Norway under Russian pressure: Memory diplomacy as security policy
This op-ed is based on a peer reviewed research article in Nordisk Østforum which can be read here (in Norwegian).
The Kremlin’s use of history to legitimize its warfare in Ukraine has revealed Russia’s aggressive memory policy abroad to the world. It has become obvious to us all that selective and strongly politicized narratives of the past are used to serve Russian foreign and security policy aims.
The Kremlin’s memory policy is nothing new, however. It has been developed over the last two decades to build support for the regime in the Russian public, and simultaneously hit back at Ukraine and other former Soviet republics and Eastern bloc states, who have insisted on scrapping the Soviet legacy, building national identity, and writing history on their own terms.
The history of the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, has become the key bone of contention in the so-called memory wars waged between Russia and neighboring states of Central and Eastern Europe. While Ukraine, the Baltic states and others have argued with growing intensity that the Soviet Red Army was an occupational force which remained illegally on their territories after the German capitulation in 1945, the Russian Duma has adopted laws to “protect” the memory of the Red Army from what the Kremlin denotes as “falsification of history” and “attacks from hostile states”.
The Kremlin’s use of history to legitimize geopolitical aggressive ambitions accelerated with the illegitimate annexation of Crimea in 2014 and was further intensified by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. The memory wars have turned into hot war.
In the UiT-headed research project Memory Politics of the North 1993-2023 we explore how public memory has been used politically throughout the post-Soviet period, as part of Norwegian-Russian relations. The empirical findings from the last decade are worrying.
Norway has been targeted by an increasingly aggressive, manipulative, and one-sided Russian memory policy, in particular in the north. The advances of various Russian state and state-affiliated actors in Norway have largely gone unnoticed.
In Northern Norway, new Russian monuments have been erected to commemorate Soviet soldiers of WWII, on the initiative of actors such as the FSB veteran organization in Murmansk, in cooperation with regional and federal level politicians representing United Russia, President Putin’s supporting party. Sources reveal how these actors have organised so-called patriotic memorial tours across the Norwegian-Russian border since 2011, to commemorate Soviet soldiers and Norwegian partisans within a narrative framework of heroic joint battle and victory over Nazi Germany.
The memorial tours have been dominated by the Kremlin’s military-patriotic symbols and perspectives on the war history. Over the years, the tours have been expanded by including new war memorials and by organizing «patriotic events» and projects; a patriotic film festival in local communities in Northern Norway featuring Russian-made war movies and documentaries; commemorative Victory Marches for youth in the footsteps of the Red Army across the border; and projects on so-called patriotic cross-border tourism.
Norway and Russia hold a tradition of commemorating war history together dating back to the Cold War. The current Russian memory policy offensive towards Norway actively exploits this tradition, by enlarging the repertoire of events and objects to be commemorated. The result is export of the Kremlin’s increasingly dogmatic and securitized narrative of the Second World War across the border to Norway in the north, promoting Soviet nostalgic, Russian Orthodox, and military-patriotic symbols. An illustrating example is the initiative of the museum of the Russian Northern Fleet in 2020 to exhibit a Soviet WWII tank at the Partisan Museum in Eastern Finnmark.
The Russian-Orthodox church has been an active player in memory policy towards Norway in the north. ROC stands out as one of the most important allies of the Kremlin, both when it comes to the home opinion, and in legitimizing the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions abroad. Over the last decade, so-called Pomor crosses have been erected in various places in Eastern Finnmark. Just like the history of WWII, Pomor history is an important and vivid part of public memory in Northern Norway. By appealing to existing narratives of historical bonds, of joint history, and of historically peaceful relations across the border, the Russian actors have worked to naturalize new monuments, arguing implicitly that Russian memorials belong in Northern Norway for historical reasons.
This Russian memory policy offensive towards Norway has gained little attention in the Norwegian public sphere. Russian media for their part have written quite a lot; about Norway and in particular about the population of Northern Norway as friendly and as an ally of Russia in the allegedly ongoing “fight against falsification of history”. Since 2014, this rhetoric was increased in the Russian press, and Norway’s readiness to commemorate the victory over Nazism during the Second World War together with Russian representatives was framed as support for the Kremlin’s on-going «fight against Neo-Nazism» in Ukraine in our own time.
Apart from Norway, we find this kind of instrumental use of history to create memory alliances in Russia’s policy towards Serbia and Belarus.
Paradoxically, since 2014 the Russian memory policy projects across the border to Norway gained a stronger foothold on the Norwegian side, with regular Norwegian participation and with funding granted from Norwegian sources such as the Barents Secretariat and the Ministry of Defense.
After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we have witnessed a more aggressive and outspoken Russian memory policy towards Norway. In August, Russia erected a Pomor cross in the abandoned Russian settlement Pyramiden at Svalbard, without permission from Norwegian authorities. The Russian Consul General in Barentsburg and the mining company Arktikugol have organised May 9 Victory parades on Svalbard as well as boat parades in Svalbard waters on Russia’s Navy Day, flashing military symbols. In Kirkenes, the Consul General has used the Liberation Monument established in 1952 to make statements that Russia is currently fighting Neo-Nazism and falsification of history in Ukraine.
The sad conclusion is that Norway has been subject to Russian manipulative and one-sided memory diplomacy over the last decade which we have not been able to handle. The knowledge and awareness of the security aspects of Soviet memory diplomacy towards Norway was substantially higher during the Cold War. Part of the explanation for today’s lack of awareness lies in the official Norwegian policy line of the previous three decades, focused on building relations and investing in cross-border projects within the framework of the Barents cooperation as a strategy to safeguard low tensions in relations with Russia.
Under Vladimir Putin, history has returned as a propaganda tool in Russian foreign and security policy. It is high time we realize the impacts for Norway.
Professor Kari Aga Myklebost and post-doc Joakim Aalmen Markussen are working with UiT The Arctic University of Norway.