Gamla Biskopshuset, in Lund.

Gamla Biskopshuset, in Lund.

Conference reports The Nordic Belarusian History Dialogue: A forum for networking and discussions between academics

The Nordic Belarusian History Dialogue took place in Lund, Sweden, in January 2020. The gathering brought together colleagues from Tromsø on the northern coast of Norway to Polesia in southern Belarus with the aim of engaging Nordic and Belarusian historians in dialogue.

Published on on July 6, 2020

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Conference-report from the Nordic Belarusian History Dialogue. The event took place in Lund, Sweden, at the “Gamla Biskopshuset” in January 22-23, 2020. It was funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers and organized by Historians Without Borders.

In an era of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” memory laws, the conditions for historical inquiry remains an important and relevant issue, in the Baltic Sea Region.

Restrictions on access to archives, limitations on scholarly mobility, declining proficiency in foreign languages, and rising costs of subscription to leading scholarly journals has created a perceived gulf between historical scholarship in the countries around the Baltic Sea. This divide is noticeable between the Nordic Countries and Belarus. If Belarusian scholars often have limited access to international scholarship, Nordic researchers find it difficult to stay informed on current Belarusian research. As a result of this, Belarusian and Nordic scholarly discussions take in relative isolation from one another, as two solitudes.

The organization Historians without Borders (HWB) was established in 2015 as a Finnish NGO on the initiative of Erkki Tuomioja, former foreign minister of Finland, but also a historian and scholar. The following year Historians without Borders arranged an international conference with several hundred participants, entitled “The Use and Abuse of History in Conflicts” at the University of Helsinki. At the end of the conference the participants adopted a declaration establishing the international network Historians Without Borders for which the Finnish NGO acts as its secretariat. A purpose, and a guiding principle of the organization has been to seek to promote understanding and reconciliation through understanding of historical processes. Through an open dialogue and the promotion of free and open access to archival collections, Historians Without Borders seek counteracting the instrumentalization or misuse of history for political or ideological purposes, as these have a potential to sustain conflicts and impeding conflict resolution.[1] At a time of increased political tension and deterioration of the security situation, not least in the Baltic Sea region, these aims has gained a renewed relevance.

Generously funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers and co-hosted by its Copenhagen office, the meeting, held at Lund University on January 22-23, 2020 aimed at providing a neutral, academic platform to discuss Belarusian history in an international and European context.

The gathering brought together colleagues from Tromsø on the northern coast of Norway to Polesia in southern Belarus with the aim of engaging Nordic and Belarusian historians in dialogue. Key foci was reflecting on the use and instrumentalization of the past, on what historical narratives are taught in school, and the contextualization of Belarusian history in a wider European and transnational context. Another central aim was to engage Belarusian historians in an open, deeper, and lasting dialogue, not least with colleagues in the Nordic countries.

The facilitation of international dialogue in a discipline particularly prone to political pressure and politization constitutes a specific challenge. The use of history in a young, nationalizing state, which Freedom house characterizes as “not free,” neighboring Europe’s most long-lasting and current armed conflict constitutes a specific challenge. How does one best facilitate a discussion that allows for the significant diversity of perspectives that exists between established researchers working within the state-controlled university system, and alternative voices, necessitated to work at institutions beyond the borders of the republic? Could Nordic colleagues help facilitate an open, balanced, and more levelled playing field, and if so, how?

The practical issues were several. Even seemingly mundane issues, such as to decide what language the seminar should be conducted in, are intimately connected to issues of identity, political preference and cultural and ideological orientation. Though Belarus has two official languages, Russian overwhelmingly dominates in virtually all spheres of society. The choice to conduct the seminar in two languages, the co-official Russian and English was a practical one, though – as one participant pointed out – less than ideal. The colleague noted that the very fact that Belarusian scholars discuss Belarusian history, in Russian, in Sweden, reflected an unusual and, in his opinion, abnormal conditions under which Belarusian historians operate. The epistemological divergence was reflected in the discussions, as representatives of the official Belarusian historical establishment highlighted the need for a historical canon and stressed the role of the state in the management of historical memory, mirroring, rather closely the official line of the Belarusian authorities. Tensions were clearly discernible between the “official” historical establishment and non-state affiliated historians, some of which have been necessitated to move beyond the borders of the republic to conduct their inquires; not least in Lithuania and Poland. In addition to the split between the rivalling nationalizing discourses of the “official” and “alternative” historians – both, operating within a nationalizing historical framework, a third group has crystallized, questioning both nation-centered approaches, instead pursuing lines of inquiries along other lines, such as gender, class, ethnic minorities, thereby also treating the rivalling nationalizing discourses as objects of inquiry.

The seminar allowed for many informal discussions, not only during the formal sessions, but also during the reception at the office of the Nordic Council of Ministers in Copenhagen, lunches dinner, and thereafter. A general sense among the participants was that the meeting was fruitful in promoting dialogue and networking, underwriting the prospective of future cooperation.

A more detailed report of the event, written by Kristiina Silvan at the University of Helsinki is available at the website of Historians Without Borders, providing more detail of the discussions, in accordance with the Chatham House rules, that is, without providing names and directly identifying quotes.[2]


[1] Erkki Tuomioja, “Foreword,” in Antti Blåfield (ed.) The Use and Abuse of History (Helsinki: Siltala Publishing, 2016), 1-17, here: 16-17.

[2] Kristiina Silvan, Nordic Belarusian History Dialogue: Final Report (Helsinki: Historians without Borders in Finland, 2020), (Accessed June 30, 2020)

  • by Per A. Rudling & Erkki Tuomioja

    Per A. Rudling, Associate Professor, Department of History, Lund University, and Research Associate, Center for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University. Erkki Tuomioja, Ph.D., Chairman, Historians Without Borders, Member of Parliament.

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