Bornholm, Russia and the politics of memory

Although the Red Army left the Danish island of Bornholm 76 years ago, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the memories of those events to life again. This small island, stretched between Sweden and Poland and not so far away from Kaliningrad Oblast, is rediscovering the meaning of its recent past. I met with Jakob Seerup, a PhD, researcher and curator at Bornholm’s Museum, to talk about the Soviet troops on Bornholm and Russia’s politics of memory.

How did you end up researching 11 months of the Soviet army’s presence in Bornholm from 1945-1946?

I began two years ago on the eve of the commemorations of the 1945 bombings of Nexø and Rønne (two Bornholm towns that suffered from Soviet air raids in May 1945). It did not happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since things looked a bit better last summer, we decided to merge two commemorations – those of the bombings and of how the Soviet troops left the island on April 5, 1946.

I have never heard of major commemoration events of the latter happening.

It is a fairly new tradition that shows a new phenomenon: a broader understanding that here on the island, World War II lasted eleven months longer than in the rest of Denmark and people are finally willing to look at that period with a fresh eye.

How did the inhabitants of Bornholm perceive the Soviet presence back then?

The predominant feeling was insecurity stemming from the initial chaos created by the Soviet aerial bombings. It left a huge impression on Bornholmers, although most people did not hold a grudge against the Soviets. They accepted it as a fairly normal way of ending the military part of the war, just like in many other parts of Europe. Resentment towards the Soviets was not a big thing, really.

Over the course of those 11 months people grew scared and impatient, though. A few families even left the island because they were afraid the Russians would stay permanently. Their decision did not create a major panic. Over the course of those eleven months, people grew scared and impatient, though. A few families even left the island because they were afraid the Russians would stay permanently. Their decision did not create a major panic. Nevertheless, such a drastic move exemplifies the worries that many Bornholmers shared back then. On top of that, some Russian officers brought their families along so one might have thought it indicated a rather long-term presence on the island.

One of the last visits of Soviet General Alexandr Yakushov to Danish Governor Paul Christian von Stemann. Photo: courtesy of Jakob Seerup.

How did the Soviet military command explain their extended stay on Bornholm?

In the beginning, Soviet general Alexandr Yakushov said they were here to make sure that the Germans would leave for good. This argument did not hold on well, however. Already in the first weeks after Third Reich’s capitulation, most German soldiers got transferred to present-day Poland. The rest (mainly those who were wounded and unable to travel) left in June-July 1945.

At that point, the Soviets did have a problem with how to justify their prolonged presence. On May 22, they came up with another explanation: they were on Bornholm because the island geographically was behind the line of Soviet occupation The island would remain occupied by Soviet troops ‘until the questions concerning the war in Germany had been resolved’.

How many German soldiers were there on the island when the Russians came?

For the most part of the war, there were only 500-1,000 German troops stationed on Bornholm. In the last weeks of the war, a new wave came from besieged Kolberg (present-day Kołobrzeg in Poland) and Königsberg (present-day Kaliningrad in Russia). Most of them belonged to the 9th Army Corps and took part in defending East Prussia and managed to withdraw before the advancing Red Army would surround them. At one point, there were as many as 20,000 German troops on Bornholm.

May 1945 was the first time that many Bornholmers could feel the war in their proximity. If you stood in Dueodde on the southeast corner of the island on May 5-6, you could see the glow of burning Kolberg and hear the artillery.

Is it why the Soviet Air Force bombed Bornholm?

Because of its geographical position, Bornholm was part of an active war zone at the end of the war in this part of Europe. No wonder many islanders thought that the surrender act of the Netherlands, north-west Germany and Denmark, announced by Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery on May 4th, would pertain to Bornholm, too.

Exhibition at Bornholms Museum. Photo: Miłosz J. Cordes.

But it didn’t?

For the Soviets, the war was still ongoing, and they were well aware that the German troops used Bornholm as a stepping stone on their retreat westwards to fight another day. For the Soviets, this justified the bombings.

