Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The man who wasn’t really all that left-wing

I love crime fiction, am very interested in the Nordic world and have a background in far-left politics, so I have rather naturally recently finished reading the now-legendary Millenium Trilogy by the tragically deceased Swedish author Stieg Larsson. These books have been admirably reviewed many times, including by comrades such as Nick Cohen, Max Dunbar and Christopher Hitchens, so you probably know the basic facts about them already. Their heroes are the maverick investigative journalist Mikael ‘Kalle’ Blomkvist (Larsson’s alter ego) and the emotionally damaged computer wizard Lisbeth Salander, whose flawed but interesting character accounts for much of the books’ appeal.

Larsson had been a supporter of the Socialist Party, formerly the Communist Workers League – the Swedish section of the Trotskyist Fourth International – and an editor of its journal Fjärde internationalen. As several of his reviewers have pointed out, his passionate political activism informed his fiction. Interesting then, that the political flavour of the novels should be liberal or social democratic rather than radical socialist. The villains – rapists, paedophiles, sex traffickers and corrupt secret-policemen and businessmen – are ones liberals will have no trouble booing, while the heroes enjoy the support of many honourable members of the establishment.

Violent misogynists feature prominently in all three books. Swedish fascists – against whom Larsson spent a large part of his life crusading – feature prominently in the first book, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Another of the principal villains of this book is the capitalist Hans-Erik Wennerstroem, but he is evil because he is corrupt and involved in criminal activities; other capitalists and members of the bourgeoisie are sympathetically portrayed. In the second book, ‘The Girl who Played with Fire’, the principal villains are sex traffickers plus members of the establishment who use their services, while in the third, ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ nest’, they are rogue elements within the Swedish intelligence services.

In all three books, the emphasis is on corrupt elements within the existing order – such as businessmen and policemen who abuse sex-slaves, or secret policemen whose Cold Warrior fanaticism leads them to stray outside the law – rather than on any inherent evil on the part of the existing order itself. Meanwhile, these corrupt elements are more than balanced by the good elements that represent the norm. Indeed, whereas the first two novels are gripping thrillers, the third is a somewhat dull, plodding affair – in large part because there are so many noble, principled policemen and secret agents who join Blomkvist’s and Salander’s struggle against their corrupt colleagues that it never really seems like a fair fight. The villains are old, tired, outnumbered, incompetent, self-doubting and internally divided. The heroes, on the other hand, are not only brave, principled, intelligent and altogether brilliant, but seem to have on their side the cream of the Swedish security establishment and eventually even the Swedish prime-minister and defence minister themselves.

‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest’ is, in fact, very much in the Hollywood liberal mould: there are corrupt elements within the system, but they are unrepresentative of the system as a whole which is fundamentally good; once it learns of their activities, the good majority ultimately defeats the rogue elements, so the system polices itself. Of course the good policemen need the help of intrepid independent investigators, but this partnership has been a staple of crime fiction since Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. So over-determined is the ultimate victory of good over evil; so much is the reader spared any genuine suspense, uncertainty as to the outcome or trauma on behalf of the heroes; that ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest’ achieves a truly Hollywood level of nauseating goody-goodiness.

Meanwhile, there is next to nothing in the Millenium books about the class struggle or the fight to emancipate the proletariat or the poor. I don’t mean this as a criticism – it is no doubt a reflection of the fact that such issues are simply not very important in egalitarian Sweden today. Larsson’s work is politically sympathetic because, despite his passion and his Trotskyist background, he is no dogmatist. Instead of bothering with irrelevant old Marxist shibboleths, he focuses on issues that really are of central importance for progressive politics in Western Europe today. Above all, on the issue of misogyny.

The most interesting feature of the books is the character of Salander, an innocent woman who manages to inspire pathological hostility in a whole string of nasty men. She does so because she manages to hit so many male chauvinist buttons. She is physically small and apparently weak and vulnerable, yet colourful and exotic; she is socially awkward and aloof, but refuses to be polite or deferential to those more senior than herself; she is far from being classically beautiful, but is weirdly and disturbingly sexually attractive; and, of course, she is sexually promiscuous and bisexual, but does not roll over for many of the men who desire her. Unsurprising, therefore, that so many men hate her; Larsson has brilliantly captured the way in which a certain type of woman jars and unsettles a certain type of man.

