Galina from Murmansk bought a lot of ice-cream and cheese in REMA 1000 store. She travels to Kirkenes every week on a bus. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina

Last open land border to Europe for Russian shoppers. But for how long?

May 08, 2024
“We keep coming over here because we’ve got used to it. We love these places, we love your [Norwegian] food,” - interviews with Russians who keep coming on shopping tours to Kirkenes, Arctic Norway.




Two minibuses arrive at the car park of the REMA 1000 supermarket in Kirkenes. 

As soon as the bus doors open, a group of people quickly streams towards the shop entrance. Men and women of different ages rush to take the wire shopping carts. 

“Today I took crab sticks, coffee, cheese, condensed milk, ketchup, nuts, and chocolate. All as usual. I have the same shopping cart every week”, Alexander, a businessman from Murmansk, northern Russia, tells me. Alexander is one of many who regularly come to Kirkenes on buses from Russia with one main purpose - grocery shopping. 

The border with Arctic Russia is just a 20-minute drive from this Norwegian supermarket. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and for dozens of years, shopping in Norway has been popular among Russians. 


Alexander’s shopping cart in REMA 1000 is full of crab sticks. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina


Alexander says he prefers to shop in Norway because he feels a big difference between Russian and Norwegian food quality: 

“Well, this is Norway. You know what kind of country that is and what quality of goods there is, and who the King here thinks about. Who does the King think about in the morning? About people, of course! 

“And what about Russia?”, I ask

“In Russia, we don’t know. We can’t get inside our King’s head and know what is he thinking about”, Alexander replies, then walks away. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the normal pace of things here in the north though. The possibility for such shopping trips shrank in October 2023 after Norway banned Russian private cars from entering the country.


Two minibuses from Murmansk arrived at the parking lot of Norwegian supermarket REMA 1000 in Kirkenes. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina


Shopping tours in minibuses are still allowed from Russia, through what is now the only open land border crossing remaining between Russia and Europe. 

The Russian Arctic town of Murmansk is located just around a 3-hour drive from the Norwegian Kirkenes. Google maps.

Ekaterina from Murmansk, who rolls her cart along the REMA 1000 aisles, tells me she comes with these buses two times a week and spends about 10,000 kr: 

“We don’t have such groceries in Murmansk”, she tells me - “There is a different quality and prices here. This ketchup, for example, you can’t find in Murmansk. It’s better than the Russian one. In Russia the ketchup is just a very liquid paste.” Ekaterina also mentions the sanctions that now do not allow her to buy other famous ketchup brands in Murmansk. 


Ekaterina from Murmansk shows the Norwegian ketchup that she buys regularly in Kirkenes. In her opinion, it is much better than the ketchup produced in Russia. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina


“None of those brands can you now find in Russia due to sanctions,” she told me and started loading a plastic bag full of ketchup bottles onto the bus. 




Since Russians are not allowed to travel in their private cars anymore, there is a fear among the shoppers that the Russian-Norwegian border crossing near Kirkenes will close one day. 

“If the border is closed, it will be a problem. We will have to adjust ourselves and eat untasty food,” Ekaterina, from Murmansk, added and went to the cashier. 

Another woman from Murmansk - Galina - unloads onto the checkout 12 packages of ice cream, 6 kg of cheese, and 6 packages of instant coffee. 

“Since Russian private cars were banned here, things have become complicated. It’s a discomfort. It is one thing when you go in your own car. Another is when on a bus. Two big differences ”

Galina tells me and adds: “Yes, it’s complicated. It’s difficult for all of us now. The situation is very complicated. But we keep coming over here because we’ve got used to it. We love these places, we love your (Norwegian) food”


Galina from Murmansk has a lot of ice-cream in her shopping cart. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina


A Russian person who asked to remain anonymous told me in one of the shops that it’s wrong that Norway banned private Russian cars as the person sees it as a measure of “collective guilt” for the war. 

In the supermarket, REMA 1000, I meet its head manager Audun Øwre, who tirelessly unpacks new boxes of goods in a back room. He tells me that the amount of Russian clients in his shop has shrunk now by around 10 times since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But in his business, the “Russian sales” is just a tiny part:

“They (Russians) empty the shelves of stuff that is cheap/on sale. So for our business, it doesn’t make much difference,” he says and expresses confidence that most of the purchases during such shopping tours are done with one main goal - to resell it later in Russia for double the price. 


REMA 1000 head manager Audun Øwre (on the billboard photo) says that the amount of Russian clients in his shop has shrunk now by around 10 times since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina


“They sell it to make money on  the other side of the border. It has been like this for 10 years. It’s business as usual. Who needs 300 chocolates for their family?”, Audun Øwre tells me. 

