My grandmother’s great-aunt (in Norway we say grandtante (tante=aunt)) Sofie went to live on the Kola peninsula in Russia with her husband and they raised their family there. This story has been part of my family history since she and her children were an important part of my grandmother’s and mother’s family relations.
Elen Sophia, or Sofie as she was called, was born in 1841 on a large farm in Beitstad, Nord-Trøndelag. This is in the centre of Norway. Her parents were Peder Thoresen Li and Anna Johansdatter Kaldal. She was one of four siblings, and her brother Edvard is my great-great-grandfather.
She was confirmed in the church at Elden in October 1856. Her grades were very good in knowledge of Christianity and effort.
In the census of 1865, I find her in Strinda, an area on the outskirts of Trondheim, a city close to Beitstad, living as a lodger on a farm. She has means of her own.
In October 1867 she marries Anders Johannesen Skjærseth, a worker in Vardø. Anders was born in Kvernæs in Møre and Romsdal. At the time they are both living in Vardø. Vardø is called: “the extreme north-eastern part of Norway” in Wikipedia. It is east of Istanbul! And it borders the Barents Sea in the North and Russia in the east.
According to an expert on the emigration to Kola, Morten Jentoft, Sofie and Anders were the parents of the first child to be born in the Norwegian colony in Russia. Their son, Johan Peder, was born in 1879. In the Church book from Vardø it is stated that they lived in Sitnavalok (also called Tsypnavolok), while the child was christened in Vardø.
A pair of experts on the Kola Norwegians are Laila og Thor Thorsen, who have written the book: Norwegians on the Murmansk coast (Nordmenn på Murmankysten). They can tell that Anders and the family lived in Tsypnavolok, and later he and his family moved to town of Kola where he established a trading company, which was also well known in Finnmark, Norway.
Trade between northern Norway and north-western Russia is called Pomor trade. It started in the 1700’s and continued until 1917. The tradesmen were of Russian origin. But in the 1870’s the Russians promised Norwegian tradesmen special privileges if they settled on the Kola peninsula. Anders Skjærseth was one of these early trading settlers.
Anders and Sofie had five more children, three girls and two boys. According to information on the Internet, Anders died in 1899 and was buried in Kola. Their son, Johan Peder, who was married too and had two children, died in 1907. Their graves were found by Laila og Thor Thorsen in the summer of 1990 when Russia was opened up to the West. The graveyard was derelict and overgrown with weeds, due to no maintenance for decades.
Family lore says that the remaining family came to Norway before the Russian revolution in 1917 so that their sons would not be drafted as soldiers for Russia. Relations across the border were broken after the revolution. The Norwegians who remained on the Kola peninsula had a hard time for decades, viewed as unwanted foreigners. They were displaced and some were sent to prison camps in Siberia. When relations between east and west were reopened in the 1990’s, journalists and other persons came looking for descendants of the early settlers. A few even spoke a local dialect of Norwegian. They still felt a strong bond to Norway. But it was difficult to prove that they were of Norwegian descent. After some time, they were allowed to come and live in Norway.
In a newspaper from 1914 I find Sofie in Steinkjer, a town close to where she was born. She is listed since she is one of the taxpayers that pays a more than 30 kroner in tax. Her fortune is among the 30 largest in the town. She died in 1930 in Oslo, where she lived with some of her daughters. I have no-one in my family left to ask for more information about the Skjærseth family. Their history is so rich and encompasses countries (Russia and Finland) with quite different languages and or alphabets, so it is not easy research. But I plan to do further research to understand the life they led.
Thank you to contributors on the Digital Archives message boards for their help in adding information to this story.