If the books are a bit saccharine in some other respects, their portrayal of the pathology of woman-hatred is genuinely disturbing. Larsson has written a study in misogyny that has reached an audience whose size most Trotskyist pamphleteers could only dream of – his books have sold 27 million copies, according to The Economist. He may have died prematurely at the age of only fifty, but if only a portion of his readers understand his message, his life as an activist will not have been in vain.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010 Posted by | Fascism, Misogyny, Scandinavia, Sweden | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reasons to be optimistic

greenlandIf there has been one cause that has long inspired me above all others, it is the cause of small nations struggling to free themselves from oppression or domination by larger ones. Even before the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia made me interested in the politics and history of that region, when I was in still in school, I was greatly moved by the history of the Irish struggle for freedom and independence from Britain. I have long felt that the cause of freedom for oppressed nations has not figured as prominently as it should in progressive political thinking, and have always found national-chauvinistic ideologies that justify the suppression or forced assimilation of subject peoples to be uniquely horrifying. In the most extreme cases, such ideologies underpin acts of genocide – the most extreme form that national oppression can take. And for myself and kindred political spirits, genocide is the greatest evil humanity has produced.

Progressive thinking has, likewise, traditionally paid insufficient attention to the phenomenon of genocide. The inability of the Left to respond adequately to genocide was made abundantly clear by the events in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. For some of us, this deficiency has been a catalyst to our disenchantment with left-wing politics in their traditional form. Not just because genocide-prevention has usually been assigned a lower priority than ‘class’, ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ causes, but because it presupposes outside intervention, something to which a large proportion of ‘progressive’ opinion has traditionally been averse.

Yet for all this, an unprecedentedly large number of nations have achieved national independence since the early 1990s, and the cause of genocide-prevention has entered the progressive consciousness in a way it never did before. In the spirit of the Christmas season, I’d like to highlight recent developments in these fields that should give us cause for optimism; developments that I really should have written about more fully and promptly, if only one had unlimited time as a blogger…

1) While the youth of Greece is still battling on the streets for its social and economic emancipation, a quieter, but perhaps ultimately more significant movement for progressive change is taking place in neighbouring Turkey. More than 22,000 Turkish citizens have signed the following apology: ‘My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.’

To apologise for the Armenian genocide should be, for Turkey, a matter of national honour. But it is also a matter of self-interest for any Turkish citizen who wants to live in a democracy. In Turkey, as in Serbia, Croatia, Greece and other South East European countries, national-chauvinist ideology is the single biggest enemy of democracy; the taunt of ‘traitor’ is used to silence dissent, while minority rights are trampled over in the name of the ‘nation’. Yet in the words of Cengiz Aktar, professor of EU studies at Istanbul’s university of Bahcesehir and one of the principal organisers of the Turkish campaign to apologise: ‘From now, anyone who speaks about the Armenian question will have to take into account this expression of consciousness. It’s a new element in the debate.’ Readers of this blog will be aware that I do not support the campaign for the US or UK officially to recognise the Armenian genocide, or any other historic genocide that has taken place in a foreign country, for reasons that I have explained in detail. The organisers of the campaign in Turkey likewise appear ambivalent about such campaigns in the US and elsewhere. It is only through a democratic campaign in Turkey itself that the country can gradually come to recognise what happened to the Armenians.

2) While progressive Turks are striking a blow against genocide ‘from below’, a blow has been struck ‘from above’, with the conviction and jailing for life of Theoneste Bagosora, the mastermind of the Rwandan genocide, and two of his collaborators by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Described by prosecutors as ‘enemies of the human race’, they were found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war-crimes. The record of the war-crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia has been less than perfect, but in this instance, at least, justice has been done.

