On top of the world

Russians aren't the only migrants to find a welcome in Arctic Norway

If you've had enough of where you are and if you're ready to take anything the wind blows in your direction, you might find the wind whisking you off to some strangely fascinating places. So it was when, without checking the location on the map, I agreed to go to the Norwegian town of Kirkenes for a reading at the municipal library. I started for Boryspil Airport in Kiev at 5am and, many hours later, at 10.30pm on the final leg of my journey, a tiny, two-prop plane brought me in to land over the jagged outcrops of the fjords.

Thus I found myself near the top of the world, 250km from Murmansk and 30km from the most northerly Russian town, which has the romantic name of Nikel ("nickel"). There was snow on the ground and the air was salty. Kirkenes is more like a large village than a small town. There's a Chinese restaurant employing Norwegians of Chinese origin. (I hope, for their sakes, they are from the northern part of China!) There is a very attractive municipal library, spacious and warm, with a free internet service. And, most interesting of all, the library is run by two Russian women, part of a long line to have inhabited the Norwegian north.

In fact, of the 3,900 people who live in Kir kenes, more than 400 are the Russian wives of Norwegian men. I didn't ask the local men why so many of them ignored their own womenfolk, but the pattern is clear. Many Norwegian men consider marriage only when they are approaching 40. The more adventurous head for Murmansk or Arkhangelsk and the lazier ones pop over to Nikel to choose a dependable bride. Not that Norwegian women are any less dependable; they just take life a bit more seriously than Russian women do and they are generally more demanding of their menfolk. Therein, it seems, lies the secret of the popularity of Norwegian-Russian marriages.

You can hear Russian spoken all over Kirkenes, and not just by women. The local ship maintenance business - the town's biggest employer - has managed to remain solvent thanks to the Russian barges and cargo ships that come to Norway for repairs because in Russia it would be even more expensive. So scores of Russian merchant seamen wander the streets. Sometimes they drink, but only very carefully. The price of alcohol, like the price of everything in Norway, makes each purchase a painful business. So the sailors don't bother with the bars. They must look elsewhere for a place to keep warm, and many of them find shelter at the municipal library, where there are more than a thousand books in Russian and kind-hearted librarians who might brew them a cup of tea.

Among the audience for my prose recital were 15 Russian seamen. A few of them had prepared themselves for the evening by reading one or two of my novels. Some even asked questions about specific sentences in the text. One sailor, who obviously read newspapers more often than novels, asked: "Why does Ukraine want to join Nato?"

One of the librarians skilfully interpreted on my behalf, but when I happened to mention the tragic deaths of my childhood pet hamsters, she stopped interpreting and whispered to me that I shouldn't continue with this theme, because the Norwegians protect their children (there were some in the audience) from the subject of death - even animal death.

The Russian women call Kirkenes "Kirkene sovka". They tend to socialise in generation groups and the older "settlers" sometimes give the newcomers a hard time. None of it is malicious, though, and you get the impression of a deep-seated camaraderie among these Russian women. One told me, with pride, that Norwegian men who are married to Russian women tend to live longer. "Medical treatment here is all done by video link," she explained. "The country is huge and most of the consultants are in Oslo, from where they hand out advice over the phone. So when our menfolk fall ill, we drive over to Nikel or Murmansk, where the local doctors diagnose and treat them perfectly well without a stick of technology."

You could say that the Norwegians are jilted Russophiles, especially at the moment. In the course of my two-day visit, several Norwegians asked me why Russia was strengthening its border defences with strategic bombers, as if the Cold War had never ended. And then Norwegian TV announced that a Russian atomic submarine was somewhere under the surface of the Arctic Ocean, ready for military action and flying the Russian flag (though quite how a submarine flies a flag, I don't know).

"I'm sorry," I answered. I can't say why the Russians do what they do. I'm not Russian. I'm Ukrainian, and the only Ukrainian submarine has no battery and is destined to rust at a Sebas topol dock. Ukraine is a peacefully anarchic state: a threat only to itself. But even as I explain this, I realise that the Norwegians are not really afraid of Russia; they just want to be friends - like the donkey wants to be friends with Shrek.

Nowadays it's fairly easy to cross the border between Norway and Russia, provided you have a visa, of course. However, the border area is an austere and frightening place. Soviet citizens would try to escape into Norway across this border and often they would be shot dead doing it, just like those who tried to get over the Berlin Wall. But those tragic incidents remain shrouded in secrecy and nobody seems interested in investigating the subject.

Today Norway is a very hospitable country, welcoming refugees from all over the world. The old harbour town of Trondheim is now home to many Chechens and the further north you go, the more former inhabitants of southern Asia you see. No doubt there is pragmatism in this hospitality. The territory inside the polar circle is huge and sparsely populated. For many years to come, there will be room for the Russian wives as well as refugees from Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Andrey Kurkov's latest novel, "The President's Last Love", is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99, paperback)

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot