Swedish icons 12: Queen Christina

Great Britain has its strident Queen Elisabeth I, France has its flamboyant Marie Antoinette and Russia has its legendary Catherine the Great. For Sweden, there is one Queen to measure up against them in icon status – the notorious Queen Christina.

Born 1626, Christina was the Queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, although the country was governed by a regency council until she reached the age of 18.

She is known to have been an independent, outspoken and untraditional woman, and as such has ignited the imagination of novelists, play-writes and film makers throughout history.

Christina’s father was Gustav II Adolph, one of Sweden’s warrior kings, a military commander credited with the rise of Sweden as a great European power. He wanted Christina to be raised in the same way a boy would be – so Christina was an unorthodox and controversial person already at an early age. She studied 10 hours per day, could hunt and fight, was knowledgeable in politics and could speak seven languages other than Swedish.

This learned young woman who was ‘masculine’ and ‘rough around the edges’, was a great sponsor of the arts. Wanting to turn Stockholm into a centre of learning and culture, she attracted many great minds to her court. This was, however, very expensive and eventually the dream died – gaining her a reputation for being wasteful and extravagant in the process.

She was also a peace maker, negotiating peace that ended the 30 Year War. Under her reign, Sweden settled New Sweden in the USA, which is today in the area of Joe Biden’s hometown Delaware.

However, she is mostly remembered for three main things. Firstly, her refusal to marry. Secondly, her unprecedented abdication in 1654. And thirdly, her scandalous conversion to Catholicism.

Christina expressed a distaste for marriage and felt pressure to provide an heir. She realised that if she married she would effectively hand power to her husband. She is quoted as saying ‘I am unsuited for marriage.’ In today’s terms, she would have been defined as lesbian, and she had several mistresses – the most important one being Ebba Sparre, who she called ‘La Belle Comtesse.’

She gave up the throne partly because of her refusal to marry, but mostly due to her increasing unpopularity and pending religious conversion. After her abdication, she shook off the shackles of court protocol and dressed more frequently in male clothes. Historians often describe Christina as unattractive and androgynous in her physical appearance. Whether this is true, or whether her ‘ugly’ appearance was exaggerated in order to undermine her position is unknown. After her cousin took over the throne, Christina quickly left Sweden and ultimately settled in Italy. Although she made several attempts to regain power in Europe, she never succeeded and eventually died in Rome aged 62.

Queen Christina’s funeral was held at St Peters Basilica, reflecting her provenance, prominence and influence. She is one of only three women to buried in the Vatican. That alone is enough to earn her icon status.

Swedish Press Freedom – the first in the world

In several countries, I would not be allowed to freely write what I want in this blog. Many nations are fighting for press freedom and against censorship – some of them not very far away. Thankfully, Sweden has solved this issue of media independence. Everyone is free to express themselves in writing, provided they do not publicly defame another person or commit an illegal act.

Obviously, Sweden didn’t always have freedom of the press. In the early days of print, Swedes fought many battles against censorship and limitations on the printed word. However, things changed when, on 2 December 1766, Sweden became the first country in the world to write freedom of the press into the constitution. The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act also allowed public access to information, which made it legal to publish and read public documents.

The Act that applies today actually came into effect in 1949. Today, laws cover press ethics, disputes, freedom of expression over digital media and protection of the individual and of whistleblowers.

Compared with other countries in the EU, Sweden is the 3rd best country in terms of media independence, preceded by Finland and Denmark. Sweden holds the 4th position on a global scale, the number one country being Norway.

According to Reporters without Borders, one reason that Sweden isn’t ranked higher is that over 50% of local media is owned only by five major companies. These control the editorial line and job security.

Additionally, one third of Swedish journalists claim they self censor due to threats and harassment from trolls, violent groups, heads of overseas states and security forces. Very few perpetrators are sentenced.

Swedish politics – alarmist or accurate?

There’s a change blowing in Swedish politics and I’m really interested to hear your point of view.