3) A new genetic study apparently proves that twenty per cent of the population of the Iberian peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and ten per cent has Moorish ancestry. Another study proves not only that the ethnic origins of the Balkan nations are extremely mixed – which everyone knows, of course – but that the populations of Greece and Albania are genetically more Slavic in origin than the Slavic-speaking populations of neighbouring Macedonia and Bulgaria. Scientists have already proven the genetic kinship of Jews and Arabs.

The myth that ethnic differences are based on genetic differences remains surprisingly pervasive, not just among nationalists – of whom we expect no better – but among ‘educated’ opinion in general. Ethnic differences or identities that are disapproved of are frequently counterposed to ‘real’ ones in discussions about civil wars and other conflicts. Just as nationalists like to imagine their own group has been ethnically pure since Antiquity or earlier, so leftists are frequently fond of portraying ethnic differences as having been ‘invented by imperialism’, or some such nonsense. Yes, the modern nations of the world are largely the products of imperialism, colonialism and genocide, and many ethnic identities have been deliberately fostered by imperial overlords or other interested parties. So what ? All ethnicities are ultimately human constructs, with little or nothing to do with genetic differences. They are only as ‘real’ as their members or their persecutors feel them to be. The more that scientific studies undermine the disgusting, racist myth of ‘real’ ethnic differences, the better for human enlightenment and emancipation.

4) Kalaallit Nunaat, or Greenland, voted last month to increase its autonomy from Denmark, in what may be a step toward full independence. The Greenlandic independence movement is fuelled both by economic factors and by simple national feeling on the part of the predominantly Inuit population. I am fascinated by the Nordic world, not least because it has proven adept at managing the transition to independence of its constituent nations in a peaceful and civilised manner. It is up to the people of Greenland alone to decide whether they want to secede from Denmark, of course; nobody else can or should exercise a veto over this process. But should they choose to, the peaceful acceptance of their decision that Denmark will undoubtedly demonstrate should serve as a model for states all over the world, from Spain to India.

On this note, I wish readers a very merry Christmas and happy New Year.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008 Posted by | Armenians, Balkans, Denmark, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Greece, Greenland, Macedonia, Middle East, Political correctness, Racism, Rwanda, Scandinavia, Spain, The Left, Turkey | Leave a comment

The Armenian Genocide should be recognised by historians, not by states

Five days ago on 12 June, the Swedish parliament overwhelmingly rejected a motion to recognise the 1915 Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. However counter-intuitive it may seem, the result of this vote should not be mourned by anyone who believes in the need to educate the world public on genocide and its history.

The Armenian Genocide happened. As Donald Bloxham argues in his book The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford University Press, London, 2005) – which I recommend as an intelligent and balanced introduction to the debates surrounding the topic – there is no reason whatsoever why the genocide-deniers should be allowed to set the agenda, and force us to justify the use of the term ‘genocide’ when we discuss the fate of the Armenians. Let us be clear about this: genocide deniers are not simply those who prefer to use a term other than ‘genocide’ – such as ‘systematic mass-murder’ or ‘extermination’ – when describing what happened to the Armenians, or to the Rwandan Tutsis in 1994, or to the Srebrenica Muslims in 1995. Rather, a true genocide-denier is one who, in the course of denying that a genocide occurred, seeks to whitewash the crime, minimise its magnitude and the tragedy of the victims, and usually also to shift the blame away from the perpetrators and on to the victims themselves. In other words, genocide deniers have an ideological agenda, and a very obnoxious one at that.

The Armenian case is perhaps alone, at least among the cases of genocide with which I am at all familiar, in that some historians who are in other respects actually very serious and competent are ranked among the deniers. There is always a temptation among foreign historians, who depend upon the hospitality and collaboration of the academic community and archivists of the countries they are studying, to become spokespeople for the nationalist or regime agendas of the countries in question. This is something that reflects badly on all those who fall into this trap. It is one thing for historians to be discreet or diplomatic when touching upon such issues, or to to use euphemisms like ‘extermination’ or ‘destruction’ instead of genocide, if that is the only way to keep the archives open. But if you start agitating on a denialist platform to ingratiate yourself with your hosts, you have crossed a line. As a historian, I am proud to say that I have always referred openly to the Armenian genocide; to the genocide of the native Americans; to the Soviet genocide of the Chechens, Crimean Tatars and others; to the Ustasha and Chetnik genocides in Axis-occupied Yugoslavia during World War II; and to the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s – both when writing about these topics and when teaching my students. If that ever means that some doors are closed to me that might otherwise be open, so be it. Some of us, at least, value our integrity more than our careers or our connections.

