Eldar Skar stars in the Norwegian drama “Occupied” | Aksel Jermstad/tv2
Eldar Skar stars in the Norwegian drama “Occupied” | Aksel Jermstad/tv2

Okkupert (“Occupied”), the most expensive Norwegian television show in history, never mentions the word “quisling.” And yet its premise — a Russian occupation of Norway — evokes Vidkun Quisling’s Nazi collaborationist government and is permeated with the still unshakable trauma of that era, James Kirchick wrote for Politico.

Between 1942 and 1945, Quisling’s puppet regime revoked the authority of the Norwegian King (exiled to Great Britain after refusing German demands to abdicate), banned the entry of Jews fleeing Nazi terror, and fruitlessly committed Norwegian soldiers to the Eastern Front. At the end of the war, Quisling was executed and his name now dubiously lives on as an eponym for “traitor.”

Okkupert wrestles with a modern version of Quisling’s devastating legacy — and the shameful blot it left on the country’s history. The show is set in the near future, where a Green party government comes to power in Oslo on the heels of a hugely damaging global warming-related hurricane. Promising to unveil a revolutionary new form of nuclear energy powered by the chemical element thorium, Prime Minister Jesper Berg strikes a very Scandinavian pose by announcing that Norway will lead by example and immediately shut down its considerable gas and oil production.

This upsets the European Union, of which Norway is not a member. In cahoots with Moscow, Brussels secretly threatens Berg with a full-scale Russian invasion unless he commits to maintaining Norway’s fossil fuel extraction under Moscow’s supervision. (The United States, having recently achieved energy independence, has withdrawn from NATO and sits disinterestedly aside.) Berg reluctantly agrees to this scheme, promising his people that the insertion of Russian worker crews to restart Norway’s energy industry will be temporary.

Occupied is disturbingly relevant in light of the Ukraine crisis.

There are some gaping holes in this set-up — why would Norway not wait until it mastered thorium energy production before making a rash decision with massive international implications? But this implausible plot device is ultimately just an instrument for exploring something that is entirely plausible: Call it Russia’s “velvet occupation” of a European country.

When the Russians come to Norway, there are no tanks or fighter jets or “little green men.” The diminution of Norwegian sovereignty and the assertion of Russian control is much more subtle and visible only to those who care to notice. In the absence of a defensive alliance like NATO to deter the Russian threat, the mere mention of war leaves Berg with little choice — at least initially — but to go along with the “temporary” occupation. On the surface, life remains normal for most Norwegians, who go about their daily business as though nothing had changed.

Originally conceived by the internationally bestselling crime novelist Jo Nesbø in 2012, Occupied is disturbingly relevant in light of the Ukraine crisis that unfolded two years later and the reappearance of larger-scale East-West tensions over Moscow’s new-found assertiveness in Europe. Russian violations of Baltic and Scandinavian airspace and waters have become a regular occurrence. Last month the RAND Corporation published the results of a war game in which Russian troops seized the Estonian capital of Tallinn in a mere 60 hours.

All this lends Occupied an authenticity that has struck a chord in Norway. “I think the feeling we are secure and things can’t really change is an illusion,” Nesbø told the Guardian shortly after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. “That is the scary bit, because things can change very fast. The thing about Scandinavia is that we take things for granted.”

Teasing out “the scary bits” of such a frightening scenario is what makes Occupied one of the most rivetingly realistic TV shows about international politics in recent memory. Aside from its opening plot device, there’s little about the show that’s unbelievable. The best aspects aren’t the occasional explosions and shoot-outs, but the human drama. Little by little, viewers come to see how a democratic society becomes morally corroded by the everyday compromises regular people are forced to make.

Nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, a show like Occupied would be unimaginable in Finland.

On opposite ends of this dilemma stand Thomas Eriksen, a crusading journalist who risks his life to expose the truth, and Hans Martin Djupvik, a member of Berg’s security detail who sincerely believes he’s helping his country by working with the Russians to monitor and root out fellow Norwegians who oppose the new dispensation.

On a continent scarred by war, stories of resistance and collaboration have long been a staple of European culture, most notably in its post-World War II cinema and literature. Occupied puts a contemporary gloss on these timeless narratives and expertly channels the anxieties of the post-Crimea age.

There’s the teenage boy Djupvik arrests and interrogates for creating an anti-Russian blog. There’s the apolitical restaurateur who, after converting her struggling eatery into a hangout for big-spending Russian securocrats working at the secretive occupation headquarters across the street, is targeted for intimidation by “Free Norway,” an underground, anti-Russian paramilitary movement.

Occupied also taps into distinctively Scandinavian cultural undertones. The last time fears of Russia kept Norwegians awake at night was during the Cold War, when Finland adopted a foreign policy of neutrality that allowed it to retain its formal independence, thereby escaping the fate of the Baltics (forcefully incorporated in the Soviet Union) or countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia (which became communist satellites). Finland had a democratic political system and free-market economy, but its position popularized the word “Finlandization,” a pejorative term still occasionally used by political scientists to describe the phenomenon whereby a small country living alongside a large and territorially expansionist one accepts a reduction of its sovereignty in exchange for self-rule.

While many Finns righteously defend the decisions taken by their Cold War-era government as the best of an unenviable set of options, some have drawn attention to the many negative consequences. At the time, Finland was hardly a model democracy. The Soviet Union exercised what was essentially a veto over the composition of Finnish governments, relying on its ally, President Urho Kekkonen, to shut out parties critical of Moscow’s influence. Kekkonen, whose fruitful relationship with the KGB may have included a pecuniary component, served as a quasi-monarchical president for 26 years. Soviet defectors who escaped to Finland were regularly repatriated, and the Finnish media accepted a de facto culture of censorship regarding its oppressive neighbor.

Predictably, the Russian government is none too pleased with “Occupied.”

Nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, a show like Occupied would be unimaginable in Finland, where society has still not fully come to terms with Finlandization and its ethical costs. “In Finland, collecting individual experiences of the time of Finladization isn’t considered as a national task,” the Estonian-Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen said last year in a speech entitled “A lion in a cage,” a characterization of Finland’s position during the Cold War.

“Finlandized Finland … showed the world that the Soviet Union was able to live in friendship with the neighbor. At the same time, Finland remained on the Soviet Union’s leash. Since this was a successful project, it is no wonder that today’s Russia desires to Finlandize other countries.”

Predictably, the Russian government is none too pleased with “Occupied.” “Although the creators of the TV series were at pains to stress that the plot is fictitious and allegedly has nothing to do with reality, the film shows quite specific countries, and Russia, unfortunately, was given the role of an aggressor,” read a statement released by the Russian embassy in Oslo.

“It is certainly regretful that in the year when the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Second World War is celebrated, the series’s creators decided to scare Norwegian viewers with a non-existing threat from the East in the worst Cold War traditions.”

Encapsulated in this brief statement were three elements of 21st-century Russian propaganda: a sense of wounded victimhood at the hands of a bullying West, a reminder of Mother Russia’s heroic role in the Great Patriotic War, and the fervent denial that Moscow poses any threat to its neighbors. And on that last point, Norwegians clearly disagree; A Gallup poll last year found 89 percent disapprove of Russia’s leadership, the highest rate among the 41 countries surveyed.

Governments never make good cultural critics, and this case is no different. So ignore what the Kremlin tell you, and set aside 10 hours to enjoy this timely show.

By James Kirchick, Politico

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative, correspondent for the Daily Beast and columnist for Tablet. His book, “The End of Europe,” is forthcoming from Yale University Press this fall.