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ACROSS THE BALTIC, A Mission to Raise Awareness of Communist Crimes

In the historiography of the Baltic countries, the Kingdom of Sweden these days is most often painted as a benevolent force of moral superiority in history books filled with the collusion of Germany and Russia.

Yet there is a darker side to Swedish-Baltic relations. As many in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania know, while Denmark and Norway refused to recognize the incorporation of the Baltic countries into the Soviet Union in 1940, Sweden gave the act de jure recognition. And when the Soviet government demanded the deportation of Baltic refugees who had fought on the side of the Axis in 1945 and 1946, the Swedish government complied.

Up until the end of the Cold War, when students went to schools in other classrooms around the world, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were still on the map. But according to some in Sweden, awareness of Soviet action in the Baltics remained hidden from the school curriculum, a situation they argue persists to this day.

"We were never taught one single word about the crimes of Communism when we went to school. Our occupied neighboring countries weren't even left on the school maps," Andres Hjemdahl, a Stockholm-based media and communication specialist, told the City Paper.

Hjemdahl is a co-founder of the Organization for Information on Communism (UOK), a non-profit group founded two years ago to raise awareness of communist crimes in Sweden. Last year Swedish research agency Demoskop surveyed 1,004 Swedes aged 15-20 on behalf of UOK. The results, published in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, sparked public debate in Sweden.

According to Demoskop's polling results, 90 percent of Swedes between the ages of 15 and 20 had never heard of the Gulag. This was in contrast with the 95 percent who knew of Auschwitz. The poll also found that 40 percent of young Swedes believed that communism has contributed to increased prosperity in the world while 22 percent considered communism a democratic form of government.

The mission of UOK, according to Hjemdahl, is to change those numbers. Hjemdahl said that he was inspired to found UOK together with its CEO Camilla Andersson, after a visit to Estonia. It was after hearing Estonian accounts of the Soviet era that Anderson and Hjemdahl were compelled to address what they deem to be an ignored topic in Swedish classrooms.

"We became increasingly disgusted with the near-total lack of awareness in Sweden regarding the crimes of Communism, especially considering the fact that some of our closest neighbouring countries were brutally occupied and oppressed by the Communists for half a century, while Sweden didn't even condemn the occupation," Hjemdahl said. "We consider this attitude disgraceful, immoral and unworthy, most especially so in a country which has made loud claims to celebrate equality, self-determination and democracy for all people."

The remedy has been organizing informational projects and seminars to discuss the effects of Communism, with Soviet actions on the eastern shore of the Baltic as a natural point of entry for discussion.

However, Hjemdahl said that acquainting Swedish youth with the material has been harder than expected. UOK started off by discussing the fate of Estonian Swedes, most of whom fled Estonia in 1944 during the Red Army advance through Estonia. Hjemdahl figured that the experience of other Swedes would make be an easy lesson for UOK's target audience. He was wrong.

"It was still difficult to tell this story, even though it had a 'natural' Swedish angle, because our targeted audience, Swedish students, didn't have a grasp of the most basic facts," he said. "They hardly knew where Estonia was, let alone that Communism could ever imply something bad — rather the opposite. While the crimes of National Socialism are well known in Sweden, the knowledge of the crimes of Communism is nearly non-existent."

UOK has developed a website for students – www.omkommunismen.se and www.upplysningomkommunismen.se - to act as a resource for its campaign, and it has lobbied the Swedish government, now led by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's Moderate Party, to introduce more information about Communism into the Swedish public school curriculum.

The organization is also writing a book, called "Communism", that will "cover all the basic facts" for students and will deal with Communism as a "phenomenon - its history, background, consequences and legacy, especially in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, as well as the averted attempt at revolution in Finland," Hjemdahl said.

From there, UOK will branch out to discuss communist crimes in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, Angola, Mozambique, and other countries. "We can't do everything at once, but for a start, we would like young people in Sweden to have a fundamental understanding of what Communism is, how it has effected our region and our neighboring countries," Hjemdahl said. "If they lack this knowledge, they won't be able to understand what's happening today, and they won't be able to understand the difficulties and challenges that our neighbors still have to face."

In addition to the book and interactive website, Hjemdahl said that UOK is also publishing a new report, arranging seminars, organizing a school tour where students can meet victims of Communism. UOK is also trying to promote August 22 as a memorial day in Sweden for the victims of Communism, he said.

Despite the campaign's student-friendly approach, UOK has met with "a lot of aggression and opposition on many levels, both from the Communists and from people who have traditionally relied on their political support," according to Hjemdahl.

The Left Party, which was called the Left Party-Communists from 1967 to 1990, currently holds 22 seats in the Swedish Riksdag, and claims to have 12,000 members. Hjemdahl argues that because Sweden's Social Democrat-led governments often had to count on the Left Party to form coalitions, the ruling crimes of Communism have remained a "taboo subject" in Sweden.

Despite this, UOK has been able to count on support from some Social Democrats – who are still the largest voting block in the Riksdag, with 130 seats out of 349 — and the organization receives support from Sweden's "neighboring countries across the Baltic, as well as from Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian refugees and their descendants in Sweden," Hjemdahl said.

Carl Bildt and Mart Laar are both honorary members of the UOK, and the UOK has had participation and help from President Adamkus, Sandra Kalniete and many others luminaries.

The ultimate goal, according to Hjemdahl, is for Sweden to reconnect with the Baltic region. "This lack of knowledge will stand in the way of re-establishing the natural, good relations across the Baltic which once were," he said.

"If Swedes stop looking inward and start to feel part of the region again, this will obviously in the long run also have a positive effect on our mutual security."

By Justin Petrone