Norway was celebrating Veterans- and Liberation Day as usual on May 8, with one major difference: Russian officials were not invited to ceremonies in the northern city of Kirkenes, even though it was liberated from Nazi German occupation with the help of the former Soviet Union’s Red Army.
“We’re doing things differently this year and won’t be marking (the liberation) at what we call ‘the Russian monument,’” Lena Norum Bergeng, mayor of the Sør-Varanger region in which Kirkenes is located, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). It’s long been customary to lay down wreaths at the monument along with officials from the Russian Consulate in Kirkenes.
The Russians have always been invited, and most residents of Kirkenes are forever grateful to how Soviet soldiers stormed over Norway’s border to Russia in the fall of 1944 ,forced out German occupiers and then retreated. Now, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a war of his own against a peaceful neighbour, Ukraine.
“We just don’t think it’s right to invite them (the Russian officials) to a ceremony this year,” Bergeng said after local newspaper IFinnmark had reported on it being dropped.
The change in tradition came after a local resident expressed concerns to the local regional council that “with the way the world has become, with a Russian war and inhuman aggression against Ukraine,” Russian officials could exploit any ceremonies in Norway and use it in Russian propaganda.
Norwegian historian Kari Aga Myklebost agreed. “I think there’s a real danger that a joint ceremony with Russia this year would be used by the Russians to try to legitimize its war in Ukraine,” she told NRK. Several eastern European countries compete over their historical understanding to the liberation after World War II. Russia has stressed its role in the liberation of Finnmark for years, with Russian officials also gladly traveling around the country to lay down flowers at monuments to Soviet forces and to Russian who were held as prisoners or war or forced labourers by German occupying forces.
“We must continue to have a public conversation,” Myklebost added, “perhaps especially in Northern Norway where the ceremonies with the Russians have been extra important.” Meanwhile, as long as the war that Norway has condemned continues, it’s unlikely there will be joint understanding of any sort.
“I think it’s correct that Sør-Varanger celebrates alone this year,” Myklebost said. “I think that’s wise in a long-term perspective.”
Lots of other ceremonies and diplomatic gatherings, meanwhile, were planned all over the country on Sunday. They include the laying of wreaths at the Akershus Fortress in Oslo and other military installations nationwide. Flags will be raised at 8am, special church services held and canons will be fired at 1pm. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre will hold his first Veterans and Liberation Day address at 3pm with King Harald present. There will also be medal ceremonies and a large reception at the Oslo City Hall for all veterans who have served in Norway and in international operations.