In recent years, the far right, nationalistic party Sweden Democrats (SD) have gained traction. However, although they have a 17% representation in the parliament, they have never sat in the government. This is mostly because the other established parties have refused to negotiate or cooperate with them.

Today, Sweden has a minority government supported by smaller parties. One of the raison d’etre of this solution is to keep SD away from any form of governmental influence.

However, there is a shift. The two other right-oriented conservative parties, the Moderates (M) and the Christian Democrats (KD), are now opening the door to SD. In a bid to gain power, M and KD have understood they cannot reign without SD. Together, this block could get the largest number of votes, if not an outright majority.

Many people are concerned about this. History tells us how radical right-wing parties have previously gained political domination via the established conservative parties. The conservative parties opened the door, and then lost control. People are worried that this will happen in Sweden and that a right-wing union would devastate the country.

What do you think? Is this a valid concern or are people simply being alarmist?

Please share your thoughts.

Sweden closes its borders

In a historical move, Sweden is closing its borders to foreigners from Saturday 6 February. The only way in to the country is if travellers can show evidence of a negative COVID 19 test taken within the previous 48 hours.

The government says that this is to prevent the spread of the British strain into Sweden. Although, the strain is already here the hope is that this entry ban will significantly reduce its progress.

The ban will last until 31 March 2021.

So if you are planning a trip to Sweden, make sure you take a test before you depart. And make sure you bring evidence of your negative result with you. Tests will not be offered at the Swedish border, and you will be sent back home.

2020 – the year most Swedes want to forget

A quick look at social media reveals the general Swedish attitude to 2020 – ‘a shit year’, ‘throw the year in the bin’, ‘go to hell 2020’.

Obviously, people are referring to the global pandemic that swept the world, limiting our freedoms, making us sick and killing 8727 people in Sweden. So far, about 10% of the Swedish population has had Covid 19, and as we enter 2021, that number is quickly rising.

However devastating the pandemic is, 2020 wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were some positive news stories in Sweden as well, even though media coverage was totally dominated by the virus. Let’s reflect over some of the rays of light:

– The Convention on the Rights of the Child became enshrined in Swedish law. This expands legal protection to children.

– The planet got a much-needed breathing space. Fewer planes in the sky and cars on the roads improved air quality and reduced pollution. Biggest impacts of this were seen in other places, such as New Delhi, where the sky turned blue again.

– Despite physical distance, people showed solidarity and care for each other. People shopped for each other, walked each other’s dogs, serenaded each other and checked in on each other. 2020 was a year of neighborliness.

– People gathered up and down the country to protest against oppression and racism as part of the global BLM movement. While gatherings might have been illegal, it showed a strong commitment to equality in Swedish society.

– The Golden bridge was inaugurated in Stockholm by the King. This feat of engineering, manufactured in and shipped from China, creates an important link at the hub between Södermalm and the Old Town.

– Pope Francis defended the right of same sex couples to enter into legal partnership. This political statement was welcomed by catholic LGBT people in Sweden and abroad.

– Swedish pole vaulter Armand Duplantis broke the world record – twice! And Swedish biathletes gave a sense of national pride as they repeatedly crushed their competition, especially the Norwegians.

– The Swedish economy recovered better than expected, with a growth in GDP. Good news for everybody given the global impact of the pandemic. And a glimmer of hope for 2021 and beyond.

Why should we in Sweden care about today’s US election?

There’s been a lot of media coverage about the US election in Sweden, so much that many of us are sick of it. However, today the day is finally here. Millions upon millions of votes are counted and a winner will hopefully be announced. So, why should we in Sweden care what the outcome of the election is? Here are 5 reasons why.

1. Swedish economy. Sweden is a small, export-dependent country, heavily dependent on trade with USA. If Trump gets re-elected, he may very well continue to apply protectionist import restrictions on foreign goods. If Biden gets in, global trade agreements are probably safer. This will have a deep financial impact on Sweden’s economy.

