In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, based on the pretext of protecting the rights of Russian minorities in foreign countries, an important question in foreign affairs has become which other Russian populations may be a target for “protection”. Moscow has already expressed its dissatisfaction with the treatment of Russians by the Estonian government, and a recent Kremlin memorandum from the Ministry of CIS Affairs, Compatriots Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (the authority tasked with supporting Russians abroad) reveals that allegations have also been directed against other nations where Russian minorities exist. The memorandum underlined the importance of “supporting countrymen abroad, and their right to protect their traditions, customs and way of life from the incursion of nationalists”. Alarmingly, the Swedish region of Skåne received a mention of its own in a brief passage of the full document, signed at a meeting where Russian politicians discussed the preservation of cultural and linguistic Russian minorities in Europe. Russia has previously been keen to market itself as a neighbour country to Sweden, and not a far off alien nation, by emphasising historical and cultural ties, ties which it may now regard as being under threat.
“Skåne is of historical importance to the Russosphere”, a Russian parliamentarian is quoted as saying in the memorandum, before emphasising that, “the ancestral lineage of the Kievan Rus can be traced back to Sweden and Skåne, and hence that region represents an important strand of Russian heritage.” He then emphasised that whatever steps necessary should be taken by the Russian Federation to ensure the cultural integrity of Skåne’s Russians.
Of the estimated 16000 Russians residing in Sweden today, around 5000 live in Skåne, most of them in cities like Lund or Malmö. The entry of the Baltic states into the European Union in 2004 has allowed Russian minorities formerly resident in those nations to move freely around Europe as other EU citizens do, with many travelling to larger metropolitan areas, such as London and Berlin, but also to smaller regions like Skåne.
Arnold Buckshaw, professor of Russo-slav archaeology at Ulysses S. Grant University, is expert in the field of early Russian history and stressed the historical legitimacy of Kremlin claims about Skåne’s cultural importance to Russia. “The archaeological digs carried out in the Northeast of Lund near MAX IV have unearthed the repatriated remains of 11th century Varangian Duke Vladimir Bajsantinos Szniglav, an important figure in Rus history, his honorary middle name coming from his close association with the Byzantine emperor of the time, in whose court he served as a member of the Varangian guard. The Varangians were a troop of Norsemen who were employed as elite soldiers in medieval Byzantine armies and who helped found the Russian state. So Kremlin notions that Skåne is of ancestral importance to Russo heritage seem to fit with the historical record,” says Buckshaw.
The Kremlin also expressed worry about the scarcity of Orthodox churches in Skåne, calling the prominence of Western Christian monuments like Domkyrkan in Lund “unnerving”, and arguing that the number of Orthodox places of worship (numbering only four, none of which perform services in Russian) is at present too few in relation to the number of Russians living in Skåne. The secular nature of Swedish society was also criticised as threatening the basis for Russian minorities to practise and disseminate their Orthodox faith. These ideas may also find substance from historical evidence: “Not only is the lineage of medieval Rus rulers strongly anchored in Skåne, but so too is the Orthodox Christian connection, exemplified by the Varangians’ ties to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), which was a place of pilgrimage for the first Rus rulers, and, like Crimea, an area of cultural significance for Russians to this day,” Professor Buckshaw said. “It depends how you look at it, Russian interpretations of their own history seldom align with the Western point of view, but to the regime’s eyes places of cultural and religious significance where ethnic Russian diaspora reside are ideologically very important,” he added.
A final area of critique in the memorandum concerns the status of the Russian language in Sweden. As part of ongoing Kremlin investigations into the state of education and the public use of the Russian language in neighbouring countries (such as Estonia where citizenship laws are criticised for being anti-Russian) the use of Russian in Sweden was also mentioned. Concern has been expressed that freely provided home language education (hemspråksundervisning) for immigrants and minorities is particularly poor for Russian. Indeed, that barely 1000 Swedes study Russian at school has been interpreted as signifying a disdain for Russian culture, not fitting of a neighbour country, especially one with which cooperation on Baltic sea initiatives is important. Regions like Skåne, where commerce with Russia is considerable were singled out as requiring improvement. The Kremlin will continue to monitor the situation, the memorandum concludes, and does not exclude Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and other countries from “necessary measures” to protect the rights and cultural heritage of “Russian citizens”.
The Swedish foreign ministry has not been available for comment.