Meanwhile, all of the Russians I spoke to that day told me they only buy for their friends and families. 

Bjørn Ole Hamre, the owner of a “Eurosko” shoe shop in Kirkenes told me that today’s turnover from Russian customers in his shop is about zero:

“Eurosko” shoe shop in Kirkenes. According to its owner, turnover from Russian customers in the shop is much less now than it used to be before the war in Ukraine. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina

“It’s much less that it was”, he said but assured me that despite it all his business is still fine:

“The lack of Russian customers means that we will be more and more dependent on the local inhabitants in Kirkenes and customers from other northern regions of Norway. We are the only shoe shop in the Eastern Finnmark. That helps our business. Also after the recent news that the Sydvaranger mine is restarting again - this will be of course a plus for the shops in Kirkenes.”




At the end of their shopping, Russian customers head to this tax-free shop located at the Kirkenes harbor. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina

What makes shopping in Kirkenes for Russians attractive is not only the quality of the products and the good sales, but also the fact that shoppers who are permanent residents outside of Norway, Sweden, Finland or Denmark can get a tax refund. 

In the Kirkenes harbor I go into a small souvenir shop, where besides woolen socks, jumpers and matryoshka dolls, any tourist can get the taxes on their grocery purchases refunded. 

The shop owner Lyudmila Wille is also the agent for the tax-free service provider, Global Blue. It is to her that the group of Russians head quickly before the Russian-Norwegian border closes at 4 pm. 

Shoppers have their receipts stamped and get up to 19%  refunded from their cheeses, ketchups, and OMEGA-3 vitamins in cash. They have to follow limitations imposed by Russian Customs too: a maximum of 5 kg of food per person and the total value of purchases must not exceed €500. 


Lyudmila Wille stamping the receipts from the Russian customers. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina



A man with the nickname Vitek walks in to stamp a pile of receipts for the group of 5 people. He spent 3,000 kr  (around €255) today and got refunded 500 kr (around €43) by Lyudmila in cash. Vitek, who is in his 50s, can’t imagine his life without shopping in Norway or Finland: 

“This is Norway - the country where the law works. Where people are treated humanely. We don’t have this in Russia” - he tells me - “In Russia, they stuff too much palm oil into everything. I don’t shop for groceries in Russia anymore. I just buy bread at home.” 


Vitek from Murmansk holding his stamped receipts in the tax-free shop in Kirkenes. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina



Vitek is worried too the border could be completely closed one day. 

“I’m afraid in that situation people will start degrading in isolation. That’s the scariest thing. We will live like in a prison. It will be like back in the USSR”

For Vitek, if left without an option to shop in Norway, life will take a dramatic turn: “There is a word for that - a HIT with S in the beginning”, he told The Barents Observer.  

The tax-free agent Lyudmila tells me since the war began, the amount of Russians who get tax-free refunds has shrunk fivefold. Besides the banned Russian private cars, other factors such as difficulties in getting a Norwegian visa or limitations of movements of Russian sailors around Kirkenes play a significant role in that. 

Though Lyudmila hopes the border will not be closed:

“I hope the border (between Russia and Norway) will remain open as long as possible. I think it’s the best counter-propaganda when you can come over here to Norway and see that you are still welcome here, people smile to you on the border, that no one sees you as an enemy. That here in Norway people understand the difference between people and the regime”, Lyudmila says and adds that the open border is also important for those who have to leave Russia for the sake of safety.


The Norwegian arctic town of Kirkenes is located a 20-minute drive from the Russian border. Photo: Henry Patton


Lyudmila’s boss, Christopher Skjoldhammer, the Head of Refund and Operations at Global Blue Norge, tells me Kirkenes is a minor part of their market in Norway, where they have around 46 refund points countrywide. But still, Christopher, who is based in Oslo, cares about the future of his business in Kirkenes: 

“I would love to have business coming back as it used to be (when there were more Russian clients). It is an important income for Kirkenes to get these border crossers coming over and spending money. But it’s a sensitive subject. From one side you don’t want to punish the regular people, if you know what I mean. But at the same time, one can say - “ok, here they come”. They have a war going on, but they come here and still can shop tax- free”. I think it’s a two-sided situation. The war is not their choice. It is one man’s choice. Or of people surrounding that one man”, Christopher told the Barents Observer. 


“It’s sad that it happens with Russia”, - The Kirkenes shoe shop owner Bjørn Ole Hamre told me at the end of our conversation.  When I asked him if he would like the cooperation between Norway and Russia to return like it used to be again, he answered:

“I think this will be a few decades before we can say that”.


The Norwegian border check point Storskog is the only open land border crossing remaining between Russia and Europe. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina


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