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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

What an Odd Event in 1219 Tells us About the Deep Cultural Roots in the Baltic Sea Region

Article by: Helen Kurvits

Small Countries, Strong Ties

Estonia and Denmark, two relatively small European countries, are good partners in the Nordic-Baltic region, and have ties that go back all the way to the Middle Ages. Specifically to the year 1219. According to legend, the Danish flag originated from Estonia in that year. In 1219, the Danes were about to lose the battle of Lyndanise in the region that is now Estonia. Suddenly, a red piece of cloth with a white cross on it fell from the sky. Their luck turned, the Danes won the battle and kept the flag as a symbol. Even the very name of the capital of Estonia, Tallinn, is considered a historical derivation of Taani-Linn, meaning ‘Danish-town’.

The geographical and historical closeness between Estonia and Denmark has manifested itself in strong cultural ties. Cultural projects between the countries are usually planned and implemented by institutions such as the Danish Cultural Institute. They encompass the fields of music, literature, theatre, and films, amongst others. Beneficial by creating a sense of unity, cultural integration can broaden horizons. So, what do Estonia and Denmark have in common, culturally? And how is the exchange of their cultures being facilitated for a positive impact?

From Language to Music, the Ties Are Embedded

First, let’s step back to find out how embedded these cultural ties are. The Little Mermaid published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1836 may be the first figure that pops into your mind when you think about Danish culture. But the Danish storyteller also holds an important place in the hearts and minds of many Estonians. Various exhibitions, competitions, theatre, and television programmes took place when celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Andersen in 2005. Eri Klas, the internationally renowned conductor from Estonia, and Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, the top Estonian skier, were appointed as Hans Christian Andersen Goodwill Ambassadors.

And aside from this, cultural ties are also prominent in music, poetry, and cinema. Well-known Estonian music festivals, such as Jazzkaar, the Baroque Music Festival or Tudengijazz, commonly host Danish artists. Danish poets have participated in Nordic Poetry Festivals and the Danish film programme has been shown at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn. But the ties are not only prominent in the context of popular culture. Let us explore how they encompass much more.

The Danish Cultural Institute in the Baltics

The Danish Cultural Institute has played a significant role in maintaining and developing ties between Estonia and Denmark. The branch of the Danish Cultural Institute in the Baltics opened in 1990, before the three countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) regained their independence. Just a few of the initiations include cultural festivals, bringing orchestras to Estonia, and facilitating art exhibitions. But perhaps even more impressively, by promoting equal rights, education, sustainable development, democracy, and active citizenship through the exchange of art, culture and knowledge, their work contributes to handling global challenges. These values are in the spotlight of the various current and future projects that take place in Estonia and often also in its neighbouring countries.

Projects on Gender and Equality

Voices of Violence is a travelling video exhibition by the Danish Cultural Institute. The exhibition is centred around the themes of gendered violence and everyday sexism. It is taking place in Estonia, as well as its regional neighbours, where the issue of gender discrimination is sadly still present, albeit relatively less than many other regions globally. Voices of Violence covers countries in the Nordics, Baltics and Belarus, and provides a focus on spaces and platforms for making the voices of the victims to be heard. Nordic, Baltic, and Belarusian actresses give their voices to these anonymous stories, revealing the scars and marks of the experiences. The exhibition will be shown in connection with film festivals in these regions.

Projects on Democracy and Civil Society

Cultural projects also go beyond this to include democracy and civil society. The vast amount of open information in the current times has huge democratic potential but entails threats, such as rumours, disinformation, or even anti-democratic violent content. Critical thinking has become one of the most valuable assets in our societies. Projects relating to democracy and civil society bring the focus on tools to fight fake news and misinformation. The topic of misinformation has gained accuracy considering the socio-political situation regarding the elections in Belarus in 2020, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine.

To this end, the Danish Cultural Institute is contributing to a Nordic media literacy campaign. ‘The Travelling Democracy Lab / Facts vs. Fakes’, together with workshops and an exhibition, aims to contribute to this issue by providing participants with tools to evaluate the credibility of information. The tour first visited Latvia in September 2021, followed by Estonia, and then Lithuania. To add to this, an outdoor photo exhibition, Brothers&Sisters, focuses on Ukrainian refugees and shows the importance and fragility of democracy by providing a counterweight to the disinformation regarding the war. Such projects are empowering citizens to gain more knowledge, beyond fake news and misinformation.

City Planning and Citizen Engagement Projects

On top of this, engaging citizens in the planning of their living environments holds an important place in the upcoming priorities. The Danish Cultural Institute is leading projects regarding citizen engagement in the planning of living environments. The project RurCulturalPlanning aims to bring authorities of rural areas closer to the citizens to improve the living conditions of rural places. Complex societal issues need to be dealt with, such as the lack of job opportunities, depopulation, and the declining quality of life.

And another project on this matter, CircularPlace, promotes circular consumption and production in the Baltic Sea Region. Consumers and citizens become the heart of the project as active participants in the co-creation of the circular economy to test innovative approaches and methods of participation. The importance of highlighting the cultural values of the Baltic Sea region cities that are not capitals of their countries and may therefore receive less attention or be overlooked is manifested in the new project from 2022 onwards, Baltic Sea Region Cultural Pearls. It helps the less popular places gain a voice.

From The Past to The Present

The old ties between Denmark and Estonia originated all the way back in the 13th century through the legend of the Danish flag. Later, Danish culture charmed many Estonians through the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. The cultural bond between the countries is strong and continues to deepen. It is not out of the ordinary to listen to a Danish artist performing at a festival in Estonia or watch a Danish film at the annual Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn. It is a sign not only of bilateral exchanges, but also of European integration.

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