Solitude in the wake of Willem Barentsz

A very new book with many beautiful pictures and a colourful text made by photographer Jeroen Toirkens and writer Petra Sjouwerman, with a historical epilogue by Diederik Veerman, was recently published in the Netherlands. It tells about a trip made following the so-called ‘Barents Road’ on the Barents Region, to the area that has been described as Europe’s last wilderness. It is in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Just like the Barents Sea the Barents region was named in 1993 after the sixteenth century Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz. It was done at the initiative of the Norwegian minister for foreign affairs Thorvald Stoltenberg, who wanted by this way to improve collaboration between these four northern countries in the fields of culture, education, environment and indigenous peoples.

Here is an interview made with one of the authors – Jeroen Toirkens

R.L.:Jeroen, how did you get this idea to write a book about Willem Barentsz?
J.T.: An idea first came from my friend Diederik Veerman. He used to study in Groningen. I met him in 2006 or around this time. I was there with Anna Prakhova, she is from the Kola Saami people. It was the first time when we met and made a good connection. Now he works in Den Haag for the Museon.
Around two and half years ago Diederik came to me with an idea to make a new project about Willem Barentsz. He had heard that that time in Harlingen, Friesland started to rebuilt his ship.

Diederik had made a plan to work on this subject and we discussed it together. We discovered that in 2013 there was a celebration of the Netherlands and Russian Friendship Year. Then we heard about “The Barents road” – a road from North Norway all the way from Norway, Sweden, and Finland to Murmansk. We all liked this idea to follow this road along the way, to meet people and landscape, environment and make photographs. In this way to tell a story about this region and people along the Barents’ road, within the context of the historical story of the Barentsz’s expedition to Nova Zembla in 1596. That was the main idea.
Later, when we arrived to that area it appeared that almost nobody there knows about this Barents road. It was just an idea of the Swedish tourist organization. They made a website about the Barents road, and nobody in the neighbourhood ever heard about it. Of course, people know that they live in the Barents Region, which is in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russian, all the way to the Nenets area.
R.L.: Yes, along the Barents Sea.
J.T.: Along the Barents Sea. I had heard about it before, because I have been to the Nenets area, and I have been to the Saami on the Kola Peninsula. I knew that there was collaboration between these Northern countries. We found this idea to travel, following his route, great because Barentsz, of course, is a Dutch historical figure. Everybody knows about his adventures. We planned to focus on the area and people, within an area from the viewpoint of a historical diary from 1598 made by Gerrit de Veer. That it is what we actually did: we made a plan and got money from the celebration of the Netherlands-Russia 400 years Friendship Year to do this trip and to make out of this trip an exhibition in Moscow. That was last September in 2013.
So, the starting point was the Barents road and people who live there, combined to the historical diary and the outcome would be an exhibition. Later on I talked to my publisher and he asked me (because of my book Nomad) if I have some new plans. I told him about this Barentsz’s project and he said that maybe it is a good idea to make a book about this project. That is sort of the way how this idea was developed.
There are many pictures of people in your book. What did they tell you about this historical person Willem Barentsz?
J.T.: We asked, of course, many people about Willem Barentsz. Mostly people know him be-cause of the Barents Sea which has his name. Most people do not know that he was Dutch. There were a couple of people who really knew a lot about him and historical facts. Like that he wintered on Nova Zembla and he made a very revolutionary map. That sort of things… At the same time, to be honest, most people do not know that much about him. We also asked people what they know about the Barents road. Nobody heard about this road. But we also went to Kirkenes and to Vardø in Norway. Vardø is a place where most of his expeditions mostly started. It was the last harbour before they went to the Arctic Sea. We knew that there is a little statue of Willem Barentsz there. We were looking for it the whole day and asked lots of people about this statue of Willem Barentsz.
Nobody knew. We made many nice pictures and talked to people. After a long day we came back to our hotel, where we asked on the reception about this statue. The answer was that it is just around the corner. It was quite near to our hotel. This monument is very short, around 1,20 m and it is looking over the sea. In my book you will find this picture.

Photo Jeroen Toirkens.  Norway, Vardø Monument for Willem Barentsz in Vardø.
Photo Jeroen Toirkens.
Norway, Vardø
Monument for Willem Barentsz in Vardø.

Monument for Willem Barentsz in Vardø. Barentsz visited Vardø several times during his expeditions in search of the North East Passage. In 1596 his ship was trapped in the ice near Nova Zembla and Barentsz and his crew was forced to spend the winter on the island. Barentsz died during the return journey and was buried at sea, the very sea that now bears his name.

R.L.: Do you think that your book could start now to travel following this “Barents road”?
J.T.: Yes, I think so, because we actually made good contacts with Arktikum and with Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Finland. In Arktikum they wanted to exhibit our work. But unfortunately this was cancelled. I think our exhibition should fit very well into area over the Arctic there. Originally our idea was to make this exhibition travelling along the road we took. We had already this exhibition in Moscow, but still not in the Barents region.

3 thoughts on “Solitude in the wake of Willem Barentsz

  1. fstammle

    good to know there is such a book. Thank you Roza for this interview. Our library should get it for sure. Incidentally, when my father had to go from Finland to northern Norway some years ago, we also stumbled upon that Barents road on some tourist info website. It was very promising, but then it turned out that it was all empty promises of East-West transport connections, which in fact do not exist. Everything is still organised for connecting southern centres to northern peripheries, a very backward view that disempowers people in the North who want to develop their own agency. Try for example to go from Rovaniemi to Vardo: you would not find any other public transport except going through Helsinki and Oslo! Isn’t that crazy? Even to Tromso there is no bus connection from Finland all year round. So when my father needed to go to Norway from Rovaniemi, we had to bring him by car to Sweden first, and from there he had to take two buses to take him to his destination! And when Anna went to Svalbard (Spitzbergen) last year, she also had to go through the capitals first (see the map here: Once she got there, she had the rare chance to stay in a place called ….. Barentsburg, for more than the usual couple of hours that tourists spend there ( So yes, while Barents was a visionary, the real life of the Barents road looks very minor, and I am not surprised that nobody knew what the Barents Road is.

    1. Hi Florian, nice to read your story, thank you. Maybe you don’t remember me but we actually met each other in Moscow (I think it was in 2004). It was during a RAIPON congress and I was there on behalf of Arctic Peoples Alert. I was also doing research for my first book Nomad (Lannoo, 2011).
      Nice to hear from you again. All the best, Jeroen Toirkens

  2. arcticcentre

    Thank you, Roza, for this entry. In February we will launch an exhibition in the Arctic Centre library in Rovaniemi ‘Barents stories: How do we see the sea?’ based on my fieldwork materials in Svalbard, Finnmark (Norway) and Nenets Autonomous District (Russia). Of course, ‘Dutch story’ of Willem Barentsz and another ‘Dutch story of Edgeøya,’ will be a part of it.

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