[This article is part of series of articles in which we examine how Russians view the world. We commence with: Sweden]
“Sweden. Made intelligently.”
Let us commence with what our question is not: an examination of how much Russians know about Sweden. If we were to carry out a detailed investigation of the Russian people’s knowledge on the subject or perhaps give interviewees longer for reflection, we may be pretty certain that somebody as notable as Swedenborg would frequently be cited, or that notions such as the “Swedish social model” would often grace our conversations. Yet as interesting as such an examination might be for those interested in Russian educational standards, our aim was different. What we wished to reveal were those elements of Swedish culture that came immediately to one’s tongue, the subconscious associations that a Russian makes of Sweden and the Swedish. In a way what we looked for was those parts of Sweden that had become permanent and loved features of the Russian mental landscape.
And so, where does Sweden fit in?
The slogan at the start of the article: “Швеция. Сделано с умом. [Sweden. Made intelligently.]” is used by a famous Swedish company: Electrolux (advert here)
This slogan sums up perfectly the association in the Russian brain of Sweden with reliability, practicality, and minimalism – a view which is supported by other brands strongly associated with Sweden like Volvo and IKEA. So far, not so strange – these associations are much those an English speaker might have.
Yet for Russians, some of the first associations they will have with Sweden will naturally derive from expressions in Russian that contain the name of this country. And, here, we see that Russians have a few somewhat original perceptions of their northerly neighbour:
- Шведская семья (Swedish family): used in the same way as one might use the French expression “ménage à trois”. Apparently, this expression is connected to the stories of leftist Swedish youth who lived in communes.
- Шведский стол (Swedish table): a buffet.
- Шведская стенка (Swedish wall bars): meaning, uh, wall bars.
- And less often: шведские спички (a safety match).
As the Russian thinks of Sweden, we may be sure of the soundtrack. The tunes of ABBA have long been popular, even in Soviet times. Somewhat ironically the song Money, Money, Money was especially popular, which one may put down to empathy with the poor woman living in a cruel capitalist world, or, to that fact that it is a jolly good tune.
If all the above thoughts on Sweden are very dear to the Russian brain, one particular aspect of this culture is more loved than all others: the books for children by writer Astrid Lindren. Every child in Russia knows Pippi Longstockings and, without fail, Karlsson-on-the-Roof.
Karlsson is a small, rather portly and extremely overconfident man with a propeller on his back which allows him to commute from his home – the roof of the most ordinary house on the most ordinary street in Stockholm – to the room of his little friend, whom he invites to participate in his charming tricks. In the Soviet Union, the book was adapted as an animated film, a masterpiece of the Soviet cartoon industry and still loved by children and their parents. You can watch it with English subtitles here