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Little Moscow: Norðfjörður

Words by
Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson

Photography by

Welcome to Norðfjörður. This beautiful fjord is home to 1,469 people, but its history differs from many of the small towns that dot the fjords of Iceland. For 50-odd years, socialists controlled the town of Neskaupstaður in Norðfjörður. Or, as some would call it – Little Moscow. Today, signs of the townspeople’s leftist ways might seem like they have been methodically removed. But, if you look closely, they’re hidden in plain sight.

Terminus Norðfjörður

In the years following World War II and during the Cold War, Icelandic politics mostly looked towards the west. Neskaupstaður was the only town that took a different approach. A terminus on Iceland’s east coast, it was closed off from the rest of the world and the rest of the world was closed off to them. “You couldn’t get out of here for the whole of winter. For 7-8 months per year, Norðfjörður residents were stuck in Norðfjörður, until the Oddsskarð tunnel was opened in 1978. The isolation created this massive solidarity. But isolation can also make people close-minded, we didn’t have to think about anyone else. It begat this strong leftist way of thinking, revolving around the fact that we all have a responsibility to the community,” says Ingibjörg Þórðardóttir, substitute MP, and an Icelandic teacher at the Vocational School of East Iceland.

Lone town in the east

Lúðvík Jósepsson, Jóhannes Stefánsson, and Bjarni Þórðarson started the socialist movement in 1934, when they were candidates for the town council for Kommúnistaflokkurinn (The Communist Party). They only received a paltry 28 votes (6.9%) at the time. They kept their resolve, changed the party’s name, and won a majority in 1946 as Sósíalistaflokkurinn (The Socialist Party). They held onto it tightly for the coming years. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998, when Norðfjörður unified with neighbouring municipalities to create Fjarðabyggð, that a non-socialist party would have the majority again.

The municipality itself was one of the main employers in the town, ensuring that everyone was taken care of. Síldarvinnslan, the fish factory in town, provided a large portion of residents with employment. Unemployment was unheard of round these parts. “Everybody in town had a role. It didn’t matter how much you could do, but if you could perform this task, then that task was yours. You’d get work in the fish-freezing plant, and if you could only work for two hours, then you would work for two hours. I remember people who worked all day but achieved very little. But it was better for the community that this person was there, doing something for the cause, rather than sitting at home and not taking part,” says Ingibjörg. “Work was easy to get, and everything was done for you, if you joined the party,” says Hákon Guðröðarson, innovator and owner of Hótel Hildibrand.

“Everyone could get work and everything was done for the people,
if they were party members.”

Soviet hints

In some ways, calling Norðfjörður’s 20th century history communist seems like hyperbole. But is it? The exaggeration is not forced on the town, they claimed it themselves. Two clocks were put up in the local swimming pool, one showing the time in Moscow, the other the local time in Little Moscow. A cairn was put up, sporting a sign which welcomed visitors to Little Moscow as well as indicating the distance to Moscow. A building in the centre of town, which housed the headquarters of the left-swinging party, was christened Kreml and painted red. In 2004, the restaurant Rauða Torgið (Red Square) was opened. In addition, plentiful herring fishing grounds to the east of the fjord are also known as the Red Square. Incidentally, or not, much of Norðfjörður’s communist past is closely connected to herring, much of which was sold to the USSR.

Little Moscow no more?

Although the locals used to embrace the Little Moscow moniker, nowadays, you won’t see many remnants of the town’s red history. The clocks have been taken down, the cairn removed, and Kreml has been painted a dull grey. All of these were put up tongue-in-cheek, but where do you draw the line between reality and jest? “All of a sudden it had been taken down – like someone thought it was embarrassing,” Ingibjörg states quizzically. Bar a graffiti mural of a sea monster with Stalin’s head, the town is devoid of any signs, perhaps in deference to 20th century history and communism’s bloody mark on it. “Communism isn’t something that stands for positive things. But you take the positives out of it. I think no one was in support of mass murder, that’s way too simplistic a way of looking at it. But maybe that’s the reason why people became sensitive to the issue.”

There is one thing that still lives on, however. The township sold the fish factory to outside parties, but a part of the company was kept in socialist hands. “Socialism lives on through SÚN. They don’t keep any of the dividends, rather putting it all back out into the community. Into sports clubs, house repairs, concerts, festivals, name it. SÚN is for Norðfjörður and doesn’t leave the ring of mountains surrounding the fjord,” Ingibjörg tells me. “I work closely with SÚN. They are shareholders in the hotel and have supported cultural projects, livening up the town. The lines between the socialists and the rest, which once existed in the town, are now non-existent,” Hákon says. One of the last remnants of the old socialist establishment is clothing store Fjarðasport, run by SÚN. It’s essentially a non-profit business, providing townsfolk with inexpensive, quality outerwear clothing. But, most importantly, it allows people to shop locally. So, the socialist way lives on, in one way or another.

