.

At the same time, Simon was degraded to a local village church.


Archbishop Simon takes part in official opening of the Bøkfjord bridge near the Norwegian-Russian border in 2018. Photo: Atle Staalesen


Unique model

Under the leadership of Archbishop Simon, key decisions were made about the Orthodox congregation in Kirkenes. With blessing from then Patriarch Aleksii II it was decided that the local Norwegian parish was to be organized as part of the Murmansk diocese, and not the Russian Orthodox Church’ Department for External Relations, which is normal practice for abroad congregations.

A letter from Patriarch Aleksii II dated 11th March 2002 confirms that the Orthodox church in Kirkenes should be subordinated the Metropolitan of Murmansk. Photo: Atle Staalesen

According to Simon, it was easier and more practical for the local Russians to relate to Murmansk than to the Department in Moscow. The archbishop presented his case to Patriarch Aleksii II who positively responded. A copy of the letter from Patriarch with his official consent still hangs on the church wall in Kirkenes. 

“About half of the congregation comes from places like Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, and it was easier for them to adhere to the Bishop of Murmansk who was close and could easily come to town,” Father Boris explains.

It is quite a unique organizational model, he underlines.

“Indeed, we are unique,” he adds.



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