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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot