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.
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.
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