Research and Education on Russia as Part of Small State Foreign Policy

Summary from an open seminar held at UiT the Arctic University of Norway in cooperation with the University of Iceland, Centre for Arctic Policy Studies.

The seminar was supported by the Arctic Studies fund.


Welcome & Research and education for small state strategy towards a great power neighbor: “So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles;” (Sun Tzu)


Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen, Professor, Department of Social Sciences, UIT – The Arctic University of Norway

In his opening words Rasmus discussed the close ties with Russia, the importance of peaceful relations in the Arctic region and the usefulness of learning foreign languages for national security and economic prosperity. Rasmus mentioned the high level of competence and knowledge on Russian affairs at UiT, which he described as highly important for the Nordic states, being small Arctic states affected by relations with Russia. Learning a new language opens doors to new cultures and allows for a better understanding between different nations, and thus an enhanced possibility of avoiding and resolving conflict in the earliest state possible. Rasmus mentioned the importance of not only knowing your opponent but also yourself and that the western countries had sometimes understood that and the fact that when studying someone else you learn more about yourself. He took an example of how the UK’s Foreign Office failed in Iraq, not least because of the lack of understanding of foreign languages and too much focus on European language skills after joining the European Union. The Foreign Office had moved away from a very global perspective towards a European one, thus losing the necessary global skills and knowledge to assess the situation properly. These opening words were a good gateway into the discussion that brought together two related projects, one on peace and security in the arctic and the other one on area studies and Eastern European and Russian relations. 


Russian language, culture, and society education for understanding „the other“  


Svetlana Sokolova, Associate Professor, & Yngvar B. Steinholt, Associate Professor, Department of Language and Culture, UIT – The Arctic University of Norway

Svetlana and Yngvar discussed a new and more modern way of teaching languages through area studies and mentioned as an example that everyone studying Russian should visit Turkey at some point in their studies as Turkey and Russia have such similarities, but also vast cultural differences. It would be highly beneficial to build up a cultural aspect in language studies and to include languages in area studies – from the start.

Yngvar explained how the cultural difference between Norway and Russia is as big as the cultural differences between Norway and Turkey. This makes it all the more important to include the Russian language in Russia studies, from the start. If you know the language it gives you a much better insight in to what is going on or happening in Russia, he mentioned elections in Russia where on the surface it looked like elections, but what actually went on was something else. Second year students at the programme are enrolled in both literature course and media course where they explore media ranging from the Soviet newspapers to modern blogs. At the moment there are two PhD students enrolled in the programme.

Svetlana focused on the different activities and techniques used at each level of the studies as well as the skills and practice of the Russian culture, language and literature. She discussed four components of language proficiency, namely grammar, understanding (by reading text), history of the language and dialects. She also highlighted the importance of integrating research into teaching. The programme offers cultural meetings – organised by the students – where different activities take place, such as trying different foods or playing games. In addition, the Russian and Norwegian students meet around christmas and summer.


On the epistemic infrastructure of Russian media „debate“


Jón Ólafsson, Professor, School of Humanities, University of Iceland

Jón Ólafsson discussed the media debate in Russia in his lecture, but before focusing on that topic he linked the previous discussion to the situation of area studies in Iceland. He mentioned the lack of area studies at the University of Iceland and stressed the importance of increasing the possibility of those already enrolled to the University to add a specialisation in regional studies to their diploma. He mentioned the importance of humanity studies when learning about international relations, defence and security and global affairs. Furthermore, he highlighted the lack of understanding amongst politicians and diplomats in Iceland of the importance of specialization on regional affairs, which leads to the fact that commentators who live in the areas of question become specialists simply because they live there. 

This lack of knowledge regarding big regions of the world also feeds into the lack of understanding of what is actually going on in those regions. This is also true for the mainstream discourse regarding Russia in the West. When the Soviet Union was falling apart the West made a distinction that was wrong and misleading, mainly due to the fact that we have a superficial idea of what is going on. How can we, for example, explain the fact that in the 2018 elections Putin won with ¾ of the votes, and thus the majority of all eligible Russians for the first time? According to Putin, it is an expression of solidarity.

