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Neighborhood in the North

Trine Eklund writes about experiences from her peace and dialogue journey in Russia. Why does the West draw an enemy image and impose sanctions on the country, she asks. She thinks we have no reason to fear our Russian neighbor.


When you visit Russia – and experience beautiful, modern Moscow and St. Petersburg, and other Russian villages and towns – one is struck by how similar we are as human beings: we have the same needs, dreams and desires for the future, and worry about the same societal challenges related to education, health and environmental and traffic problems. So why this eagerness to demonize and create fear for Russia? What has the country done to deserve this enemy image?

That Russians generally fear us is more understandable. The West has invaded the country repeatedly, with disastrous consequences for both the occupied and the occupant (such as Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 – 42). When Russian soldiers liberated Northern Norway in 1944 – 45, they lost more soldiers than Norway lost during all the war years, and during the near 900 days-long German siege of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) became between one and two million Russians killed or died of starvation and cold. The fact that Russia lost up to 30 million people during World War II is not easily forgotten. The Russians are disappointed that the West does not understand the significance of war for their country – its atrocities and the suffering the population was exposed to. It sits in, and is something we must include in our understanding of Russian culture and behavior.

Glass house

The United States has eight times as many weapons as Russia; England and France more than double that. Russia cut sharply in the military budget last year (due to financial problems following the fall in oil prices and Western sanctions, ed.), According to the Swedish Peace Research Institute SIPRI, and is now in fourth place on world statistics on state military budgets. So, militarily, there is no need to fear our neighbor.

The Crimean Peninsula has always been Russia's port city in the south.

The Crimean Peninsula has always been part of Russian territory. Crimea was given as a gift in 1954 by President Khrushchev to Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union, but the surrender agreement was first signed in 1991. The Crimean Peninsula has always been Russia's port city in the south, and 65 percent of its citizens are Russians. During our twelve-day "Peace and Dialogue Journey" in May this year, organized by the travel company Escape,  we were repeatedly asked not to mix the Crimean Peninsula and the rebel war in the Donbass region: These are two different conflicts. Regarding the "violation of international law", which politicians and the media use as a basis for demonization and sanctions of Russia, Norway and the West have violated international law several times without any consequences; both during the bombing of Libya in 2011 and now in Syria, where Norway has soldiers without the host country asking for it. Throwing stones when sitting in glass houses is rarely wise.

Russians are skeptical of the West, too, because we are unreliable in terms of agreements: When the Warsaw Pact was disbanded in 1991, NATO President Gorbachev promised not to approach the Russian border. This pledge – which was not signed in writing – is constantly breaking NATO by creating new military bases close to Russia. NATO bases are like a crescent along the borders. What if we mirrored this fact? What do the US, EU and Norway want to achieve with their sanctions, who are we to punish?

Human encounters

On our journey we experienced a modern Russia, though with much poverty and great differences – as in so many other countries. And a despotic Putin – not unlike other leaders in countries with corruption and obvious abuse of power, which we do not demonize. We had discussions with many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – international peacekeepers who openly talked about the situation they are living in. At the Veteran House in Moscow, we had meetings with Doctors Against Nuclear Weapons, the Russian Pugwash Committee, For Saving the People and UNESCO's Goodwill Ambassador. The hosts emphasized cultural exchange with song and music, which they regard as a cornerstone of all peacebuilding, but we also discussed what renovation and sanctions cost our communities – tax money that should have been spent on health, education and poverty reduction – and how much environmental damage war and military operations are affecting their own countries and the world at large. It is very important that environmental organizations focus on the pollution that comes in the wake of military exercises, and we cited the upcoming NATO exercise in Norway in October / November as an example. We also exchanged thoughts on how we can work together to reduce the fear and distance between us. In the future, we will inform each other of the underlying causes of the problems between the countries, of relevant conferences and meetings that are organized, and generally continue the dialogue. As the Russians said, "War must become a museum object!"

Culture is considered a cornerstone of all peacebuilding.

In the beautiful offices of the Gorbachev Foundation, where we had hoped to meet Mikhail Gorbachev himself, we received a thorough introduction to the work the foundation does through its annual seminars and international conferences.


In St. Petersburg, we met Olga from the Soldiers' Mothers and Alexander, who is a military denier and works for the Movement of Conscientious Objectors from Military Service. This was the most valuable and informative meeting we had. The military service is very brutal; About 50 percent of recruits get mental health problems. The soldiers come home in coffins or as narcotics. Any deaths are not being investigated. The soldier mothers have eight employees, most on a voluntary basis. Through telephone and Skype, they inform the soldiers about their rights, what opportunities they have to get help (which are not many), about application opportunities (but most often the applicants are rejected) and alternative paths in life. We were pleasantly surprised by how informative the military denials organization is about Russian constitution, where military denial is statutory. Unfortunately, the justice system protects the military institution. The organization holds courses, provides group training and provides free legal assistance. Time did not last for long discussions, but contact with Olga and Alexander will be maintained.

War must become a museum object!

We also visited The House of Friendship, where the St. Petersburg Peace Council is located. There we were again reminded of the great suffering of the Second World War population during the war years, and how strongly the memory of this still remains in the consciousness of all Russian families. "War must not happen again," was the message from everyone we talked to.

At the daily summaries of the trip – which had "Neighbors as friends, not enemies" as the motto – both experiences and useful knowledge were exchanged for our forthcoming peace and cultural work. Communication and nonviolent resistance are at the heart of a good neighborhood – as well as the further peacebuilding. 

Trine Eklund
Trine Eklund
Eklund is active in Bestmothers for Peace. 

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