Jo Nesbø’s television series about a Russian invasion of Norway was an instant hit and has been sold to Netflix in most countries. But, as Norwegians and Russians both know, it may come too close to portraying a reality
Gerard O’Donovan and David Crouch
Alternative fictions of world events seem to have suddenly appeared on the television landscape. The Man in the High Castle (based on Philip K Dick’s novella) launched on Amazon Prime last year, while the BBC produced an adaptation of Len Deighton’s terrific SS-GB. Occupied, a new political thriller from Norway, was bang on trend- being set in a decidedly alternative “near future”.
Based on an idea by crime writer Jo Nesbø, the opening episode posited a world in which climate change had brought Europe to the brink of a major conflict. Henrik Mestad played Jesper Berg, an environmentally committed prime minister who had convinced his electorate that the best way to tackle climate change was to shut down Norway’s gas and oil production. Unfortunately, the global fuel crisis this precipitated elsewhere didn’t go down well with EU leaders, who responded not with statesmanship but aggression, inviting Russia to pile on the pressure by invading.
If that sounds politically unlikely, it was. Perhaps more so because many of us are not so familiar with the nuances of Norway’s fraught history with its bearish neighbour (the real-life Russian government was so outraged by the series an official complaint was lodged in the run up to the Norwegian launch last August.) On the other hand, this clearly wasn’t aiming to be another Borgen, and there was plenty of action to distract. Mostly the first episode focused on the fallout from a dramatic helicopter-based kidnap attempt on Berg, in which the series’ £10 million budget was much in evidence.
“When I presented this idea about two years ago, they said the problem is it’s a bit far-fetched,” Nesbø told The Guardian this year. But events in Ukraine have proved him right, he believes.
Marianne Gray, the series producer, said: “The timing is insane given what is happening in the world.”
For many in the Nordic countries, the possibility of Russian aggression seems an all too clear and present danger. Governments are ramping up their military spending in step with their rhetoric.
Sweden’s military has been instructed to call up thousands of reservists for refresher training “to increase the operational effectiveness of our units in response to the changing security situation in Europe”, said Maj Gen Karl Engelbrektson, an army spokesman. Sweden’s home guard, which mobilises some 22,000 volunteer reservists, says it has seen a large increase in people wanting to join since the Ukraine-Russia conflict broke out.
Earlier this year Sweden’s government declared it was returning troops to the strategic Baltic territory of Gotland amid suspicions that Russia had conducted war games to seize Swedish, Danish and Finnish islands and the Swedish defence minister, Peter Hultqvist, announced this year that he would be reintroducing conscription.
Urban Lindström, whose Facebook campaign to bring back conscription surpassed 10,000 followers, said “it is imperative that not only the professional army, but also the home guard receives soldiers with adequate training – we can only achieve that with a sufficient number of conscripts every year.”
Opinion surveys suggest a new and growing plurality in favour of joining Nato – “insurance against occupation”, as some politicians call it. According to a poll in September, 41% of Swedes were in favour of Nato membership – up 10 percentage points since May – and 39% against.
Until recently, Finland was emphatically opposed to Nato membership, but its new Right Wing government said in May it reserved the option to apply for membership “at any time” and was calculating the potential costs and implications.
Hannah Smith, a specialist in Russia at Helsinki University, and a supporter of Nato membership, said “since the beginning of 2014 the average voter’s concern about Russia has increased massively. A lot of the younger generation has been infected by the older generation’s suspiciousness.”
“A lot of the younger generation has been infected by the older generation’s supiciousness”
Suspicions about Moscow’s intentions towards Denmark have been fuelled by incursions into Danish airspace, with fighters scrambled fifty eight times in 2014 to intercept Russian aircraft. Denmark’s military intelligence alleges that In June 2014, Russia mounted a dummy attack on the Danish island of Bornholm while the country’s political elite were gathered there.
The choice of the Danish title – The Russian Ambassador – for Norway’s new TV series carries a particular resonance given the furore this year caused by Mikhail Vanin, Russia’s ambassador to Copenhagen, when he told a newspaper that Danish warships would be “targets for Russian nuclear missiles”, if the country chose to join Nato’s missile shield.
Vanin said “history shows that aggression has always originated from the west of Europe. It is sufficient to recall the Teutonic Knights, Swedish expansion, Napoleon or Hitler. Do not forget about their modern successor – Nato. In this context, we have no positive sentiments about the forthcoming premiere of Occupied.”
Oslo’s relations with Moscow have also turned frosty. Norway has unveiled the first of up to 52 F-35 fighter jets it is purchasing from the US, saying the stealth aircraft provide an important counterweight to Russia in the region. Announcing a boost to military spending, the defence minister Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide said: “Russia has shown both the ability and willingness to use military force to achieve its strategic objectives.”
Public opinion has also shifted. An opinion survey of forty one countries surveyed by Gallup found that Norwegians topped the poll as the most negatively disposed towards the Russian leadership, with 89% disapproving.
“In Norway many people used to be moderately positive towards Russia, but the developments in Ukraine have driven a big shift,” said Indra Øverland, a professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. “Some of those who were neutral have turned negative, and the negatives have gone super-negative.”
How will the new fictionalised TV version of Russian occupation play among the Scandinavian public? “Lots of people watched it, but it is more an expression of what has changed rather than something that will influence opinion,” Prof Øverland said.
When Geir Pollen, a lecturer in Norwegian at St Petersburg State University, wrote an article condemning the series for resurrecting cold war stereotypes, some of his Russian students wrote him letters of thanks.
“When I see how much they love Norwegian and work on the language and are so dedicated, but then we give them such rubbish, I am very much ashamed,” Pollen said. “The series contributes to a black and white picture of the Russians. It is very irresponsible.”
Gerard O’Donovan writes for The Telegraph while David Crouch is The Guardian‘s correspondent in Gothenburg.