For members


Swedish word of the day: Rysskräck

Rysskräck, the Swedish term literally translating as "fear of Russians", has long been used to describe Swedes' distrust of Russia and fear of the potential military threat they pose to Sweden. But just how far back does Swedish distrust of Russia go?

Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the term rysskräck was used disparagingly towards those who warned of the threat Russia posed to Europe, dismissing them as paranoid russophobes.

Indeed, those who cite the threat from Russia as a reason for or against joining Nato may be accused of carrying out rysskräckspolitik – politics exploiting a public fear of Russia.

The term has existed in Swedish for over a century – it first appeared in the Swedish dictionary in 1907, although Sweden’s distrust of Russia stretches even further back in history.

One of the most simple explanations for this distrust of Russia is the fact that, despite Sweden’s two hundred years of neutrality since the Napoleonic wars, tens of thousands of Swedes have fought and died in wars with Russia in Swedish history.

This includes over 30 wars between Sweden and Russia, often over control of the strategically-important Gulf of Finland linking Helsinki, Tallin and St. Petersburg, stretching from the 12th century to the 19th century, with both sides gaining and losing territory on multiple occasions.

Gustav Vasa, Sweden’s King between 1523 and 1560, used anti-Russian propaganda to stir up rysskräck and encourage support and recruits for his wars wth Russia, even describing Russia as Sweden’s “gamla arvfiende” or “old inherited enemy”.

A Swedish phrase which began around this time to describe Russian attacks is “Ryssen kommer!” or “The Russian is coming!“. Linguistically, “Ryssen kommer!” is interesting, as it refers to an individual Russian, rather than the Russian state.

Finland, which today is the only country separating Sweden from Russia, was for hundreds of years ruled by one of the two countries, meaning that they shared a land border until Finland became independent in 1917.

Indeed, Russia is one of only two states which has ever occupied part of Sweden – the other is Denmark. Over the years, Denmark has lost territory and Russia has gained it, leading to Swedish fear of the Danes lessening and fear of Russia growing. 

Swedish territory once stretched as far east as the now-Russian city of Vyborg in Karelia, on the Russian-Finnish border, which was founded by Sweden in the 1200s.

Vyborg which survived at least five attacks by Russia between 1411 to 1710, when it became part of Russia following the Great Northern War, was considered to be Sweden’s easternmost fortress, militarily at least as important for Sweden as Kalmar or Stockholm.

Refugees displaced by this war also contribute to the history of rysskräck in Sweden – thousands of refugees fleeing from what used to be Swedish territory arrived in Stockholm in the early 1700s, bringing with them stories of destroyed farms, death marches and Russian plundering by Peter the Great’s forces.

When Finland – formerly Swedish territory – was occupied by Russia just a few years later, a second wave of refugees arrived in Sweden with new stories of Russian atrocities, further fanning the flames of Swedish rysskräck.

Another, different wave of refugees arrived in 1917 following the Bolshevik revolt in St. Petersburg, where thousands of formerly well-off middle-class Swedish-Russians fled the city for Sweden, arriving penniless. The Swedish press gave much attention to their situation, using it as a depiction of Russia’s barbaric behaviour and further adding to Swedish rysskräck.

After the Russian revolution in 1917, rysskräck was often combined with kommunistskräck, or fear of communism, particularly among the right – especially after the 1939 Winter War, where the Soviet Union attacked Finland, as well as during the Second World War where the Soviet Union increased their territory in Europe.

After 1989 rysskräck decreased somewhat, as Swedes hoped that the fall of the Soviet Union would mean an end to the Cold War and peace and democracy in Russia, but this trend has reversed in recent years following Russian military aggression in Georgia, Crimea and now, war in Ukraine.

Now, following years of Russian threats if Sweden or Finland join Nato, as well as this increased military aggression, rysskräck in Sweden is back.

According to a survey carried out by Novus on behalf of SVT in January this year – prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine – 59 percent of Swedes answered ‘yes’ to the question “are you afraid of Russia as a world power?”.

This may just be due to Russia’s recent military activities in Europe, but some Swedes may also see this as a confirmation of what they’ve been wary of all along.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Swedish word of the day: liga

You may have this word in your native language or recognise it from football leagues such as the German Bundesliga or Spain's La Liga. Liga has a similar meaning in Swedish, too, with one crucial difference.

Swedish word of the day: liga

Liga originally comes from Latin ligāre (“to bind”). In most languages, liga means “league”, a group of individuals, organisations or nations who are united in some way.

Similar words exist in many European languages, such as Dutch, Spanish, Czech and Polish liga, Italian lega, French ligue and Romanian ligă.

A league is almost always something positive or neutral in other languages, but in Swedish a liga is something negative – a criminal gang, with the word ligist referring to a (usually young, male) gang member, thug or hooligan.

Political or diplomatic leagues are usually translated into Swedish as förbund (“union” or “association”) rather than liga: one example is the Swedish term for the League of Nations, Nationernas förbund.

The only exception to this rule is sport, where the popularity of international football leagues such as the Bundesliga and the Premier League has lessened the negative meaning somewhat in this context. Fans of hockey will be familiar with SHL, Svenska hockeyligan, and Sweden’s handball league is referred to as handbollsligan.

The history behind liga’negative meaning in Swedish can be traced back to the Thirty Years’ War, which took place largely within the Holy Roman Empire between 1618 and 1648.

Essentially, the Thirty Years’ War began as a fight between Protestant and Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire, with Catholic states forming the Catholic League and Protestant states forming the Protestant Union.

Sweden was – and still is – Lutheran, meaning that, when they got involved in the war in 1630, their enemies were the Catholic League – or the katolska ligan in Swedish, with its members being referred to as ligister or “league-ists”.

King Gustav II Adolf eventually beat the Catholic League in 1631 at the Battle of Breitenfeld, ultimately leading to the formal dissolution of the league in 1635 in the Peace of Prague, which forbade alliances from forming within the Holy Roman Empire.

Although this may seem like ancient history, Swedes still don’t trust a liga – the word’s negative connotations have survived for almost 400 years.

Swedish vocabulary:

Jag är lite orolig för honom, han har börjat hänga med ett gäng ligister.

I’m a bit worried about him, he’s started hanging out with a group of thugs.

Manchester United har vunnit den engelska ligan flest gånger, men City är mästare just nu.

Manchester United have won the Premier League the most times, but City are the current champions.

De säger att det står en liga bakom det senaste inbrottsvågen.

They’re saying there’s a gang behind the recent spate of break-ins.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.