This is important, because it is ultimately historians and other scholars and teachers upon whom the task falls of educating the public about past acts of genocide. There are very sound reasons why the recognition of historic genocides in foreign countries should not be undertaken by national parliaments. In the case of the Armenian genocide – which, I repeat, should not be denied by respectable scholars – there are two crucial reasons why national parliaments should not actually vote to recognise it. The first reason concerns the context of the Armenian genocide itself, while the second reason concerns the concept of ‘genocide’ more generally.

The Armenian genocide was one of the last, and probably the largest-scale, of the series of acts of mass murder and expulsion that accompanied first the contraction, then the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and its replacement by several nation-states in the Balkans and Anatolia. The emergence from the Ottoman Empire of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria as autonomous or independent nation-states during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries involved the extermination or expulsion of much of the Ottoman Muslim population that had inhabited the territories of these countries under the Ottomans. A related phenomenon was the southward expansion of Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, across the northern coast of the Black Sea and into the Caucasus and the Balkans, often in collusion with local Christian peoples and similarly involving the killing or expulsion of vast numbers of Muslims – indeed, of entire Muslim peoples such as the Crimean Nogai and the Caucasian Ubykhs.

These acts of killing and explusion culminated in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro finally destroyed the Ottoman Empire in Europe. According to Justin McCarthy (Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, Darwin Press, Princeton, 1996, p. 164), the Balkan Wars resulted in the death of 27% of the Muslim population of the Ottoman territories conquered by the Christian Balkan states – 632,408 people. This is a figure comparable to death-toll of the Armenian genocide from 1915, which Bloxham estimates as claiming the lives of one million Armenians or 50% of the pre-war Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, with another half million Armenians deported but surviving (Bloxham, p. 1).

These massacres and expulsions of Ottoman Muslims, and particularly the Balkan Wars, were both precursors and catalysts for the Armenian genocide, which was launched only a couple of years after the Balkan Wars ended. This was because a) Muslim Turkish nationalists copied the model of European-style nationalism already adopted by the Balkan Christian nationalists, involving the same principle of ethno-religious homogeneity; b) the decades of explusions of Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims to Anatolia, culminating in the Muslim exodus from the Balkans during and after the Balkan Wars, provided a constituency of embittered refugees and their descendants whom the Turkish nationalists could mobilise in the 1910s to attack Anatolian Christians; c) the settlement of these Muslim refugees in Anatolia began the process of Muslim colonisation of historically Armenian-inhabited lands that paved the way for the genocide; and d) the Turkish nationalists who ruled the Ottoman Empire in 1915 viewed the extermination of the Armenians as the necessary alternative to what they feared would be the establishment of an Armenian state in Anatolia under Russian protection, on the model of the Balkan Christian states and involving the same acts of killing and expulsion of Ottoman Muslims that the establishment of the latter had involved (NB to point this out is not to justify the genocide; any more than pointing out Hitler’s undoubtedly sincere belief in a ‘Jewish threat’ to the Aryan race justifies the Holocaust).

The question is, therefore, why national parliaments in Europe or elsewhere should recognise the Armenian genocide while according no recognition whatsoever to the series of Christian crimes against Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims that both led up to and catalysed it. Historians can debate how decisive this catalyst was, or whether and to what extent the earlier crimes against Muslims should rightfully be labelled ‘genocide’. But this requires a degree of nuance and sensitivity to history of which blunt, clumsy parliamentary resolutions framed by historically ignorant parliamentarians are simply not capable. At the very least, the similarity of these crimes to the Armenian genocide should not be denied; nor should they be deemed less worthy of recognition. In singling out the Armenian genocide for recognition while ignoring the destruction of the European Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims, a parliament would be saying that the victims of the one are more worthy of recognition than the victims of the other. And this is something that the Turkish public cannot legitimately be expected to swallow – given that it is itself partially descended from the survivors of the Christian crimes in question, therefore much more aware of the double standard than are most Europeans.

