There are several reasons why we chose ‘Epitome’ as a title for this DUST issue. Firstly, the term sheds light on how we cope with our identity in the digital age—in a context where social media has transformed communication into permanent public performances, ‘epitome’ describes the process of becoming a reduced idea, an embodiment of a type, an idea, an aspiration, or a social-political point of view based on simplicity and digestibility. A fast digestible and desirable ‘epitome’ is likely to generate virality. Willingly or not, we succumb and conform to this mindset—a feature that these platforms enhance by design.

The term ‘Epitome’ stems from the Greek epitemnein, which means ‘to cut short’. First used in 1520, originally meaning ‘summary’, its etymology indicates the process of cutting and selecting applied to create reduced versions of larger literary works. Many ancient texts, now lost to time, arrived to us only in the form of synopsis made by later authors. These are ‘Epitome’. By definition, this process does not address complexity, nuance, or contradiction but rather simplifies complex work to make it easily usable, shareable, and accessible—these are secondary historical accounts which may contain biases that were not present in the original. From ‘summary’, the term has later come to describe someone or something that represents the ideal characteristics of an entire class—a perfect example of something, an embodiment of an abstraction.

The broader topic of concern we want to address here is how social media platforms, that rely heavily on engagement-driven architectures, have come to harm our societies by directly increasing polarisation in public opinion and politics. This fact doesn’t necessarily mean that this ‘cut short’ simplification process, fostered by social media, pushes everyone to the extremes. Rather, these platforms embolden those on the extremes in dictating the conversation. They prevail because they are the ‘epitome’ of triggering, simple-minded, radical ideas that generate engagement. No matter what extreme on the political spectrum they reside, aggressivity rules. In the face of an alienated majority and a noisy minority capable of enacting mob dynamics in any political/social discourse, the idea of democracy has become extremely vulnerable, the fragmentation increasingly piercing and incommunicability mostly unbridgeable.

Before getting there, the second reason why we choose ‘Epitome’ to bear this issue’s title is that while the magazine is entering its second decade, we took time to look back at our journey and reflect on its defining characteristics. This issue developed as a summary of what DUST has been through the years.

This also brought us to reflect on the context in which the magazine originated—not so much the personal and creative context we extensively described in the previous issue, but the moment in which this happened. Reflecting on the last decade when so much changed around us allows us to understand how to move forward.

Historically, the year the magazine was founded was a year in which it seemed our generation’s hope for a better democracy was about to manifest. It was 2011, and the global financial crisis of 2008 had revealed the pitfalls of an unsustainable system that was cracking under our very eyes. At the same time, the spread of technology seemed to bear fruits in facilitating a more democratised world based on common access to information and knowledge. It was a revolutionary moment where having good honest will felt more valuable than having qualifications; a new world was coming and wasn’t to be built on old paradigms and credentials—this was indeed the naive and passionate approach on which this magazine started.

From a broader perspective, that techno-fuelled democratic optimism in which we inadvertently grew up with since the fall of the Berlin Wall, seemed now reaching oppressed societies well beyond Western borders. It was the year of the Arab Spring, in which youth, through social media, organised a series of successful uprisings against their respective governments from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain—spreading a desire for change throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It felt like a natural development of the successful advancement of democratic values promised by technology since the 1990s.

In the same year, the Occupy movement in the US and Indignados in Spain employed the same tactics of spontaneous mobilisation coordinated via social media to occupy public spaces for weeks on end in protesting against inequality and a lack of ‘real democracy’ in finance-led societies. These youth movements represented radical experiments of self-governance based on direct democracy, in which decision-making required no hierarchy. They attempted to show what a genuinely accountable democracy could look like, and for the very short time it lasted, it felt incredibly galvanising.

At the same time, in northern Syria, Kurdish revolutionaries declared Rojava independent in their quest for self-determination, implementing their alternative model of stateless democracy—an unprecedented exercise in ecofeminist, anticapitalist and direct democracy rooted in the idea of 20th-century philosopher Murray Bookchin. This incredible Kurdish-led experiment of a horizontal democratic system was a small but significant example. 

