Seventy years after World War II, Karl-Fredrik Figenschou decides to find the truth about his father’s past as a secret Soviet intelligence agent.
That develops into an exploration of stories that have never previously been told – and which many people still do not want to talk about – in the borderland between East and West.
Ragnvald Figenschou from Sør-Varanger in Finnmark County had risked his life as a secret agent – a partisan – for the Soviet intelligence agency during World War II. He survived the war, but his dramatic wartime decision would have unforeseen consequences in post-war Norway.
Seventy years after the Second World War, Karl-Fredrik Figenschou decides to find the truth about his father’s secret past. What lay behind Ragnvald’s fateful wartime decisions? And why would he never say anything to his family about the missions in which he had been involved?
After a number of violent battles, it was the Red Army of the Soviet Union that finally liberated eastern Finnmark County from the clutches of Nazi Germany in October 1944. It was a dearly earned victory. For many residents of Finnmark, it would also turn out to be a dearly earned peace.
”For All Our Fathers Fought” tells the hidden story of Norwegians who fought side-by-side with the Russians – of those who won the war, but lost the peace. It is also the story of a son’s search for the truth about his father, in order to find peace with painful memories. A story of how the fight for Norway’s freedom was followed by betrayal. The film uncovers festering wounds from both the War and the Cold War: the unpleasant truth of how Norway betrayed those who had sacrificed everything.
In Karl-Fredrik’s exploration of his father’s past, we encounter everyday people trapped in great power politics. They live on the border between Norway and Russia in the High North, a border that separates East and West into two blocs of competing great powers. These border-dwellers’ lives have always been affected by great power politics. They are the ones who have had to suffer the consequences of sanctions and political cynicism.
For All Our Fathers Fought is an intimate personal story that brings to life a forgotten chapter in Norwegian wartime and post-war history, a chapter that has once again become relevant in the current political situation.
Once again a centuries-old peaceful cooperation between neighbours is threatened by cold war and irreconcilable rhetoric. Relations between Norway and Russia are cooler than they have been in many decades. Meanwhile, the people in the border area must live their everyday lives hoping and praying that those relations will remain peaceful. This border harbours many nuances, both historical and current, nuances that never find a place in the black and white narrative of international tension and conflict.
BETWEEN BLACK AND WHITE
They infiltrated behind enemy lines in Finnmark from bases in the Murmansk area in order to spy on German naval traffic, fortresses and armed forces. They were Norwegian secret agents on missions for the Soviet Union in occupied Norway.
They often spied in the same areas where they had grown up and knew every stone and creek. They were called partisans even though they did not serve in any battle groups.
Many of them operated out of rock crevices and mountain caves along the coast of Finnmark, where they monitored German naval traffic on its way to the harbours in Kirkenes and the former Finnish province of Petsamo. They reported to the Soviet home base in Murmansk so that Soviet bombers could subsequently find their targets.
Other partisans had their bases in the forests of Pasvik, where they tapped out radio messages across the border, reporting on what the Germans were up to in the Kirkenes area: how much ammunition they had in their depots, along with estimates of the number of soldiers, heavy weapons, motor vehicles, horses, etc. All of this intelligence was meant to help predict what the Germans would be able to deploy if the major battle to take Murmansk were eventually to take place.
The Pasvik Valley in Sør-Varanger is not just Norwegian territory. Norway and Russia share the valley in its lengthwise direction, with the deepest channel in the Pasvik River serving as the international border. This is Northern Europe’s most recent border, 197.8 km long, drawn up in 1826 between the Norwegian-Swedish Union and Czarist Russia. For some years, it was also the border between Norway and Finland, which was ceded a corridor out to the Barents Sea after the Russian revolution.
Russia is the only neighbouring country with which Norway has never fought a war. Politically, the two countries have always practiced a pragmatic cooperation in the far north, alternately based on mutual trust and distrust.
Kirkenes lies 11 kilometres along European highway E105 from the border crossing at Storskog. From there, it is 212 kilometres to Murmansk, which is the world’s largest city north of the Arctic Circle. Murmansk has a little less than 300,000 inhabitants and is one of Russia’s most important ports. The harbours on the Murmansk fjord are ice-free year round and serve as Russia’s strategically important gateway to the open seas to the West, North and East. For that reason, much of the nation’s submarine fleet is stationed there with its arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Murmansk’s strategic location was also the reason for the bloodbath that ensued in the war between Germany and the Soviet Union in the years 1941 to 1944. The battle over the ice-free harbour in Murmansk claimed the lives of ten thousands of soldiers on both sides. The port was essential to the Soviet Union, which could receive military supplies from the Western allied convoys that unloaded there. Germany wanted to stop that traffic by any means possible, but never managed to do so.