2. Swedish jobs. Reduced trade with USA means fewer jobs in Sweden. It will be harder, and take us longer, to recover from the devastation of the pandemic and create employment.

3. Global health crisis. USA is one of the largest financial contributors to the WHO. Trump is a sceptic and wants to withdraw. Should this happen, the WHO will not be as effective in fighting future pandemics and world health crises.

4. Political quality. Trump’s divisive style of presidency sets a standard for the national stage. He normalizes hateful language, bullying and arrogance. This has ripple effects in Sweden, where some of our elected representatives imitate his style and, in my opinion, lower the quality of politics. Trump certainly has entertainment value, but I would like to see a resurgence of dignified, respectful debate both in the USA and Sweden. Hopefully Biden as president can pioneer its return.

5. Trust and security. There is a trust deficit in the world today. This has been exacerbated by Trump, with his unabated attacks on science, journalism and research. He is a fact denier, whose presidency has been characterised by lies, and more lies. The trust deficit is not Trump’s fault, it existed before he was elected, but he has fanned its flames. A global reduction in trust makes the world an unsafe place, and this affects us in Sweden. It increases the chance of conflict, of instability and in worse case, war. The leader of USA has a major influence on how trust develops or declines in the rest of the world.

So, USA is a deeply split country, and whatever the result, the large rifts will remain. The soul of the country will not be healed after this. We can probably expect a long period of chaos, civil outrage and refusal to accept the result, regardless of what it is. Without a doubt, what happens in USA affects us in Sweden. There is no getting away from that. Today’s election is crucial for setting the stage of how our world, our economy and our humanity develop.

Digital Stockholm Pride

Today is typically the day that the LGBT Pride parade takes place in Stockholm. Up to 500,000 fill the streets making it the largest event in Scandinavia. However, this year it has been cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead it is being carried out digitally, with an opening speech by Crown Princess Victoria. If you are interested, you can view the live stream here: http://www.stockholmpride.org

It runs 12.00-14.00.

The whole concept of LGBT Pride has taken strong root in Sweden. LGBT Pride resonates well with the societal Swedish values of equality, tolerance and acceptance.

Sweden’s history of LGBT rights is a comparatively progressive story. Changes didn’t happen automatically however. Thanks to the hard work of campaigners, lobbyists, and politicians, society can enjoy one of the most egalitarian legislations in the world.

According to wiki: ‘ Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 1944 and the age of consent was equalized in 1972. Homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 1979. Sweden also became the first country in the world to allow transgender persons to change their legal gender post-surgery in 1972 whilst transvestism was declassified as an illness. Transgenderism was declassified as a mental illness in 2008 and legislation allowing gender change legally without hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery was passed in 2013.

After allowing same-sex couples to register for partnership in 1995, Sweden became the seventh country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage countrywide in 2009. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression has been banned since 1987. Also, since 2003, gay and lesbian couples can adopt children, and lesbian couples have had equal access to IVF and assisted insemination since 2005.

Sweden has been recognized as one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe and in the world, with recent polls indicating that a large majority of Swedes support LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.’

So, enjoy Pride today!

Sweden the pariah

It is well known that Sweden has taken a different approach to the pandemic, one that didn’t involve totally locking down society and enforcing quarantine and curfew. Instead, the Swedish way relied on the responsibility of the population to go about life, with some restrictions and be careful. Time will tell if this was the right choice in the long run.

In the short run, we see that Sweden has a relatively high incidence of death from Covid-19. It is of course hard to compare figures, because it depends on what and how you are counting. Sweden cross checks against the death register and counts every death, in every location. Not just in hospitals, or in intensive care units. Because the virus got into care homes, the vast majority of deaths is unfortunately found in the over 80 age group.

It seems like Sweden is now paying a price for the more relaxed corona strategy. With countries around the world slowly opening up, they have released lists of approved countries from where tourists are allowed. Sweden is not on many of these lists. Swedes are perceived as plague-carrying high risk tourists.