This brings us to the second reason why parliaments should not recognise the Armenian genocide, or indeed any other historic genocide carried out by a foreign regime in a foreign country: the danger that a genocide will only be considered a ‘real’ genocide if recognised by a national parliament. All those who would like to turn a blind eye to genocidal crimes – whether in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or elsewhere – tend to do so by arguing that they are not ‘really’ genocide. They like to present genocide as something that almost never happens. Hence, they apply the term ‘genocide’ to only a very few historic cases – generally, to only the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge and the Rwandan genocide – or not even to all of those. Conversely, those who actually wish to see greater international efforts to prevent genocide, as well as most scholars writing about the phenomenon of genocide today, usually prefer to apply the term to a much larger number of historic crimes of mass murder. The point is not that these latter crimes are necessarily less worthy of the ‘genocide’ label than the destruction of the Armenians or Tutsis, but that they are less well known internationally.

In principle, therefore, recognition of the Armenian genocide should be followed by the recognition of other genocides: of the Herero people of German South West Africa in the early twentieth century; of the Chechens, Crimean Tatars and other Soviet peoples in the 1940s; of the Mayan population of Guatemala in the 1970s and 80s; and so forth, amounting to dozens or hundreds of cases. But we are unlikely ever to have international teams of scholarly experts deciding which of these cases warrant recognition as ‘genocide’ – more likely, genocide will only be recognised under the pressure of powerful and determined lobbies, as has been the case with the Armenians in several European countries. This would be bad for any genuine understanding of what genocide is and bad for the memory of the innumerable victims of what will be consigned to the category of ‘unrecognised genocides’. But it will be good for all those apologists for murderous regimes who will be only too happy to claim that it is only the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide that are recognised as genocide, and that we should all turn a blind eye to ‘lesser’ crimes.

No, parliamentary recognition of historic genocides is not the way forward. Rather than alienating Turkey by singling out its historic crimes for unique recognition, we should do better to encourage its further democratisation, to the point where its intellectuals can publicly acknowledge and discuss the Armenian genocide without fear of persecution or arrest. This, ultimately, is the only way to ensure that the memory of the Armenian victims is kept alive among those who most need to remember them.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008 Posted by | Armenians, Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Darfur, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Islam, Kurds, Middle East, Russia, Scandinavia, Serbia, Sudan, Sweden, Turkey | Leave a comment

The Nordic model of national liberation

Tasiilaq 

Tasiilaq, East Greenland 

V.I.Lenin once wrote that class-conscious workers should ‘conduct systematic propaganda and prepare the ground for the settlement of conflicts that may arise over the secession of nations, not in the “Russian way”, but only in the way they were settled in 1905 between Norway and Sweden.’ Quite. When surveying the bloodshed and horror resulting from attempts to suppress national ‘separatism’, from Kosovo and Chechnya to Kashmir and Sri Lanka, it is worth remembering that it really does not have to be this way.

The Nordic peoples have a long and strong tradition of national separatism, and it is one they should feel proud of. For over a hundred years from the end of the fourteenth century, all the Nordic lands from Greenland to Finland were formally united under a single crown, but since then there has been a steady process of Nordic Balkanisation. Sweden broke away from the Danish-dominated Union of Kalmar in 1523, and it is true that it took years of warfare before Denmark recognised the secession, but that was a long time ago. More recently, Norway seceded from Sweden in 1905 and Iceland from Denmark in 1944, in both cases peacefully and without bloodshed. This may be due in part to the strong Nordic tradition of representative bodies, and respect thereof; the Icelandic parliament that declared independence could trace its origins back to the year 930.

