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A new iron curtain falls on a Norwegian town

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Until February 24, Europe had mostly found ways to get along with Vladimir Putin's Russia. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine ended that era with ripple effects along the thousand miles of Russia's border with the EU. NPR's Quil Lawrence sends this report from the northern tip of that border in Arctic Norway.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The city of Kirkenes is Norway's best-known border town with Russia. Lately, it's also known for its hockey team.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PUCKERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).

LAWRENCE: That's thanks to this television series about the Kirkenes Puckers. They play in a mostly Russian hockey league.

What are all these up here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Some are gifts, some of the Russian teams.

LAWRENCE: On a recent visit, the Puckers' home rink in Kirkenes doesn't really live up to the hype. The city is 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. So while the rink doesn't melt, it does often get covered with snow, and the city snow plows are sometimes too busy. Two players still showed up hoping for a game; one of them came by bicycle.

It's snowing outside. There's 4 inches of snow on the rink.

ARE DRAGLAND: Yeah.

LAWRENCE: I don't know. Maybe it's negative - is it zero or negative 1 outside maybe?

DRAGLAND: I think it's minus 4.

LAWRENCE: Minus 4. We're in the Arctic. It's dark out. It's a Tuesday night. And you still came out to play hockey.

DRAGLAND: Yeah, of course (laughter) because it's fun (laughter) and to get some exercise and, yeah, have fun.

LAWRENCE: Are Dragland plays on the adult team. There's a kids league, too. The Puckers' slogan translates as busting down borders. But that border is now firmly shut.

DRAGLAND: There's no telling when it will be back. The matches will be back on again, but I hope the league will survive. I think some months or weeks, that's no problem. But many years might be a problem. But yeah. We just have to wait and see what happens in the world.

LAWRENCE: And then there's the Puckers' star center.

GURO BRANDSHAUG: My first trip to Russia was in 1995. Then I played the European championship for women's in Yaroslavl.

LAWRENCE: Guro Brandshaug sees the hockey team as an embodiment of the city's philosophy and as its survival strategy.

BRANDSHAUG: People living up here, we need to feel secure. And I think we managed to have a low tension between the neighboring countries up here in the north by cooperating in areas where we can cooperate, like in science, like in people-to-people relations, like in also business relations.

LAWRENCE: Brandshaug also serves as CEO of the Kirkenes Conference. It's a kind of business summit between Russia and Norway. This year was the 14th annual, and it started out okay.

BRANDSHAUG: So on Wednesday the 23, I welcomed our foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. Already then it was some tension. But I think for the people that visited the conference, they were most happy. In a way, we were heading out of the corona pandemic.

LAWRENCE: Norway had eased all its mask mandates, and people were just happy to meet in person again.

BRANDSHAUG: And then we woke up on the morning on the 24 we had on the second day of the conference. And the Russian had started bombing Ukraine. It was a huge shock. People were actually crying. They were so - yeah, it was a huge shock. Many people up here in Kirkenes, they thought - we never thought he would be that crazy. I think that we see what Putin are really capable of. Yeah, we have been questioning ourselves.

LAWRENCE: It's been sobering, she says, to hear friends in Russia enthusiastically supporting Putin. She doesn't question they need to sanction Russia, but Brandshaug also worries that the sanctions will mostly hurt regular Russians. And it's not just the Russian economy. Here in Kirkenes, about 70% of the economy depends on crossing the border, says Thomas Nilsen with the Barents Observer newspaper.

THOMAS NILSEN: The 24 of February was the real reality check for this town. Everyone that had a hope of open-door, cross-border free trade relations with Russia lost all that hope. So everything that has been built up over the last 30 years was just washed out in a few days. I mean, we are seeing the Iron Curtain coming back.

LAWRENCE: That Iron Curtain severed personal ties, economic links and even efforts toward mutual survival, Nilsen says. For years, Norway had been helping Russia safely dispose of spent fuel rods from its aging nuclear submarines, which were stationed up here in the Arctic. Nilsen sent us to see the Norwegian nuclear scientists who are now stuck at their research station on the border.

NILSEN: I drive there in 45 minutes, but you will - you should spend an hour on the road.

LAWRENCE: White-knuckle driving in what most people not from the Arctic would call a blizzard to the park station where we meet a man who collects dust from the wind.

BREDO MOLLER: So my name is Bredo Moller, and I work with the Norwegian Radiation Safety Authority.

LAWRENCE: Moller takes us outside across a snowy field to see his machines...

MOLLER: Yeah, I'm sorry, guys (laughter). This is actually a lot of snow.

LAWRENCE: ...And laughs when I sink through the crust of snow up to my waist.

MOLLER: Oh, my God. Do you mind? Can I take a picture of you? Is that OK? This is perfect.

LAWRENCE: Then he flips open the hood of his filter. It looks like a white mushroom cap the size of a washing machine.

MOLLER: You see? So this is the air sampler you're talking about. So this has been running here for 25 years, nonstop, 24/7. So if the concentration are getting too - high enough, it will also trigger an alarm.

LAWRENCE: Moller collects dust off the filter screen, and then back at the lab, he puts it into one of two thick kegs.

MOLLER: These are called high-purity germanium detectors. And these can detect very, very small trace level amounts of radioactive particles.

LAWRENCE: And with that, he can read the signature, tell if the radiation comes from a source in Europe or from the still-hot Chernobyl site or if it's a new leak.

MOLLER: And then we alert internally if we see something we should normally not see.

LAWRENCE: If something pops hot, he's got a landline telephone to Oslo.

MOLLER: You know, that's more or less why we're here, of course, to monitor what's on the other side of the border just a few kilometers from here. In a way, you can say we are some kind of a nuclear watchdog on the border to Russia.

LAWRENCE: That's to prevent one of the world's biggest nuclear waste dumps in Russia from polluting the pristine waters of the Arctic and to stop spent fuel rods from getting stolen and used for terrorism in a dirty bomb. Moller says just last November, Norway marked 25 years of cooperation on this, and he went to Murmansk, Russia, for a celebration with his colleagues, who are his friends.

MOLLER: So I have many friends, Nicolai (ph) and we have Sasha (ph) and Mirvolva (ph). And all of these people are now in Murmansk, I know, just shaking their heads like me now and waiting for this to end.

LAWRENCE: He's certain that his Russian friends there oppose the war in Ukraine like he does. They just can't speak out right now. But it's chilling that many local officials across the border, as well as 700 rectors and university presidents in Russia, issued statements supporting Putin. And that makes Bredo Moller worried that even this vital work might not resume soon.

MOLLER: It will take many, many years, I'm afraid, to get back to that trust that we have been gained through these 25 years of cooperation. It is - yeah, it is a bit frightening times.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kirkenes in the Arctic Circle, Norway. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.