Jón continued the discussion by focusing on the epistemic structure of Russian debate and compared it to the structure of conspiracy theories. He took climate denial as an example where the underlying goal is to create doubt using often valid arguments that might sound urgent; ‘We need all the facts’. Jón argued that there were certain similarities between the fake news industry and the denial industry. The fake news industry tends to have frequent references to an underlying conspiracy thesis, claims to be exposing facts and fake news are often presented as a fresh and critical outlook. According to Jón, there are similarities to the strategies we see in the Russian media debates. In the West we get a lot of news of the Kremlin harassing journalists but we miss the promotion of those who aggressively defend government policies. Journalists who don‘t are quickly out of work. Provincial authorities can safely harass journalists working for local media. The opposition media is largely marginalized and serving small or isolated groups. However, the main tool of state propaganda is the Russian talk show and it has two very popular and powerful forms. One, the audience is put together in advance. Second, sometimes you have a moderately liberal person who starts the debate, which is often between two individuals representing (somewhat) opposed views. The media is presented to be looking for the facts but in reality there is no independent attempt to expose opposite views and present real facts.


Barents cross-cooperation in health generally and tuberculosis prevention  specially


Anita Brekken, Hygiene-nurse/Tuberculosis-coordinator, Finnmark Hospital Kirkenes (via Skype)

Anita gave an overview of health related cooperation between Northern regions in Russia and Norway. This cooperation takes place through people to people relations in the Barents region with the aim to build healthy neighbourhoods where berculosis have been a problem. The university of Kirkenes leeds the project but its success has a lot to do with the involvement of border authorities. Every year a conference is held in either one of the twin cities Kirkenes or Pechenga and multiple agreements on health related subjects have been signed.

In the discussions following the presentation the question was raised whether the issue of health and wellbeing was under-represented in the Arctic and if there was a need to bring the issue on a higher political level. 

The response was that it was important for health workers not to take part in politics – that Russia wants to take care of their challenges and they don’t want to have aid. Therefore it is important to create equal grounds for cooperation. Health workers want to have a closer cooperation but healthcare workers in Russia have to work within the boundaries of Russian governments – and therefore they have to compromise. For this project it is important to maintain a low diplomatic profile. 

Another question raised during the discussions was what kind of political hindrances the project has met in Russia. The response was that there has not been a big political hindrance, except for ambulances crossing the borders, this is because they are not allowed to bring all kinds of medicine over the borders. Overall, the people to people cooperation has a very good atmosphere, free from politics. 


 ‘Neighbourly asymmetry’: A Tromsø-based history project on Norwegian-Russian relations 1814-2014


Jens Petter Nielsen, Professor, Department of Archaeology, History, Religious Studies and Theology, UIT – The Arctic University of Norway

Jens Petter introduced a highly interesting book project Neighbourly Asymmetry: Norway and Russia 1814-2014, the first joint writing project between Russia and Norway that took place from 2007 to 2014. The book describes the interstate relations between Russia and Norway, with an emphasis on the northern dimension of Norwegian-Russian relations. The book does not focus solely on Norwegian aspects but provides a means of illustrating distinctive features of the Norwegian national state, seen in the light of the development of a multicultural society and relations with other countries.

The first volume covers the period from 1814, when new Norway emerged as a separate political entity, distinct from Denmark, through the nineteenth century up to 1917, when Tsarist Russia crumbled. During that period the Pomor trade was highly important, that is trade carried out between the Pomors of Northwest Russia and the people along the coast of Northern Norway, as far south as Bodø. The trade eased the relations between the two countries and created inter-social relations. During that period there were no Norwegian and Russian interstate relations since Norway was under Danish and Swedish rule. An important issue worth mentioning in the first volume is the drawing of the state border. The border area was huge and comprised most of what is today called the Northern cap, with three Sami sides. In 1826 the border was drawn and has not changed since. This period is also marked by Norwegian settlements on the Russian cost, on the islands and the cost.

The second volume deals with the period from the Russian Revolution, through the long Soviet epoch to the post-Soviet era, that is from 1917 until today. After the Russian revolution there were almost no relations in the region and the main emphasis was on the capitals. During that time all foreigners were deported from the settlements areas. The period is marked by famine and  great loss of life. After the fall of the Soviet Union the two counties regained close relations, with close inter-social relations, especially in the Northern region. 