Yet there was nothing primordial or pre-ordained about some of the nation-states that today seem immutable parts of the map of Europe. Until the Napoleonic wars, Norway had been in stable union with Denmark for many centuries, while Finland was merely a part of Sweden where a Swedish-speaking elite ruled over a Finnish-majority population. We do not know whether, or how quickly, Norway and Finland would have emerged as independent states had it not been for the ‘accident’ of the Russian conquest of Finland and the Swedish conquest of Norway early in the nineteenth century. Today, the Nordic countries are not as nationally homogenous as they are commonly perceived to be by outsiders and it is far from certain that the process of Nordic Balkanisation has come to an end, yet it is extremely unlikely that these factors will ever result in bloodshed.

Iceland was before 1944 an autonomous territory under the Danish crown. Other such autonomous Nordic territories exist today: Greenland and the Faroe Islands, both autonomous under Denmark with representatives in the Danish parliament, but strong pro-independence sentiments among parts of the populations; and the Aland Islands, an autonomous Finnish territory where Swedish is the language of the administration and population. A distant cousin that still bears a certain family resemblance is the Isle of Man, a self-governing possession of the British Crown whose parliament, the Tynwald, was established by Man’s Norse rulers during the Middle Ages and has been in continuous existence ever since. It is entirely conceivable that the Faroes and Greenland, at least, may become independent at some time in the future, following the Icelandic example. Greenland has already seceded from the European Union, in 1985. Yet it is questionable how much real difference independence would make, either to the lives of the populations or to their functional relationships with their parent countries. Today, Iceland’s Reykjavik Airport (not to be confused with Keflavik International Airport) mostly operates domestic flights – its only international flights are to Greenland and the Faroes, which until the 1940s were not ‘international’ vis-a-vis Iceland.

As much as the Nordic countries have benefited from their traditions of administrative continuity, they all bear hallmarks of the diversity of their backgrounds, a diversity that was not always dealt with gently. Parts of southern Sweden were originally part of Denmark and spoke Danish; Sweden’s King Charles XI, faced with their pro-Danish irredentism, was a seventeenth-century pioneer in forced linguistic assimilation. The small, originally semi-nomadic Sami people who inhabit the Arctic north of Norway, Finland and Sweden (the region commonly referred to as Lapland), with a smaller community in neighbouring Russia, were for centuries subject to often brutal forced assimilation that really only came to an end in the 1960s, as the Nordic nations improved their behaviour under the influence of anti-colonial struggles elsewhere in the world. There remains today much Sami resentment at this treatment; a strong Sami patriotism was apparent to me when I visited the Norwegian Sami capital of Karasjok in 2004; at the Sami themepark of Sampi, the tags on the exhibits were written in Sami and English but not in Norwegian – something that the attendant appeared proud to acknowledge. The Norwegian Sami have their own parliament in Karasjok, built to resemble a traditional Sami dwelling. The Swedish and Finnish Sami have their own parliaments as well; the three representative bodies enjoy a consultative relationship.

Karasjok  

The Sami parliament at Karasjok

The Norwegians themselves have two versions of the Norwegian language – the traditional Danish-influenced Bokmal deriving from the long era of union with Denmark and the more patriotically inspired Nynorsk, supposedly ‘purified’ of Danish influences, though it is Bokmal that is the dominant version. Finland, for centuries part of Sweden, is a formally bilingual Finnish- and Swedish-speaking country; the Finnish national hero Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who led Finland against the Russians in its war of independence and in World War II, was himself a Swedish speaker who did not speak Finnish very well. It was the Russians, however, who established Helsinki as the capital of Finland; today, Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral lays claim to being the largest Russian Orthodox Church in western Europe. Russian influence is also apparent on the fringes of the Norwegian world; the town of Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, has street signs in both Norwegian and Russian and a prominent statue of a Soviet soldier, in memory of the Soviet liberators of World War II. Still more remote, Norway’s Svalbard islands are the site of the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg; with its Soviet-era architecture and bust of Lenin in the village centre, Barentsburg is more different in appearance from the neighbouring settlement of Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s typically-Norwegian administrative centre, than St Petersburg is from Oslo.