Shortly after the announcement and the air raids took place the Soviet troops came – some 8,000 altogether. All these figures – first 20,000, then 8,000, must have been a lot for an island whose population did not exceed 30,000 people back then.

Were Soviets a nuisance for Bornholmers?

Only to a small extent. Soldiers landing on Bornholm had come a long way. They were used to being rather brutal to the German population and they thought it would be similar on the island. So yes, initially, events such as rape and looting were not avoided but nothing was done about them despite protests coming from the Danish authorities. Still, the Soviet military command quickly took measures to uphold discipline. Soviet general Alexandr Yakushov communicated via the Danish government representative Paul Christian von Stemann.

Most of the time the Soviets were separated from the islanders. They did not speak Danish and never learnt it except for words related to alcohol as they realized they could buy it in exchange for goods they looted in Germany. Since the stockpiles of snaps were limited, the soldiers also drank liquids they should never have touched. It led to a growing number of cases of poisoning and, subsequently, deaths. This is how the Soviet soldiers’ cemetery in Allinge on the northern edge of the island was created.

Soviet soldiers had their portrait taken together with their Danish interpreter wearing the armband of the Danish Freedom Fighters. Photo: courtesy of Jakob Seerup.

Did the Bornholmers get along with the Soviets?

Most of the time the relations between the Soviet troops and the inhabitants were rather trouble-free. Soldiers enjoyed their stay on the island, treating it as a mini-vacation. They were very musical, so there was a lot of singing so local people would sometimes have a positive impression of the soldiers.

On the other hand, rapes, assaults and thefts still occurred. Toutes proportions gardées, many Soviet troops wanted to treat Bornholm like a small Berlin. All in all, it was a big challenge for such a small community that, unlike Central and Eastern Europe, had not experienced the cruelty of World War II.

Photo Bendt Kjøller, Allinge. BØA 2014-27. Courtesy of Jakob Seerup.

How and when did the Soviets leave Bornholm?

The Danish Foreign Ministry sent a note to the Soviet Foreign Commissar Viacheslav Molotov on March 5, 1946. In the note, the Danes informed the Soviets that the British soldiers were about to leave Denmark and that the Danish government was ready to take full control of the whole Danish territory. Strangely enough, Molotov agreed almost immediately that the Soviet troops would leave within a month. And they did on April 5th, 1946.

Did the memory of the Soviets’ stay evolve?

Yes, quite a lot. There was a lot of curiosity and not much animosity. Especially for children, the ability to observe Soviet troops and to play with the equipment the Germans had left was a unique experience. As for the adult population, the development in the following years brought a genuine relief that Bornholm did not end up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

The date of the Danish government’s note is very symbolic. It was exactly the day when Winston Churchill gave his Fulton speech, warning against the emerging Iron Curtain. When he used this metaphor, he mentioned Trieste on the Adriatic and Szczecin on the Baltic. If we had continued drawing this line further north, Bornholm would have been on the eastern side of it.

What about the later years?

The Soviet presence on Bornholm resonated not only among the islanders but also within the Danish government circles. Danes over-implemented the contents of the March 1946 note. Up until 1983, there was not a thought in Copenhagen about any foreign troops even visiting Bornholm. It seems they made the Soviets used to such a zealous interpretation because in 1983, the US Air Force Swing Band, a military orchestra, was invited to come to an annual fair on Bornholm. When the Soviet Embassy in Copenhagen got wind of it, they intervened very quickly and reminded the Danish government of the 1946 note. The Danish Defence Ministry admitted it and made sure the orchestra wouldn’t make it to the island.

Only the election of a new government made it possible to reinterpret the note which, by the way, did not mention the stationing of foreign troops. So, the band did visit the island in 1985. Yet it was still an exception even after the end of the Cold War. It was only in 2000 that foreign soldiers came to Bornholm again for exercises. They were British.

