Tomorrow, October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrates his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’re spending a few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world. Today: a nutty but high-profile creep in Norway.
In late August, Russia’s Foreign Ministry publicly condemned Occupied, a forthcoming Norwegian TV series, complaining that its premise – in the near future, Russia invades Norway and seizes its oil fields – brings to mind various anti-Soviet movies made in Hollywood during the Cold War. (One imagines they’re thinking of such fare as 1984’s Red Dawn, in which Soviet forces overrun the U.S.) The ten-part series, which was created by bestselling mystery novelist Jo Nesbø and will premiere in October on Norway’s TV2, had another critic: Bjørn Ditlef Nistad, who was identified by a Kremlin-controlled “news” website, Russia Beyond the Headlines, as a historian and an Associate Professor of the University of Oslo.
Nistad was paraphrased as saying that Occupied “is offensive to residents of Norway, liberated by the Soviet Union from German occupation in 1944.”
What? Norway liberated by the Soviet Union in 1944?
Yes, it’s true that on October 18, 1944, Red Army soldiers chased retreating Nazi forces out of Russia and into the remote, sparsely populated far northern tip of Norway, with which Russia, then as now, shares a 122-mile-long border. But to describe these troops as having liberated Norway is Orwellian. On the contrary, even though Stalin was nominally an ally, the leaders of the Norwegian government-in-exile in London were so concerned about the entry of his troops into their territory that they dispatched Norwegian soldiers to the region, partly to try to minimize the damage done by the scorched-earth policy that the Nazis were pursuing as they fled southward but also partly to ensure that Uncle Joe didn’t annex so much as a square centimeter of Norwegian soil.
When did the German occupation of Norway end? Ask any Norwegian. It ended on V-E Day, May 8, 1945, when the Nazis surrendered to the Allies. The date is still celebrated in Norway as Liberation Day. Soviet troops lingered in northern Norway until late September 1945, when they finally packed their bags and went home. Fortunately for Norway, Stalin had his hands full subduing and Communizing Eastern Europe and knew that any effort to turn his foot-in-the-door presence in Norway’s icy attic into a conquest of the entire country would be a difficult proposition and would be fiercely resisted both by Norwegians and by the Western Allies, who at that point were tacitly accepting his ongoing imprisonment of the people of Eastern Europe behind what Churchill had yet to call the Iron Curtain.
So how can a professor of history at Norway’s leading university present such a twisted version of the facts? Well, first of all, as it turns out, Nistad isn’t on the University of Oslo faculty. He got his Ph.D. in Russian history there in 2008, and stayed on as a temporary lecturer until 2010, but has not held an academic position since. He claims to have been unable to find a job. Why? Because, he says, of his “pro-Russian” views – by which he means his unqualified approval of absolutely everything Vladimir Putin does and says. Nistad supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; he endorses Putin’s oppression of gays. “I think Vladimir Putin is a good guy and a likeable politician who has saved Russia,” he told Dagbladet last year. He has even compared Putin to Churchill.
Because no Norwegian university will hire Nistad, he compares himself to a Soviet dissident. He’s tried to arrange financial backing from Russian oligarchs to pursue his “pro-Russia research.” There’s less freedom of speech in Norway today, he claims, than in Putin’s Russia.
Not that he’s been silenced. Far from it. Despite his inability to wangle a sinecure at the University of Oslo, he’s secured, in the words of writer John Færseth, “an important role in Norwegian debates about Ukraine, not least on NRK,” Norway’s government-run TV and radio network. Nistad, according to Færseth, is the “most important – or in any case the most obvious – defense player on the Russian team on the Norwegian scene today.” While most Norwegian commentators on the crisis in Ukraine, observed Færseth last November, are “in practice mouthpieces for Russian propaganda,” what sets Nistad apart is that his readiness to defend Putin and Putin’s former puppet in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, “has as times led him over into pure bloodlust, as when he wrote in July that the ‘coup makers’ in Kiev should be hanged.” Nistad has called pro-freedom Ukrainians fascists and neo-Nazis, and has written that killing a “few hundred” of them “would be a small price to pay” if it succeeded in establishing “that fascists would not be able to come to power through a coup in one of Europe’s most populous states.”
Here’s another way that Nistad stands out: he’s not one of those Putin fans who deny any similarity between the current regime in Moscow and the Soviets. On the contrary, as his fantasy version of the liberation of Norway might suggest, he was a fan of the USSR, too. In 2011, Norway’s newspaper of record, Aftenposten, ran an article by him headlined “Can We Learn from the Soviet Union?” His answer: da! The USSR, he maintained, was “one of the few reasonably successful multiethnic and partly multicultural societies that the world has known.” Its 200-odd ethnic groups “lived together in peace.” They had “a common dream: of building a socialistic society.” And this shared goal made them “good, honest, and hard-working citizens.” Although Gorbachev, in Nistad’s version of history, did a deplorable amount of damage to this paradise, Soviet values still survive among today’s Russians, thanks largely to Putin – who, he explains, has breathed new life into those values and made Russians proud again.
Bjørn Nistad: remember the name. If the scenario imagined in Nesbø’s TV series ever did come to pass, it’s not a bad bet that Nistad would be to Putin what Quisling was to Hitler: a devoted Norwegian acolyte, willing to run his puppet government and enforce his tyranny.
What a shame that, in the meantime, Norwegian students won’t be able to learn at the feet of this courageous truth-teller!