In 2014, the 200th anniversary of Norway’s Constitution will be celebrated. To help mark this occasion, historians in Norway and Russia will publish a two-volume work analysing the relations between the two countries during this period. Those involved believe the project can improve the countries’ already well established relationship.
“It all started with me and a few colleagues at the Department for History and Religious Studies discussing our relationship with Russian colleagues,” history professor at the University of Tromsø, Jens Petter Nielsen says.
“We came up with the idea of connecting this to the forthcoming anniversary.”
Professor Nielsen is both project manager and editor of the first book. According to him, it is important that events commemorating the Constitution in 2014 not be concentrated solely on Norwegian aspects but rather provide a means of illustrating distinctive features of the Norwegian national state, seen in the light of the development of a multicultural society and relations with other countries.
Around 20 historians and writers from the two nations are contributing to the project which is financed through the Norwegian Cooperation Programme with Russia, Tromsø Research Foundation, Freedom of Expression Foundation and the University of Tromsø.
The tiny village of Kiberg is situated on the east coast of the Varanger peninsula, in Norway’s High North. With Russia in sight on the opposite side of the fjord, the people of Kiberg have kept close relations with their neighbours for centuries – even throughout the Cold War.
Einar Niemi, also a history professor at the University of Tromsø, is an expert in the relations between ethnic groups in the North. He explains what is so unique about this particular village:
“For as long back in time as we have historical documentation, there have been relations between East and West. In the late middle ages, Kiberg became a fishing village, when fishermen from the South settled there.”
From the end of the 1700s the so-called Pomor trade developed, with fish from Norway and grain and timber from Russia as the main products and with Kiberg as a main port. From the 1800s to World War I, Kiberg was a Russian fishing village as well. Professor Niemi calculates that, at its peak, as many as 200 Russian fishermen lived here during the summer fisheries. The Russians built their own settlement close to Kiberg, locally named ‘the Russian village’, and had their own harbour, church and cemetery. The
Russian Red Cross even built a medical centre, long before the local Norwegians established any healthcare facilities.
With World War I and the Russian Revolution looming, the fishermen and traders in Kiberg were forced back to Russia and the trade with the Norwegians came to an end. In the interwar period, however, communism gained great support in Kiberg and the village has kept its nickname ‘Little Moscow’ even today.
During World War II, many southern Norwegians fled to Britain and joined the resistance movement there. In Kiberg, people crossed the border to their allies, the Soviet Union, and joined either the Red Army or the Fleet. When they returned to Finnmark as trained soldiers, their main mission was intelligence gathering and surveillance of the German occupation forces and they often engaged in open fighting with the German troops. They were named ‘partisans’, as a parallel to Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia.
No place in Norway recruited as many partisans as Kiberg, and nowhere were more people held prisoner, tortured and killed than in this village. In the post-war period, Kiberg was eyed suspiciously because of its ties to the Soviet Union, and the Norwegian government of the time had its doubts regarding the inhabitants’ loyalty.
“The government was monitoring the village for decades afterWorld War II. Ironically in Norway, a lot of spies were revealed, but none of them had their roots in Kiberg,” Professor Niemi points out.
Today, Kiberg has become a place for reconciliation, where veterans meet and remember.
“His Majesty the King of Norway, Harald V, held a speech in Kiberg in 1992, which by academics was considered to be a final reparation towards the partisans,” Professor Niemi concludes.
Mr Alexey Komarov is the project’s leading researcher at the Institute of General History of Russian Academy of Sciences, member of the editorial council of the book series and a contributor to the second volume. Komarov provides a perspective of the asymmetry between the two neighbours:
“I don’t think historians at, for instance, the University of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, are ready to participate in a research project on Russian-Norwegian relations. They have other subjects for research – the history of Japan, China, the Asian Pacific region. It is even possible that some of them are not even aware that contemporary Russia’s oldest border is the one they share with Norway. Even here in Moscow the horizons are different than in the High North.”
The project was named ‘Neighbourly Asymmetry’ based on Russia’s status as a significant world power, while Norway is a relatively small country, according to Professor Nielsen. He explains that the researchers explore various consequences of this asymmetry, which is primarily seen at an intergovernmental level.
Then and now
Historians in both countries have changed their focus through different eras, very much in accordance with national interests.
