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  • Soviet Cultural Diplomacy with Scandinavians after the Great TerrorVOKS and Visitors from Denmark and Norway in 1939
  • Ville Soimetsä (bio)

This article analyzes Soviet cultural diplomacy in Scandinavia shortly before the outbreak of World War II. The focus is on exchanges between the key Soviet organization for cultural diplomacy, the All-Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad (Vsesoiuznoe obshchestvo kul´turnoi sviazi s zagranitsei, VOKS) and select Danish and Norwegian journalists and writers.1 While utilizing sources from Russian and Scandinavian archival collections to examine four such exchanges in detail, the article discusses continuities and changes in how [End Page 29] VOKS worked to transnationally develop and disseminate a positive and controlled image of Soviet society by hosting foreign intellectuals after the purges of the Great Terror of 1937–38 and before June 1941. By expanding on previous research and highlighting the perspectives of the hosts and their guests, the analysis contributes to our broader understanding of the elements in Soviet cultural diplomacy that continued to function through the purges and were reciprocal even if asymmetrical. The article also focuses on the underexplored "period of relative calm" for VOKS, as characterized by Michael David-Fox in Showcasing the Great Experiment, the most comprehensive published study of Soviet cultural diplomacy before World War II.2

Throughout the interwar period, VOKS and other important agents of Soviet cultural diplomacy, such as the Foreign Commission of the Union of Soviet Writers (Soiuz pisatelei SSSR, established in 1936), mainly focused on West and Central European countries.3 Therefore, the Scandinavian dimension has received limited attention in research. Additionally, the period of 1939–41, when the Great Terror had seriously hindered VOKS operations and diminished its significance (and when most European countries were engulfed in war and occupied by German forces), barely has a place in the main narrative.4 The main reason for this neglect is archival silence: there are no general VOKS policy documents available from 1939–41, and the files [End Page 30] related to operations that actually took place in 1939 or later are included in inventories mostly listed as ending in 1937. However, a close reading of the VOKS archival catalogue reveals that even during the first half of 1939, and before the German-Soviet pact in August 1939 and the outbreak of war the next month, VOKS operations had an unprecedentedly strong Scandinavian focus in proportion to the whole. Of the 160 files in the inventories (opisi) of the Anglo-American and First Western Divisions from the 1939–41 period, 60 refer to the Nordic countries.5

The earlier years of Scandinavian-Soviet cultural relations have been more widely researched, especially concerning specific Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish organizations that played a role in that field. However, the studies usually concentrate on only one of the countries and are mostly published only in the Scandinavian languages.6 Perhaps the most illuminating comparative study in English, by Ole Martin Rønning, focuses on the first level of cultural diplomacy, which took place in the framework of the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Cultural Fronts, intellectual-driven leftist organizations of the mid-1930s popular front period. They had some success and societal visibility, especially in Denmark, where support for the Communist Party was at the highest among the Nordic countries, but they were all suppressed and dissolved with the end of the popular front era, the Great Terror, and the isolation of Communists from other elements of the workers' movement and [End Page 31] liberal sympathizers.7 The second level of the framework for cultural diplomacy was the organizations linked to the Communist International (Comintern), VOKS, or both. These organizations included two kinds of entities: the essentially communist friendship organizations were technically nation-specific branches of the Comintern-affiliated International Association of Friends of the Soviet Union, established in Moscow in November 1927. In all three Scandinavian countries, there were also organizations for the advancement of cultural and economic relations. As these organizations were not affiliated with the Comintern or the Communist Party, they were more inclusive, at least in principle.8 The friendship and cultural/economic organizations are discussed in this article, because they effectively served as the foreign nodes and...


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