In this northernmost sector of the Eastern front, the Norwegian partisans in Soviet service played an important role. They helped ensure that many tens of German supply vessels were sunk, but their contributions could have been even greater if the Soviet bombing had been more targeted.
The agents who had to be forgotten
When the war came to an end, the Norwegian home forces came out of the forests. The Norwegian partisans gradually returned from the Soviet Union, with the exception of seven who were sentenced for counter-espionage. Four of those agents came home alive, while the other three ended their lives in Stalin’s prison camps. The resistance fighters in Southern Norway were hailed as national heroes, but the partisans were regarded with suspicion. Many of them were communists, but not all of them, and in the freshly allied NATO country of Norway, they were suspected of continuing to do the Soviet Union’s bidding. The Iron Curtain had been lowered over Europe, and in Norway the Prime Minister and Labour Party leader, Einar Gerhardsen, launched his organised campaign against the communists. That resulted in an extensive political persecution of radical leftists, returning partisans, and their families for many decades after the War.
In 1992, however, Norway’s King Harald laid a wreath on the monument to the partisans in the Finnmark village of Kiberg, from where many of the partisans had originally come. In that way, the King took a reckoning with Norway’s treatment of the partisans and their assistants. ”…I am afraid that we may have unjustly afflicted some of these individuals with great personal difficulties in the shadow of the Cold War…” was one of King Harald’s statements that day. Many of the partisans greatly appreciated the King’s speech. They regarded it as an apology and a reparation for the injustices that they had been forced to suffer.
The fact that many of the partisans were communists was used against them throughout the whole post-war period. In connection with the 70th anniversary celebration of Norway’s liberation in 2015, the Norwegian Ministry of Defence invited people to recommend new candidates to be awarded for their war effort. The Ministry’s awards project was supposed to be the last medals to those who had not been honoured and recognised for their wartime efforts. Some of the partisans had eventually been awarded The Defense Medal, the Norwegian lowest military distinction – just like many other Norwegians. At the same time, many of them were earlier awarded the Order of the Red Banner, the Soviet Union’s second highest military distinction, equivalent to the Norwegian War Cross.
Two years later, the Ministry of Defence concluded that no one else should be awarded for their efforts during the Second World War, thus,many of the partisans were neglected once again.The explanation for this has been a complex one for many decades: e.g. that they did not serve under Norwegian command, that the documentation of what they had done was not good enough, that they had already been awarded for their service by the Soviet Union – and hence that they were communists and thereby involved in “illegal conspiratory activities” in the post-war period.
Cold wars old and new
The Cold War left open wounds in Finnmark. The arousal of suspicions and surveillance of suspects stirred up rumours and bad blood. Towns, hamlets and fishing villages were boiling with suppressed anger. The partisans kept silent about the things they had been involved in during the war. Stories were hushed up and kept secret. There were many things that were unpleasant to talk about.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was followed by a couple of decades with more relaxed relations between East and West, but after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its role in the war in Ukraine, the western nations have imposed strict sanctions on Russia. Norway has complied with the EU’s policies, and relations between Russia and Norway are now cooler than they have been in many decades.
In the Pasvik Valley, in the town of Nikel and in Kirkenes, however, life along and across the border goes on as it has done for centuries, with the authorities loosening or tightening their control. Despite the mutual political mistrust, the local populations want to have normal and peaceful relations with their neighbours. The inhabitants of Kirkenes travel across the border to Nikel and fill up their petrol tanks, have their cars serviced and go to the dentist. People in Nikel and Murmansk cross the border on Saturdays to shop in Kirkenes and buy diapers, cosmetics, salmon and sweets.
The border between East and West can often be an everyday place, but it can also be the backdrop for high-level drama.
On 5 December 2017, Frode Berg, a retired Norwegian border inspector from Kirkenes, was arrested in Moscow, suspected of and later charged with espionage. Berg had worked at the Norwegian-Russian border for 24 years, and for all that time he had earnestly worked to promote good relations with his neighbouring country, e.g. through various cultural projects. Now Berg confessed that he had been on a mission in Russia for the Norwegian intelligence agency. The local community in Kirkenes was in shock. The intelligence agency was accused of using crude methods if that was how they employed resourceful local residents who enjoyed great trust on both sides of the border for intelligence missions. Frode Berg is still in prison in Moscow as he awaits his trial. The Norwegian authorities will not comment on the case anymore than to say that Berg is receiving normal consular assistance.
The special relations between the people of neighbouring countries along the Norwegian-Russian border have given rise to dilemmas, brutal fates and intense personal stories: thought-provoking nuances in light of today’s cold war rhetoric and black and white depiction of the enemy. The issues raised in the Frode Berg case show that many of the same conflicts and dilemmas that confronted the border dwellers during and after the Second World War are now repeating themselves.