But how much truth is in the name Little Moscow? “There’s of course not a kernel of truth today. The town isn’t Little Moscow, and isn’t more connected to left-leaning forces, not to mention Russia, than any other town in Iceland. But it used to be, and there was a strong connection. Town council members went on official trips to Moscow and were connected with the USSR. There were men here who denied Stalin’s atrocities,” Ingibjörg says. Many a Norðfjöður child was sent to East-German summer camps. Ingibjörg was one of those. “Who sends a 12-year-old child to East Germany for six weeks? We’re talking before the fall of the wall here.” Although, to be fair, Ingibjörg says she received more indoctrination in a Christian summer camp than she did at the one in East Germany. “Each day we drew the East German flag and said Die Deutsche Demokratische Republik – still the only thing I know in German. But none of it sat in me. It had no lasting effect on my opinions and I didn’t experience any trauma.”

Communist… party

Each year, Norðfjörður celebrates the midwinter festival Kommablót (Communist Feast). In the rest of Iceland, the holiday is called Þorrablót and involves eating cured meat, including ram’s testicles. Here, the food is the same, but the singing is different. The repertoire consists of Soviet worker songs, sung below the Soviet hammer and sickle. “It’s unbelievably fun. We place our hands on our hearts and sing the Soviet classics. But today it’s just a show,” Hákon says. In the past, only socialists were allowed entry. Today, all townsfolk are welcome. “It has nothing to do with communism, we’re just reminiscing. It’s all quite humorous. We always receive a message from North Korea. We make it ourselves. A picture of Kim where he’s saying, ‘Enjoy tonight.’ You could pose the question – are we allowed to make fun of these things? It’s a delicate issue but we make fun of it and have fun,” Ingibjörg says.


Industrial communists

Yet not everyone has an entirely rosy view of Norðfjörður’s communist era. The way Hákon sees it, the socialist rulers of the town didn’t have that much of a community mindset: instead they used their power to protect their own interests. “They were just industrial communists. These men weren’t that socialist. The main issue was just that there would be enough employment for everyone. But this was nothing but a brotherhood of men who wanted to keep their assets in their control. Maybe it started out with socialist ideals, but it didn’t end that way. These were people who had been in control for too long and had gotten used to ruling everything. They were going to rule and govern forever. But everything has its end.” Ensuring employment is however not all the Socialist Party did, as the town council invested in facilities such as a quality hospital, schools, and a community centre under their leadership. The small town developed infrastructure that far outweighed its small stature.

neskaupstaður little moscow

Stagnation to innovation 

It‘s maybe understandable that Hákon sees it this way, as his family built and owned the local co-op Fram, and often found themselves warring with the socialist town council. But, nowadays, Hákon is a mediator between the old lines of the past, connecting the socialists in SÚN with capitalistic innovation. Hótel Hildibrand opened in 2014 at the same site as the old co-op, a much welcome addition to the small Norðfjörður economy. For a long time, Norðfjörður wasn’t on the map for travellers, but things are starting to change. “When we started, there was no focus on tourism. There was no other town of this size in Iceland that had nearly no tourism. So, we started from scratch. There we no guides, no information. But we are lucky to have all of these luxuries in place, originally intended for the locals. A good swimming pool, great museums, as well as a golf course and a ski area,” Hákon enthuses.

The incentive wasn’t there for townsfolk to build up tourism as they were employed and content. But not everyone wants to work for someone else. Nowadays, Hákon is spearheading the wave of innovation in the community. “The history of employment and the fact that everybody was always taken care of means that it will take a long time for new generations to realise that if you don’t do it yourself, no one will do it for you. It’s a double-edged sword. ‘Little Moscow’ is a good story, one we tell all our visitors, and it has done a whole lot for the town. But it’s also left inactivity in people. We have a lot of assets in the town, but also a special type of society where everybody expects that someone else will take care of things for them. People were brought up in a way where the party rules your opportunities.”

Welcome back

Today, the town is filled to the brim with children, as young families have moved back to Norðfjörður following their studies. What’s more, the comeback of the Little Moscow welcome cairn is in the works. It’s a sign of the times, as Norðfjörður comes to grips with its past and welcomes a new era.

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This article is an excerpt from Iceland Review Magazine

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.