“My field is the Scandinavian studies, Nordic history,” says Alexey Komarov.
“Until the fall of the Soviet Union, we had to follow certain Marxist methods including the ‘formation theory’, a theory comprising a nation’s five formations, following each other in a certain order, including feudalism, capitalism and finally developing into socialism and communism. In addition to this, we were obliged to follow the ‘true Marxist doctrine’.”
According to Komarov, Soviet historians wrote every country’s history, and the task was to find the formations and explore the transitions between them. It was of great importance to work on domestic politics and write social and political history in the Marxist spirit. The works of so-called ‘representatives of bourgeois historiography’, i.e. historians of the capitalist countries, were rarely published in Russian. A few exceptions were made, however. In 1951, ‘Sweden’s History’ was published in Russian, written by the Swedish historian Ingvar Andersson, but all the content not suitable for Soviet readers was removed by the editor or supplied by extensive comments.
After the Soviet era, Russian historians started translating foreign books into Russian, including some from Norwegian. During the past two decades, dozens of books by Norwegian historians and other social scientists were translated into Russian. Today, several Russian ‘scandinavic’ historians focus their efforts on research regarding the history of bilateral relations.
“However, there are things we can contribute with in this project, which we know better than anyone. Like, for instance, the image we Russians had of other nationalities, like the Norwegians.
Soviet historians published books about international relations during the Soviet period, but they were usually not based on archives, but rather on politically loaded texts,” Komarov says. “I don’t like the word ‘propaganda’, but it was text playing a political role. Now we are free to write about all the discoveries we make. This is, of course, great. Today’s historians do not have to worry about their texts complying with any political line. Today we create our own texts, primarily based on our convictions and beliefs, and seek to be objective in our research.”
Professor Nielsen believes there are corresponding changes in focus amongst Norwegian historians:
“We were, during the Cold War, mostly concerned with Russia as a great actor in a bipolar world and a potential threat to our country. This was of course due to our country’s security policy, as neighbours of the Soviet Union. Norwegian historians were engaged with the problem of the arctic archipelago of Svalbard and the role the Soviet Union was playing there. Only a handful of Norwegian historians were studying Russian history as a topic in its own right.”
The cooperation between the two countries during the Cold War was almost non-existent but today’s relations are broader and more open than ever before. This gives historians access to new sources of information and a chance to seize new opportunities for cooperation.
After the fall of The Soviet Union, Russian historians were no longer obliged to follow the Marxist methods of historical research and they got access to archives that during the Soviet period were classified and top secret.
“When you suddenly get access to such a vast amount of documents, you easily become empirical, rather than theoretical. It’s of great importance to interpret and accumulate these new historical facts, and write about the topics which Soviet historians were not allowed to write about. To me personally, this meant to gather facts about Russian and Soviet relations with Nordic countries throughout the 20th century, to place them in their right context, and to describe them to the public”, Komarov says.
The Russian Threat
“We have to be precise in our publications and avoid harmonisation”, states professor Einar Niemi. “Based on our studies, one can say we have yet another kind of asymmetry. ‘The Russian Threat’ is a notion that goes way back in time. Now we know that this fear, to a great extent, was pure imagination.
In the 1900s, when the term was born, we know that the Russian Empire paid insignificant interest to the areas in the North, but rather concentrated on areas like the Baltics, Black Sea, Persian Gulf and the Pacific Ocean. On one side, there were notions of threat from the other side. During the Cold War, these notions from time to time were actually mutual too. Despite this, we have had peaceful relations for the last 500 years.”
“Norway’s history can be represented as a gradual development towards democracy and prosperity, while Russia’s history is much more contradictory, and turbulent, some would say also more fascinating,” professor Nilsen complements.
“As a result, this can give the impression that there is an imbalance even though, from an objective point of view, there is little we can do about it.”
The Russian-Norwegian cooperation project has call effects beyond the historical aspects.
Komarov says: “Since the Pomor trade started, our peoples have had a productive conversation and long-term traditions for solving political problems. This intimate cooperation between Norwegian and Russian historians is contributing to develop mutual understanding, which is of significant importance in the future.”
This project not only helps maintain knowledge but also helps to gather new, valuable facts. Komarov hopes that all of this helps engage public interest.
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