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Norwegian TV Taps Into Fear of Russia

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Next month, Norwegians will be treated to the premiere of "Okkupert," or "Occupied," the most expensive TV series ever produced in their country. The occupier in question is Russia, which takes over Norway for its oil. The author had the idea long before President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, but it betrays the unease of many of Russia's neighbors.

"Okkupert" is the brainchild of a Nordic dream team. Jo Nesbo, Norway's bestselling novelist, wrote the first episodes in 2008. Yellow Bird, the Swedish studio behind the original, wildly successful "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" movie, produced the series. Erik Skjoldbjaerg, the director of "Prozac Nation" -- a 2001 Hollywood film starring Christina Ricci -- was the original director and co-author.

The production has a budget of 90 million kroner (almost $11 million), an unprecedented amount in Norwegian TV production, and the action-packed trailer makes clear where the money went.

The series opens as a hard-core environmentalist government comes to power in Norway and stops all oil and gas production. This creates an energy crisis in Europe (a plausible scenario, given that Norway accounts for about 11 percent of the European Union's oil and a third of its natural gas, having overtaken Russia as the No. 1 supplier this year). The Europeans encourage Russia to invade to restart energy exports. It's a "silken glove" invasion: There's no war, Norwegians keep their wealth and their way of life, even a sense of personal freedom. The question Nesbo seeks to answer is: Would the population resist under such circumstances? This also was the theme explored by the French author Michel Houellebecq in his novel "Submission," which imagined France's reaction to an electoral takeover by an Islamic party.

Even as the producers grappled with the project, Russia invaded Crimea, and Nesbo's idea no longer seemed far-fetched. The Russians of the series, he said in an interview, "don't really shoot people, they just come and show you they're in control." He went on:

The thing about Scandinavia is that we take things for granted. That is the lesson from other countries. Take Yugoslavia in the 1990s -- a democratic country on the right track, and it took Slobodan Milosevic six months to take it to civil war.

The regime in Moscow doesn't habitually react to the many movies that feature Russian villains -- unlike Kazakhstan, which banned "Borat," or North Korea, which allegedly hacked Sony to prevent the release of "The Interview." But the Norwegian series prompted an angry reaction from the Russian Embassy in Oslo. A statement carried by the official news agency TASS said:

Though the series' authors try to stress that this is a fictional plot that supposedly has nothing to do with reality, this film deals with perfectly real countries, and unfortunately, Russia is cast in the role of the aggressor. It is certainly a shame that, in the year of the 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II, the authors have seemingly forgotten the Soviet Army's heroic contribution too the liberation off northern Norway from Nazi occupiers, decided, in the worst traditions of the Cold War, to scare Norwegian spectators with the nonexistent threat from the east.

The touchiness is easy to understand. The war in Ukraine has made Russia's neighbors edgy. Now, 80 percent of Poles have an unfavorable opinion of Russia, compared with 54 percent in 2013. And the Baltic states have begun preparing for the worst: Lithuania put out a manual for its citizens, outlining what to do if their country is invaded. Estonia plans to build a wall along its border with Russia.

As for the Nordic nations, Edward Lucas of the Center for European Policy Analysis published a report in June that described Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as "Europe's new front-line states." He also claimed that in March, Russia carried out a military exercise that simulated the "speedy seizure" of northern Norway and some Finnish, Danish and Swedish territories. Besides, Norway is one of Russia's rivals for dominance in the Arctic. 

The bad blood is an irritant to Russia, especially now that low oil prices have pushed the economy into the doldrums. The Kremlin hopes to extinguish the Ukraine conflict so that it can re-engage with Europe: That should preclude further military adventures. Still, there is little it can do -- short of retreating from Ukraine, returning Crimea and making amends -- about its reputation for bellicose unpredictability.

There's an added twist to "Okkupert." As it was being filmed last year, Ane Dahl Torp, an actress who plays one of the leading parts, told an interviewer that she believed the EU's part in the fictional occupation of Norway wasn't inconceivable. The series doesn't just tap into Norwegians' wariness of Russia, it also reflects their uneasiness about being the EU's gas station, squeezed between powerful neighbors. 

Living on the east-west frontier is scary, and Nesbo's instinct for pointing this out will ensure the success of "Okkupert."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net