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Friday, December 1, 2023

Tensions high at Soviet war memorial

Norway traditionally marks the anniversary of when Soviet troops crossed the border at Kirkenes in the autumn of 1944, launched the liberation of Northern Norway from occupying Nazi German forces at the time, and then went back home to the Soviet Union. This year’s memorial, however, was marred by Russian officials who once again tried to exploit a Soviet war monument in Norway.

Residents of Kirkenes and neighbouring Russians just over the border were long proud of their friendship and cooperation, symbolized here on an earlier occasion at the monument to the Soviets’ liberation of Northern Norway. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its ensuing occupation of some areas of Ukraine have spoiled relations, though, and tensions in Kirkenes are especially high. PHOTO: NewsinEnglish.no/Morten Møst

Now Russia has become an occupying force itself in Ukraine, and years of cross-border friendship between Russians and Norwegians has been put to the test. Russian officials were not invited or welcome at this year’s annual ceremony at Kirkenes’ Soviet monument on October 25, in contrast to the years when both high-level Norwegian and Russian officials laid wreaths and gave speeches at the monument that was erected in 1952.

Local officials in Kirkenes instead opted to place a wreath on Wednesday that paid tribute to the Soviet soldiers of 1944 and to Ukraine, not Russia. The wreath featured Ukrainian colours of yellow and blue and its ribbon dedicated it “to the memory of the sacrifice that the soldiers of the Soviet Red Army gave for our freedom.” Many in Northern Norway are forever grateful for that, and Kirkenes Mayor Magnus Mæland of Norway’s Conservative Party also made a point of thanking the Soviet liberators who were from Ukraine.

As The Barents Observer reported on Wednesday, though, the Russian envoy in Kirkenes turned up shortly after Kirkenes’ mayor had laid down the town’ official wreath. The envoy, Nikolai Konygin, placed a much larger wreath in Russian colours on top of it, angering Mæland who returned to move it aside. Konygin ignored Mæland and refused to answer questions from other reporters on the scene.

Then a Russian activist living in Kirkenes showed up with red roses of her own and tried to move the Russian wreath back into position over the wreath honouring the Soviets and Ukraine. Mæland reacted by claiming, as Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s camera rolled (external link, in Norwegian), that such behaviour was unacceptable.

“You shall respect that Sør-Varanger (the municipality in which Kirkenes is located) has laid down an official wreath at a liberation monument,” Mæland said. He acknowledged freedom of expression in Norway, and noted that everyone can lay down flowers at a monument, “but not over the municipality’s official wreath.” He moved the Russian wreath aside once again.

The conflict sybolized how Russia has been exploiting and using “monument diplomacy” in Norway for years. Monuments to both the Soviet liberation of Norway’s northern region of Finnmark and to Russians held as prisoners of war during the Nazi German occupation of Norway during World War II can be found all over the country. Russian officials have been eager to add more in recent years, for example at Sørvær in Finnmark, where Soviet officers were killed in a plane crash in 1944.

Monuments to Soviet sacrifice and assistance during World War II can be found all over Norway, like this one honouring Russian prisoners of war who were killed while working as slave labourers on the Nazi Germans’ road and railroad projects in Nordland. PHOTO: NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

Commentator Harald Stanghelle has linked the monument diplomacy to “a battle over history,” while Russian officials in Moscow praise the monuments in Norway and misuse them to defend their own invasion of Ukraine. The Russians claim they’re still trying to defeat Nazism in Ukraine, like their Soviet predecessors did in Norway.

Norway’s police intelligence agency PST has issued warnings about the monument diplomacy and warned local and national politicians against falling for it. PST suspected that the arrival of Russian delegations to unveil new monuments allowed them to make frequent visits to Norway and engage in espionage.

Setting up a monument also legitimized reasons, according to PST, for examining geographic areas, forging contacts, gaining local information and, ultimately, spreading Russian propaganda. Russian officials scoff at such claims.

The erection of new monuments mostly ended with the invasion of Ukraine, but Russian officials still want to participate in memorials, lay wreaths or otherwise remind Norwegians of Soviet assistance during World War II. In the Russian mining enclave of Barentsburg in Svalbard last spring, local officials mounted both a parade and flew a helicopter on May 9 to mark their own Liberation Day after World War II.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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