Sweden’s neighbours Finland, Norway and Denmark have opened up for travel after their lockdowns. But the borders to Sweden remain closed. Sweden has become the social pariah of Scandinavia. Norway released an interesting decision this week. No traveling to Sweden, except to the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland. However, domestic travel is allowed in Sweden, so the popular holiday island of Gotland will be packed with Swedes, mostly from Stockholm, crammed in together with Norwegian tourists. Not sure how Norway was thinking on that one.

Of course, as time goes on, Swedish tourists will be welcome again around the world. As Sweden’s death toll reduces, and the virus ebbs out, borders will open again. It’s just an usual situation right now for Swedes to find themselves unpopular.

So, staycation is the melody of summer 2020. My plans include a socially-distanced trip to lake Vättern, and a road trip up north. I’m also going to explore my hometown of Stockholm more.

If you’re staying in Sweden, what do you plan to do?

The end of a Swedish murder mystery

At 11.21 pm on 28 February 1986, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot by a lone assailant. He was killed in cold blood on the street after visiting a cinema with his wife. A second shot injured her. Lying in a pool of blood, in the cold Swedish winter, Olof Palme died.

The assassination of Olof Palme (to the left above) has caused headlines around the world. Theories abounded on who had assassinated this very popular and very hated politician. During the last 34 years, the police have investigated the case and failed to identify the murderer. The unsolved case of Olof Palme has gaped like an open wound in Swedish society.

However, today the prosecutors responsible for the investigation announced that they know who the assassin is. In making this claim, they have ended the decades-long mystery. No conclusive evidence was provided, no DNA and no weapon, but prosecutors believe they have the man. They have pointed to Stig Engström, a graphic designer working at a nearby company, pictured to the right above. Stig Engström committed suicide in 2000, so cannot be charged. Therefore the case is closed after 34 years!

Finally, the mystery can be resolved. Or can it? with any lack of clear evidence, it is a very frustrating finale to a very drawn out drama. For a country searching for an answer, this will probably not give them it. And as Stig Engström took his story to the grave, I guess we will actually never know the truth.

Trump’s obsession with Sweden

In his recent statement, Trump yet again criticized Sweden. This time it was about Sweden’s approach to the corona pandemic. Not only was his statement bizarre, but it was factually wrong. But, hey, who’s surprised?

What’s more intriguing is Trump’s interest in Sweden. This isn’t the first time he’s negatively commented on what’s happening in this relatively small country. From making false claims about everything from immigrants and refugees, to riots and rappers, the man seems obsessed. He even tried to interfere in Sweden’s legal system and accused the Swedish Prime Minister or ‘letting the USA’s African American community down’ when he didn’t get his way.

So why the obsessive focus on Sweden?

Film-maker Ami Horowitz, who made a documentary about Sweden, believes Trump periodically brings up the country in his speeches and tweets because it represents a “liberal bastion that in a lot ways is very different from the United States … Democratic socialism, open immigration policy, high taxes, welfare state, there’s no question Sweden is a paradigm of things the president doesn’t like.

Although he claims to have a friendly relationship with Sweden, the country is a thorn in the President’s side. In other words, a constant reminder that there are other ways to run a country. It scares him. Sweden consistently trumps USA in research on quality of life, equality, opportunity, happiness, safety, entrepreneurship, education levels…..oh the list is long. This must really trample on Trump’s toes. In 2019, Sweden was ranked ‘the most reputable country’ in the world. USA came in at number 17. Ooh, that must sting someone with an enormous ego.

Part of Sweden’s reputability comes from the quality of its politicians. Here, we have a long line of Prime Ministers who behave in a dignified manner. While the USA is important to Sweden, Trump really isn’t. Like most politicians, he is temporary. His days are numbered. But Sweden’s positive relationship with America will continue long after the country has said goodbye to their presidential man child. And hopefully their next leader will be one who respects differences rather than one who fears them.