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09.30  The Red Parentheses: Museums, Memory and the Making of [New] Nations After the Fall of the Iron Curtain

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9:00, Sunday 5 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

The Social Democratic party was the leading political party in Sweden for more than sixty years and its politics have shaped the fundaments of Swedish society until recently. Shortly before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the Social Democratic Foreign Minister Sten Andersson declared that the Baltic States were not and had not been occupied by the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Second World War, Swedish Social Democratic politics have been based on this denial. Shortly after the war, hundreds of Baltic refugees were forced to leave Sweden and return to the Baltic countries occupied by the Soviet army. Most of them were accused by the Soviets of having been a part of the Nazi war machine and ended their lives in the Gulag. Ture Nerman, one of Sweden’s leading socialists, jailed during WWII for his criticism against the “neutral” Swedish politics toward the Nazi Regime, was during the 1960s a member of the Baltic Committee, a committee working against the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries. In 1952 a Soviet MIG-15 shot down a Swedish Air Force Intelligence plane over international waters, killing all eight crew members. During the 1970s, it was not unusual to find tags with the message “Hellre röd än död” (rather red than dead) on the walls. The fear of a nuclear war was common. During all these years, but in the shadows of the political rhetoric of neutrality, Sweden had a close relationship with NATO.  

What these examples show is that Sweden has a complicated, but rich history regarding the forty-five years of Soviet imperialism, today discussed in books and media, but never displayed in its full length at the state-governed major museums in Stockholm. This paper will try to give some answers as to why this happened.  

Contrary to this oblivion, a historical unconsciousness and denial of Sweden’s part in a complicated historical period, museums in the Baltic countries are seriously dealing with the question of what to do with the years of Soviet occupation. How shall this historical fact be dealt with, and what role should the museums play? One answer is to put brackets [red] around it and place it in a chronological narrative displaying a long historical process of the nations coming into being, ending in the present-day Baltic nation-states, a historical process only disturbed by Soviet imperial occupation, hence the brackets. This also means that the narratives in the museums must be re-ideologized from a Marxist cosmopolitan ideology of labourism to the particular ideology of the nation-state.  

This paper will focus on the interesting but also complicated paradox of historical consciousness, memory, and oblivion between historical museums in the Baltic States and historical museums in Sweden, with examples from Vilnius and Stockholm.  

This paper derives from the recently launched research project “Art, Culture and Conflict: Transformations of museums and memory culture around the Baltic Sea after 1989,” in which I and my colleagues at Södertörn University, Annika Öhrner and Dan Karlholm, will explore art museums, historical museums and avant-garde art around the Baltic Sea and their response to the Soviet epoch.

Johan Hegardt


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