Cold war border not as cast iron as I thought | Letters

A Sami woman watching the reindeer. Samis were allowed to cross the Russian-Norweigan border during the cold war, writes former Guardian European editor John Palmer. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

I read Patrick Wintour’s account of his trip to the far north of Norway – up to the frontier with Russia – with great interest (Report, 13 March). He rightly points to the complex history of relations between the two countries even during the darkest days of the cold war. During that time, when I was the Guardian’s European editor, and visited that region, I was struck by the drama surrounding Norway’s “Checkpoint Charlie” frontier with the then-Soviet Union. It was highly militarised, all barbed wire, searchlights and military posts. We were only allowed to view across to the Soviet side for a maximum of two minutes at a time with binoculars. A subsequent tour of the frontier revealed wide gaps in border defences. An embarrassed Nato officer admitted this was to allow the ethnic minority nomadic Sami reindeer herdsmen to cross either way with their animals. Maybe this explains Wintour’s reference to people with families divided by the border who still hold “joint visas.” The James Bond-type spies working for the KGB, CIA or MI5 might have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had only realised how easily they could ply their trade across the frontier then by posing as Sami.
John Palmer

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