Russia’s Ambassador to Denmark, Vladimir Barbin, seems to disagree with that.

Yes, just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he warned Denmark against letting US troops onto Bornholm, having produced the 1946 note. Regardless of the content of the document, Russians themselves seemed to have violated this doubtful rule. In 2008, they sent their forces to participate in the BALTOPS joint military exercise that involved Bornholm.

Is great politics back in Bornholm?

I think it has been here since at least 2010. It coincides with Putin’s neoconservative project where one of the main goals is to rewrite the Russian narrative of history. The Kremlin tries to merge imperial notions of the country’s history across the centuries, be it Muscovy, tsarist or Soviet. It is visible even in Allinge. We must remember that the old graves of Soviet soldiers there were originally thought of as an atheist cemetery. It was only in 2010 that the Russian delegation brought along an Orthodox priest who consecrated the cemetery. This is a symbolic way of weaving the cemetery into the web of the Putin regime’s propaganda.

Present-day Russia is a big country with huge problems and there is one thing that unites them from the point of view of the state propaganda: the Great Patriotic War. When Russia annexed Crimea and waged war in Donbas in 2014, the annual commemoration events in Allinge on May 9th gained a new dimension. When the Russian ambassador together with other people coming from Russia, especially for this occasion lay wreaths there, it is a highly political happening.

Russian delegation laying wreaths at the cemetery in Allinge. Photo: courtesy of Jakob Seerup.

Did the 2014 events affect the way the Bornholmers think about the Russian troops’ presence on their soil?

Up until 2014, there would always be Danish soldiers present at the ceremony. Their participation ended after Crimea. Yet the local mayor accompanied the Russian delegation again in 2021, manifesting the local dimension of the event and distancing himself from high-level international politics. I do not think they will be present there this year, though.

Is it only because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Not necessarily. Over the last decade or so, I have seen a growing momentum for changing the way Danes look at their country’s history during World War II. To an increasing number of them, April 5th, 1946, is the real day of the liberation of Bornholm. Because of this, Russians started being perceived as foreign invaders rather than liberators. This attitude has of course been further strengthened by the recent events, starting from Crimea and Donbass to the February 2022 aggression against Ukraine.

Does this pertain to people outside of Denmark, too?

Many people in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe were not aware of the destruction of Nexø and Rønne in the May 1945 aerial bombings followed by eleven months of Soviet presence on Bornholm. These days, there is a growing number of tours at the cemetery and talks about the Russian use and abuse of history.

I think the interest is not going to decline any time soon. On the contrary, this year Ambassador Barbin will likely lay the wreath at the cemetery as quietly as possible but he will probably be met with protests and Ukrainian flags in Allinge.

The desk of Danish Governor on Bornholm, Paul Christian von Stemann. The curious brass object in the back is the farewell present to him from General Alexandr Yakushov. Photo: Miłosz J. Cordes.

Can this myth-deconstructing exercise ever reach ordinary Russians?

My dream has been to travel to Russia to tell them about the experience of the people of Bornholm. But now it is impossible. Because of the war and growing totalitarianism of the Russian regime, many doors are closing.

Bornholm constitutes this little piece of World War II history where the Danish perspective could depict Soviet troops’ presence in Europe after 1945 in all its shades and hues: not necessarily only as liberators, but also as uninvited guests that eventually went home. After all, there were only three such places in Europe: Bornholm, Austria and northern Finland. Other regions were not so lucky.

Jakob Seerup holds a PhD in History and works as a researcher and curator at Bornholms Museum in Rønne. He has previously worked at the Royal Danish Naval Museum, the Royal Arsenal Museum and the National Museum of Denmark. He has mainly researched and written about naval history in the age of sail and Russo-Danish military relations.

Link to info on the exhibition:

The interview was carried out as a side-line activity within a research project entitled “Ukrainian Long-Distance Nationalism in the Cold War: A Transnational History” at Lund University. The project has been funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.