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A Clash of Civilisations: the Russian vs. the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

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Dr. James Dorsey

Russia and the Nordic countries’ pavilions at this year’s Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious art exhibition, project two different concepts of civilisation, nationalism, and sovereignty that have come to blows in Ukraine.

Newly renovated, brooding, and inward-looking, Russia’s art nouveau pavilion stands empty and abandoned after its Lithuanian curator and artists resigned in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A lone armed guard is what is left of what would have been Russia’s cultural contribution.

The pavilion, located in Giardini, a Venice city park, is expected to attract protesters instead of visitors.

By contrast, the modern structure representing the Nordic states, — Sweden, Norway, and Finland, — radiates light and openness at a time that Russia’s actions have prompted Swedes and Finns to consider trading in their long-standing neutrality for membership in Moscow’s nemesis, the North Atlantic Treaty  Organisation (NATO).

The Nordic pavilion also breathes the kind of inclusiveness and historical reconciliation that is diametrically opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concept of a Russian world whose borders are defined by representations of Russian civilization rather than international law.

By dedicating their gazebo to the Sami and letting artists from an indigenous minority populate it, Scandinavians opted to project an ethnicity that views them as colonisers.

“It acknowledges the Sami as a nation that exists across contiguous borders; it makes space for a different notion of nation,” said Jolene Rickard, an art historian specialising in indigenous art and a member of the Tuscarora Nation, a Native American tribe.

The unprecedented gesture projects a national and ethnic identity that, even though it crosses internationally recognized boundaries and is civilisational, is all-encompassing, welcoming, and harmonious. It jars with the civilisationalism advocated by Mr. Putin and his autocratic counterparts in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, that is fuelled by anger, grievance, righteousness, and a quest for an imaginary past.

By implication, the Nordic pavilion puts forward a 21st-century notion of sovereignty that acknowledges that multiple 21st-century common challenges and identities transcend national borders.

It is a notion that embraces globalization rather than a definition of sovereignty that puts the nation-state beyond international law and the supervision of supranational organisations like the United Nations; views the nation as a homogeneous, ethnocultural entity where minorities or immigrants are accepted only if they agree to assimilate; and embraces economic protectionism as a defence against globalization.

A traditionally semi-nomadic people who number some 100,000, the Sami are scattered across northern Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. For much of the last two centuries, they were culturally repressed and endangered by deforestation and settlement on lands where they lived, hunted, and herded reindeer.

Definitions of nationalism, civilisationalism, and sovereignty are one aspect of the Sami struggle and perhaps not the one that is foremost in Sami minds. More immediate for them are their critical 21st-century challenges that have shaped their quest:  the impact of climate change, the building of wind turbine farms on their land, land dispossession for mineral extraction, and dam construction.

The Sami-themed Venice pavilion is the latest Nordic step in recognizing the groups’ rights and addressing past wrongs. Despite having their own elected parliaments in Scandinavia that focus on cultural, educational, and developmental issues, many Samis feel that racism remains rife and that they still have little say about what happens on or to their land.

As a result, Samis may feel that Nordic states could do more. Even so, the principles underlying the Nordic engagement entail a vision of identity, nationalism, and civilization that holds out the prospect of a world in which grievances and challenges are addressed non-violently in accordance with accepted norms and rules.

Despite the rise of populist anti-immigrant sentiment in countries like Sweden, Nordic engagement contrasts starkly with Russia’s track record of violent confrontation, brutal military aggression, and land grabs in violation of international law.

The juxtaposition of the Russian and Nordic pavilions at the Biennale graphically illustrates the battle for the shape of this century’s world order that is being fought in the streets of Ukrainian cities, towns, and villages. It is a battle not only over Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity but also over the definition of the concepts of sovereignty, nationalism, and civilisation.