Russia was a hot topic at Almedalen (Sweden's annual political debating forum) last week with 26 out 94 seminars focused on security mentioning the perceived threat posed by Sweden's eastern neighbour.
Again and again questions were fired about whether people living on Gotland could sleep at night, after it emerged recently that Russia had simulated an exercise during which it invaded the island.
Though experts, researchers and even Sweden's Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist assured audiences that there was no need to panic, it was clear that plenty of people were worried anyway.
The Local published an article titled “If The Russians come our whole lives will change”. The most common question I – as Russian journalist – got asked by the Swedes I met was “what does Putin want?”.
But while at times it feels like Swedes expect a Russian invasion any day, I think Russians – for the most part – have a good image of Sweden.
The Swedish Institute recently conducted a study, which was also presented at a seminar in Almedalen, which suggested that 67 Russians viewed Sweden in a positive light, and 70 percent felt that Russian-Swedish relations were either positive or neutral.
Stockholm-based Russian journalist Elena Bazina. Photo: Private
The Russian people do not think of Sweden from a military perspective.
The majority have not even heard of Gotland. To the question “what first comes to your mind when you think of Sweden”, the most common answers included “a developed country”, “prosperity”, “quality of life” and the concept of a “Swedish family”.
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This latter expression – which does inducate some Russian prejudice – refers to a polygamous relationship involving either two men and a woman or two women and a man.
My efforts to understand how this concept became commonplace in the Russian language have so far failed, as have my efforts to find a “Swedish family” in Sweden.
One of the main sources of the tense situation between Russia and Sweden is to do with combat aircraft. Russian bombers approach the Swedish border switch off their transponders. NATO aircraft do the same when flying close to Russia. This is a strong symbol.
The function of a plane's transponder is to transmit signals about where aircraft are and to allow other military, airlines or airport staff to communicate with that plane. Modern military equipment means that aircraft can be detected even when transponders aren't switched on, but if they have been turned off this prevents any communication.
This is exactly what has happened in terms of diplomatic relations between the two countries. We do not understand each other.
The average Russian lives in a world where Sweden is a successful country – identified by ABBA, Astrid Lindgren and the non-existent “Swedish family”. He or she does not care about what happens in Sweden or what Swedish people think about him or her.
The Swedes are trying to understand the Russians but instead of simply asking direct questions so they prefer to carry out complex analysis and or conduct research surveys.
In the 26 workshops on the Russian threat, was not one speaker from Russia. Instead of Swedes asking each other what Russia wants, it would be better to ask this question to Russia.
There is undoubtedly a great benefit in critical thinking, but at the same time it is very important not to lose sight of the ability to just talk and listen to one another instead.
In my primary school when students could not get along, the teacher locked them together in a classroom for an hour so they had to talk to each other.
I would like to do the same to these two countries.