The project itself went smoothly and there were no serious conflicts with Russia. The first volume was published in Russia and has not posed any difficult political issues. The second volume is however more problematic but will hopefully receive better acceptance with time. 


Iceland’s relations with Russia – cold without the Arctic?


Valgerður Björk Pálsdóttir, University of Iceland

Valgerður gave a presentation on Iceland’s relations with Russia. She started with a historical overview where she explained the establishment of trade relations in the 1920s and how they peaked in the 1950s. Another topic she touched upon was the establishment of political relations between the two countries in 1943 and how this relationship – mainly on bilateral level – was a lot closer than the average USSR-West relationships throughout the Cold War. She also focused on more recent developments such as Iceland’s search for a new foreign policy and how the Arctic has been used as a platform and how this defines the status of the relationship today. From 2009-2013 the relationship was strengthened and Iceland even tried to convince the European Union that it could be a facilitator of peaceful relations between Russia and the West. Iceland’s policy has among other things been based on the perception that Russia wants to have a better and more peaceful relationship with the West. During the period 2013-2018 Iceland has changed its approach although the focus is still on the alignment with western allies and the promotion of peaceful relations.

Today the relationship is built on reciprocal interests, mostly on Arctic related issues. Even though the trade has become less after the sanctions bilateral meetings are held twice a year where the status of international politics is discussed. After the sanctions export to Russia has been reduced by 90% and Iceland’s GDP shrunk by 1%. 

All foreign ministers since the sanctions have claimed the importance of keeping the Arctic away from political confrontations. However, the relations between Russia and the West have become more difficult and tense since Crimea. The Icelandic government is discussing how to react to the Skripal case, and the government may boycut the World Cup in Russia. This leads to the question whether this will affect Iceland’s relations with Russia in the Arctic.


Development of the study course “Culture, society and development in the Barents region” a Norwegian-Russian cooperation on education


Marianne Neerland Soleim, Associate Professor, Department of Archaeology, History, Religious Studies and Theology, UiT – The Arctic University of Norway

Marianne described an interesting project, the development of a study course held in Murmansk in October 2017. The course was funded by an educational funding in Norway, the SIU, High North Programme, to promote international cooperation. The goal was to develop a joint course on bachelor level in culture, society and development in the Barents region and the main target groups were Russian and Norwegian students and academics. Amongst other goals was the strengthening of the cooperation between the Barents Institute, The Northern Arctic Federal University in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk Arctic State University, as well as increased student and academic staff mobility between Russian and Norwegian partner institutions. 

The modules focused on the region relationships, social policy, welfare and social education, culture and cross-cultural relations, social demography and migration and contemporary and future social development of the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk region and the system of higher education, among other issues. 

The greatest challenge of the project was the fact that this was the first time the course was held. The study programme could have benefitted from more time for the students from Norway and Russia to interact, in order for them to learn more about each other and their countries.


Norwegian-Icelandic Arctic Studies program grant information


Since 2015 the University of Iceland has been in the process of establishing a graduate program in Russian and East-European studies. This program will commence in the fall of 2018. The aim of the program is to give students with interest in the region an added opportunity to focus their studies and research on the particularities of Russia and Eastern Europe. The grants are thus also thought to strengthen the new graduate program in Russian and East-European Studies at the University of Iceland.

UiT and Norwegian research in Russia, Eastern Europe and the Arctic will gain an increased understanding of Cold War and post-Cold War state-to-state and people-to-people relations between the USSR, Russian Federation and Eastern Europe and Iceland (and the West Nordic region). The aim of this project is to expand the cooperation between these institutes and to include experts in Russian Affairs from UiT and, for example, Fridtjof Nansens Institute, as well as young researchers at the participating institutes who have been focusing on Arctic Studies and Arctic policies of Central and Eastern European countries.                                                                 

Focusing on the proposed themes the plan is to organize two conferences in Reykjavik in March 2108 and in Tromsø a year later, March 2019. Each conference will be a one-day event with participation of experts on Russian and Eastern European affairs from Norway and Iceland. In conjunction with attending the conferences visiting academics will give lectures in class at the host institute, i.e. Norwegian professors in Iceland and Icelandic professors in Norway. The participants will furthermore incorporate findings and insights from the project to research and studies at their respective institutes.