KIRKENES, NORWAY -- On a dirt road outside this small iron mining town, far above the Arctic Circle, a lone soldier kept watch at a flimsy wire gate secured with a small padlock. Just beyond, a low picket fence spanned the track that disappeared into the woods.
Waving mosquitos from his face, the soldier explained that his job was to keep the rare visitor here from making disrespectful gestures into the emptiness to the east. Even more rarely, he said, a tipsy tourist might try to make a dash around the gate, just to touch the ground on the other side before dashing back.
Other than the occasional reindeer, the soldier concluded, that is about as exciting as it gets here on the front line of the East-West struggle.
Norway is the keeper of one of only two points on the globe where the territory of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member touches the Soviet Union, unbuffered by Eastern Europe or an ocean. Norwegian officials take pride and comfort in the fact that, unlike the sometimes tense frontier between Turkey and the Soviet Union, the 130-mile Norwegian-Soviet border is a "zone of low tension."
"It's a very undramatic border" said Inge Torhaug, a retired Air Force general who has been based here as Norwegian border commissioner for the past five years.
Finnmark County, the northernmost part of Norway's long and slender territory, is draped like an arm across the shoulders of Finland and Sweden, its fingertips resting on the Soviet boundary. The border itself goes north from Finland along the Pasvik River, then eastward across rocky hills and forests where it is marked only by a series of posts -- red and green stripes for the Soviets, yellow with a black tip for Norway. Turning north again, it follows the narrow, gurgling Jakobs River that flows into the Barents Sea.
The last person to defect here was a Soviet soldier who fled to the West in 1979, and no shot has been fired in anger since the 1950s. Two years ago, Torhaug said, the two border commissions became so upset when a Soviet soldier patrolling in the woods jokingly cocked his gun at his Norwegian counterpart that they instituted new procedures. "There would be no more lurking," Torhaug said. "Only open patrolling." When patrols meet now, he said, "they salute each other."
The lack of drama on the Soviet side is somewhat deceptive. While anyone on the western side can walk right up to and even freely cross most of the unfenced border, he is likely to be quickly apprehended by Russian patrols in a no man's land two to six miles deep on the eastern side. The strip is not mined, Torhaug said, but is peppered with electronic sensors.
Just beyond the strip begins one of the most heavily militarized regions of the Soviet Union. The Kola Peninsula is home to the most powerful of the four Soviet naval fleets. More than half of Moscow's strategic submarines are based there, and the peninsula is the staging area for the latest generation of Delta- and Typhoon-class submarines.
Although ground and air forces are limited, in recent years the Soviets have installed extensive facilities and stockpiles of sophisticated equipment for the quick transfer of both. Soviet exercises in the Barents Sea monitored by the West have indicated a greatly enhanced amphibious and land assault capability.
The Soviets are deemed capable of what Norwegian Defense Minister Johan J. Holst calls a "Finnmark grab." But the military gains of such an invasion "would seem marginal" to Moscow, Holst said in a recent speech, "and the dangers of escalation quite large."
Norway's defense strategy is based on simultaneous "deterrence and reassurance." The deterrence part is Oslo's NATO membership, and the promise that any attack on Norway would bring a massive western response. Together with the United States, Britain, Denmark, Canada and West Germany, Norway is responsible for guarding NATO's northern flank, with special attention to monitoring Soviet ship movements in the sea lanes leading from the Barents Sea into the North Atlantic.
Norwegian Air Force bases are scattered throughout the neighboring county of Troms, to the west. Many of the deep, cliff-walled fiords through which thousands of tourists sail each year are lined with hidden artillery, and wired for explosion in the event of incursion. Farther down the Norwegian coast, U.S. military stockpiles are ready for reinforcement within a matter of hours.
However calm relations may be, Holst said, the United States is the major underwriter of Norwegian security, and the Soviet Union its potential challenger.
But Norway's longstanding "base and ban" policy is designed to reassure the Russians that Oslo has no aggressive intent. No foreign bases are allowed on Norwegian territory, and the basing of nuclear weapons is banned in peacetime.
NATO holds a multinational exercise in Norway each winter, "just to show them we mean business, and that we take our defenses seriously," Torhaug said. But no NATO exercises take place in Finnmark, east of the 24th Parallel. Here, only Norwegian troops are allowed.
"The Russians have long memories," said Torhaug. In this region, they recall how invading Nazi troops began their far northern push into the Soviet Union from Kirkenes in 1941.
Although they were stopped far short of their goal of Murmansk, on the Kola Peninsula, thousand of German and Austrian soldiers remained to occupy this part of Norway for most of World War II. As the Allies tried to dislodge them, the small town of Kirkenes, population 5,000, suffered 330 bombing attacks. Once it was leveled, the people here took to the iron mines, living in tunnels for much of the war until they were liberated by the Russians.
On the main street of the rebuilt town is a monument to what were considered here to be Russian heroes.
"They came and pushed the Germans out, so I think we like them a little," said a Kirkenes youth, far too young to have known the war. "It's what they do in other places that we don't like."
This isolated land, with 24-hour summer daylight and winter darkness, is connected with the rest of Norway by only a single, two-lane road, across eternally snow-capped mountains and broad fiords. Its ethnic roots stretch east, rather than west, from the time when the indigenous Lapps herded their reindeer here with little regard for national boundaries. The two countries have always been at peace, and it was not until 1826 that a Norwegian-Russian border was drawn.
About 2,000 tourists, all from the Norwegian side, pass yearly through the only designated border crossing at a place called Storskog, about two miles beyond Kirkenes. Bused by the Soviets to Nikkel, a nearby mining town, they then are put on trains to Murmansk.
Norway has assigned 150 border guards in seven stations along the frontier. They face 17 Soviet encampments, with their own set of towers manned by members of the KGB, the national intelligence service that provides all Soviet border guards. So isolated are the camps that the Soviets supply electricity to some of the Norwegian outposts, and vice versa, depending on whose lines are closest.
Most of the official contact between the two sides takes place at meetings of the two border commissions once or twice a month. Meeting day begins when Torhaug greets his Soviet counterpart, KGB officer Vladimir Leonidivitch Kireillov, at Storskog, a setting of peaceful manicured lawns and more picket fence. After respective honor-guard welcomes, they repair to the Storskog meeting house, or Soviet border headquarters, in the nearby town of Boris Gleb. The two sides go over the minutes of the previous meeting, and discuss pending business before moving to another room, or to Torhaug's home, for lunch. That, Torhaug said, is when the vodka used to come out, before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began his crusade to turn Russia into a nation of teetotalers. On the Norwegian side, however, there is still aquavit for toasts.
"We talk about music and ballet, and try to keep away from politics," said Torhaug. "Sometimes you get the feeling that you're taking part in a play by Chekhov. Halfway through lunch, we decide that relations between Washington and Moscow have nothing to do with this border. At the end of lunch, we decide that relations between Oslo and Moscow have nothing to do with it."