Calm, classless, striving for beauty: Yes, Scandinavia really is all it's cracked up to be

British commentators have been dismissing Scandinavian culture and politics using selective statistics and un-contextualised observations. But from smart young people to art and happiness: the qualities of Nordic life are well established.

Maybe it’s just sour grapes. I’ve been waiting years for a beautiful Scandinavian to whisk me off my feet and suggest we return to her homeland to live happily ever after, and it seems to have happened to Michael Booth by accident. And yet I couldn’t help feeling Booth’s lambasting of Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway in his "grim truth" assessment of life in the Nordic countries was more than a little cynical.

Booth was doing nothing more than indulging the time-honoured tradition of deflating something that’s been over-hyped – even if he did so via a smörgåsbord of selective statistics and un-contextualised observations. And he’s not alone. Those who believe our interest in Scandinavian ideals has gone too far have some potent new ammunition to play with: riots in Sweden, the downgrading of Finland’s education system and Norway’s excessive wealth wrought from its natural resources are all sticks with which we can beat those conceited Scandinavians, attempting to re-boot our own sense of moral worth in the process.

Most Finns and Scandinavians would feel pretty uneasy if they knew how their countries were so idolised elsewhere. Which is a good thing. Booth isn’t the first to cite the Nordic unease with "displays of success, ambition and wealth" as a weakness and he won’t be the last. But it’s precisely those qualities – yes, qualities – which give the Nordic countries their egalitarian atmosphere, entrenched liberalism and distinct lack of a ruling class in politics, the media and elsewhere.

History would suggest it isn’t a new thing. The Nordic countries were among the first in Europe to abolish the death penalty, give votes to women, legalise gay marriage and reach something like a consensus on green issues. Then there’s the inbuilt regard for foreigners. I was gobsmacked when I sat sweating in a Norwegian sauna a few years ago only for the wooden box to be overrun by a group of unruly teenagers on the equivalent of a stag weekend. When they’d done with the headlocks and towel-whips, they introduced themselves to me one by one, shaking me by the hand, welcoming me to their country, and offering me a potted history of the small town we were in.

Sure, that’s another un-contextualised observation. But the difference is, in the UK we’re taught to assume certain styles of behaviour will be forthcoming only from certain sectors of society. In the Nordic countries – particularly in Norway and Finland where there’s no discernable class system and private education is virtually non-existent – what you see is what you get: a society in which everyone really is in it together. The so-called "Nordic Model" of high taxes, principled social welfare provision and high community spending may be under strain (despite the gloomy reports, Scandinavian countries still accept a higher per capita proportion of immigrants and refugees than the vast majority of their European counterparts, and according to the 2013 European Social Survey those immigrants feel more welcomed, too) but the fact that the Nordic Model remains in operation is inseparable from that sense of togetherness.

Such "togetherness" might be indescribable, but it’s the indescribable qualities of the Nordic spirit that don’t show up on those statistics the Scandi-bashers love to cite. We talk of smart Nordic design as if it’s a commodity tied to wealth and status. But a striving for beauty is a central, instinctive and classless Nordic ideal induced by so many factors including hostile weather and a sometimes lonely exploration of what it is to be a human. It’s all over the place up there: from the emancipated typeface on railway station signage to the modernist domestic furniture and proliferation of bold architecture. These things aren’t about social signaling or financial security. They’re about making life fundamentally more sensible, and their residue is what we’d optimistically call civilization.

Which in turn might explain why Scandinavians are among the happiest people on the planet. Social security and an emphasis on creativity (and major government support for the arts) make for the very opposite of the repression described by Booth. They actually create societies in which people are content because they have a voice and are willing to use it. True, many in Norway are uneasy with the country’s huge wealth, but that wealth has been consciously placed in the public domain by the Norwegian government – so everyone can benefit, yes, but also so everyone feels involved in the discussion. When I was in Stavanger in September, a spontaneous and open debate broke out in a café on the subject of oil wealth, corrupting capitalism and damage to the environment. Naturally, it was conducted in English for the benefit of the one non-Norwegian speaker in the room (me).

And now the political dialogue has its ugly side. UKIP equivalents have found themselves with support in Norway and Finland, and only a fool would dismiss their rise as transitory. Sweden’s failure to integrate its large immigrant population is more connected to technical detail than cultural will, but it is a failure nonetheless. The debate appears more raw because these are countries in which authority is naturally questioned, democracy is cleaved-to and voter engagement and activism is unusually high. The Nordic people – in the case of Norway and Finland, a young people occupying young countries which have changed fast in the last decade – voice their opinions in plain terms; sometimes it’s ugly, never is it avoided.

And rarely, in truth, does it embrace the ignorant and prejudiced. You can observe unsightly political posturing in the Nordic countries, you can even knock Finland for having dropped a few places in the worldwide educational leagues (though it still has the best schools in Europe according to the Pisa rankings). But recent political history does not a fair overview make. The Nordic countries are still the best examples of progressive societies in Europe, and it’s something you feel even more than you clock from statistics. I wouldn’t mind betting that progressiveness will overcome political fads, because it’s hard-wired into the way Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and even Icelanders carry themselves – in their natural modesty, their intense connection to the earth and their remarkable dance with capitalism which sees them touched by it but absolutely not defined by it. Spend some time in the Nordic countries and you may notice those things. You might also discover that Finns are more talkative, Norwegians less xenophobic and Swedes more emotionally open than their stereotypes would suggest ... and that there’s a little more to quality Danish TV than just The Killing.

Andrew Mellor is editor of Nordic culture website Moose Report, moosereport.net 

Swedish youth: polite and politically engaged. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times