It is Greenland, however, where the Nordic world’s capacity for cultural synthesis is perhaps most striking; the village of Kulusuk, the gateway into east Greenland, is only a short flight westward from Reykjavik, yet comes as something of a culture shock after the cosy Icelandic capital. Reykjavik city centre boasts a London telephone box and Tube sign and the same shops and latte-serving cafes as other West European capitals. Two hours away in Kulusuk, there are brightly coloured houses and a wooden Lutheran church similar to those found in Iceland, Norway and Svalbard, but the villagers have no rubbish disposal service or running water (the pipes would freeze in the winter). Kulusuk’s larger neighbour Tasiilaq, however, with a population of less than two thousand, is large enough to support supermarkets stocked with imported European goods. Under Danish rule, parts of the Inuit Greenland population have gone technologically from the stone age to the twenty-first century in little more than a hundred years. The experience of Danish colonisation and rapid modernisation has not been uniformly happy; in his brilliant novel, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, the Danish author Peter Hoeg portrays the unhappiness of his mixed-race Danish-Greenlandic heroine Smilla, who spent her formative years in Greenland and was never able to adjust to life in Denmark – her brother committed suicide. Still, the experience of the Greenland Inuit at European hands may be favourably compared with that of other Native Americans; although demographically a small nation (smaller than South Ossetia), Greenland enjoys almost complete autonomy and a bilingual Greenlandic and Danish administration, numerically dominated by native Greenlanders. Should Greenland choose to secede fully, Denmark is unlikely to respond with destruction or genocide.

This positive historical experience, of bilingual nations seceding from, or enjoying extensive autonomy under parent countries, is one that other parts of Europe should emulate. And to some extent they have. Lenin was inspired by the example of Norway’s peaceful secession from Sweden, and was a prominent advocate of the right of nations to self-determination (as an aside, Russia has historically been influenced by its Nordic neighbours; the medieval reach of the Nordic peoples stretched from Canada to Constantinople and the Caspian, and it was the Scandinavian Varangians who founded the medieval state of Kievan Rus, the precursor of Russia. Peter the Great built St Petersburg on occupied Swedish territory. More recently, Lenin himself was of an ethnically mixed background that included Swedish roots). Under the Communists, the Soviet nationalities were organised on the basis of different levels of republican statehood or autonomy. There was of course a lot of hypocrisy in the Communist treatment of the Soviet nationalities, and Soviet brutality was at times equal to anything the Western colonial powers produced – witness Stalin’s genocide of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tartars and others. Nevertheless, the fact that the break-up of the Soviet Union was ultimately less bloody than that of the French, British or Portuguese colonial empires was due in part to the fact that, under the Soviet constitutional system, the right of members of the Soviet federation to secede was formally guaranteed.

Where the break-up was more bloody, as it was in Chechnya as well as in the former Yugoslavia (also organised on the basis of Leninist nationality principles), this was in large part due to the fact that the system had not been developed to its logical conclusion. Thus, under the Yugoslav constitution, the right of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics to secede was not spelled out, although it was strongly implied, while Kosovo was accorded a lower status than the formally sovereign republics, although it was a member of the Yugoslav federation. Chechnya, in the Russian Federation, enjoyed a lower status still, being not even a member of the Soviet Union. These factors were used as justification for the wars waged by the enemies of self-determination. In Yugoslavia’s case, a lot of nonsense was spoken by ill-intentioned or ill-informed individuals about the constituent republics of the federation having nothing to do with the constituent nations, and having purely ‘administrative borders’ that could be legitimately redrawn at will by fascist dictators and terrorists in the event of the federation’s break-up – myths I have refuted in my book, The History of Bosnia. But leaving aside the wording of constitutions, it is clear that when nations secede, they must in practice do so on the basis of existing ‘administrative’ borders – as was the case with Norway, Iceland and the former European colonies in Africa and elsewhere – if there is to be any chance of the experience being peaceful. The secession of individual nations from a multinational whole is not a matter of arbitrarily drawing lines on a map; it occurs in a context shaped by centuries of history that cannot simply be swept away.

Barentsburg

Barentsburg, Svalbard

Sunday, 2 December 2007 Posted by | Denmark, Faroe Islands, Finland, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sami, Scandinavia, Svalbard, Sweden | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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