The Soviet Union occupied Bornholm between 1945 and 1946. As the local museum curator, I’ve spent the past couple of years giving guided tours around the island’s Soviet war cemetery, which has become a focus for protests about the invasion of Ukraine. The dispute offers insights into the Kremlin’s continuing perversion of history. 

While the rest of Denmark was liberated by the British army, Bornholm was occupied by Soviet troops after the island towns of Rønne and Nexø were devastated by Soviet bombing on May 7 and 8 1945. Bornholm is close to the Pomeranian coast, where some of the last intense battles of World War II took place, and the Germans were eager to hold the island to aid the retreat of troops from present-day Poland. 

When Soviet ships entered the port of Rønne on May 9, it was the beginning of 11 months of occupation. On the one hand, the Soviets were welcomed as liberators, but on the other, they were looked at with suspicion. Why did they stay so long? And what should be done about the crime and violence that always followed in their path? 

Their troops were told that Danes were not Germans, and thus should be treated somewhat more humanely, in contrast to the wave of anarchy, murder, and rape that characterized Russia’s treatment of Germans. Even so, there were rapes and crime was rampant. In the end, Stalin decided not to hold on to Bornholm, making the island a very lucky outlier among Soviet-liberated lands in Europe. Only in northern Norway and Austria did the Soviet occupation end before 1990. 

On April 5, 1946, the last Soviet troops left the island, and Danes drew a collective sigh of relief. The Russians left behind 30 dead soldiers in a cemetery, which became the site for an annual wreath-laying at which Soviet ambassadors recalled the glorious heroes who had liberated Bornholm from the Nazi yoke.  

It was a place of remembrance but also a place of propaganda. The ceremonies always involved Danish officials and military personnel who bit their tongues through awkward meetings with representatives of the Warsaw Pact. A few Danish communists were also happy to attend. 

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When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Danes hoped for peace and neighborly friendship with the new Russia. On Bornholm, the ambassadors of the new Russian Federation continued to stop by every year to lay their wreaths at the memorial. Danish official representatives still took part — both civilian and military.  

The memorial was the same, but the Russians developed a new agenda. During the Cold War, it had been a place used to promote Communist values, now it was consecrated as a Russian Orthodox cemetery. In 1945 it had been important for the Soviet Union that the cemetery was a strictly non-religious place; now the same memorial could be used to promote Putinist values of Orthodox conservatism, nationalism, and militarism.  

In 2014 things changed. The illegal Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea meant the Danish military no longer cooperated with their Russian counterparts, and Danish soldiers no longer participated in the wreath laying. The local mayor also stayed away, so the Russians were left to themselves. 

The Russians countered this by seeking to involve the local community in a commemorative exhibition. They also made an addition to the memorial, a steel structure with a plaque commemorating all the victims of a Soviet troop transport ship that struck a mine in 1945. Of the 170 dead soldiers, 18 are buried at the cemetery in Bornholm.  

The ship was leased from Denmark, and 12 of the dead were sailors from Bornholm, so their names were included on the new plaque. The intention was to lure back the Danish representatives, and it seemed to have been successful when the mayor and deputy mayor attended the ceremony in May 2021.  

But there was a change after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, particularly when Ukrainian refugees arrived in Bornholm. A number of staff from the Russian embassy in Copenhagen had been expelled, so it was also uncertain if the ambassador would even arrive with his wreath.  

The refugees visited the cemetery and made their mark, changing the text on the memorial on May 8, 2022, the day before the annual ceremony. They used blue and yellow spray paint to change the Russian inscription from: “Eternal glory to the Russian heroes who gave their lives in the fight against German occupiers” to “Eternal glory to the Ukrainian heroes who gave their lives in the fight against Russian occupiers.”  

On May 9, the angry Russian ambassador, Vladimir Barbin, arrived for the ceremony and to protest, even though the spray paint had been washed off. He was also unhappy with my research, which used official Russian sources to show that nine of the Soviet dead in the cemetery had died from alcohol poisoning, probably from drinking looted local spirits.  

In many places in the Baltic states and Poland, similar monuments are now being removed. Here on Bornholm, we have chosen to keep it to educate the public about Russia’s use and abuse of history. I have now had more than 1,000 visitors on tours of the memorial during which I explain the history of Putinist identity politics and why it is relevant to a Danish audience. 

Dr Jakob Seerup is a curator and researcher at Bornholm Museum, Denmark.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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