Those years showed that a different world was indeed conceivable and that the spread of technologies would have revived and improved our democracies. As infamously predicted in the Mayan 2012 prophecy, it really felt like a world was ending and the beginning of a whole new era was about to arrive. The optimism for a more cooperative future was at its peak, and it seemed nothing could have stopped this process.

However, it didn’t last long. Soon after, the Arab Spring was silenced by restored autocracy fuelled by war, death and destruction. The Occupy movement dissolved overnight, unable to formalise any concrete political proposals. Rojava has since been forgotten by public opinion, let alone against the Turkish occupation. And in regards to the West, we ended up with democracies weakened, threatened and divided by the very tool that promised to enhance them. But… how did we get here?

To understand the kind of impact that digital algorithms had on our society in the past decade, we can start with the fact that social media initially consisted of a harmless collection of personal photos, information, and opinions. However, it quickly became a different tool with the intensification of viral dynamics—the techno-optimism that boosted our democratic ideas was yet to meet with its delusional outcomes.

Around 2012, most around the world began using social media daily, resulting in the mass consumption of information globally. Optimism was high, and there was no fear of inviting more people to the party. As part of the democratisation effort, regardless of their digital illiteracy, how senseless their contribution might have been or how much lower they would have brought the standards, everybody was welcome to join and strengthen their social connections. While everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, what became the problem was the way this engagement became exploited.

With the ‘Like’ button on Facebook and the ‘Retweet’ button on Twitter, a public metric for content popularity was already introduced in 2009. Yet, it was in 2012 that Facebook’s ‘Share’ button became readily available to users on smartphones.

With a newfound ability to aggregate user data, these platforms introduced algorithms intended to promote posts on the base of predicted ‘engagement’. The stream of information evolved into a curated feed in which ‘engaging’ content would prevail. These would likely be emotionally triggering posts or tweets containing inflammatory language, moral judgments, emotional arguments or angry and passionate outbursts.

To best capitalise on the algorithm’s potential by 2013, media outlets began testing various headline formats to find the model that generated the highest click-through rate. The result was a proliferation of content specifically designed to make us click impulsively. In this unchecked virality race, fake news thrived.

Another narrative decreeing the harmfulness of technologies, and the end of techno-optimism, emerged in 2013 when leaked documents revealed the widespread use of mass surveillance programmes in ‘liberal’ democracies. Governmental apparatus and private companies gained unprecedented insights into our minds and behaviour by collecting and analysing users’ data against any notion of privacy. The prospect of a frightening world of enhanced control and surveillance sealed the split between technology and democratic optimism once and for all.

On another level, in the following years, we saw how the faulty nature of the algorithm seemed to slip out of the social media platform’s hands, resulting in an escalation of rage, disinformation and confusion.

The mass use of social media rapidly transformed the public square into a space dominated by mob dynamics, falsehoods, and extremes. Many believed that this demonstrated humanity’s inability to find common ground without subordinating itself to a central authority. Instead, this demonstrates that these less reflective inclinations and low instinctual behaviours end up prevailing in an ill-designed environment. If we thought democracy is a proven system with fortified foundations, we had yet to consider how the growing optimism of an all-connected world—and how the ever-increasing people deluded by it—could have been exploited.

The slow transformation of social media as a threat to the democratic process was not only accidental but is mainly attributed to state-sponsored actors. As early as 2014, it became known that the Russian Internet Research Agency used fake accounts on all major social media platforms, thereby taking advantage of the algorithm design, to incite partisan divisions in support of Russian interests—bringing Western democracies to implosion.

If we didn’t take this seriously, by 2016—annus horribilis, that brought us Brexit and Trump—we woke up to this very new reality. A reckless deluded minority sowed divisions that internal and external forces managed to exploit for their own advantage.

2018 saw the revelation that Cambridge Analytica—a consulting firm specialised in ‘global election management’ that worked for the Vote Leave campaign in the UK and Trump’s presidential campaign—had access to 87 million Facebook users’ personal information and engaged in mass manipulation campaigns to influence political elections. The moment we realised psychological microtargeting was not simply a novel form of political propaganda but a means to insidiously manipulate and direct people’s thoughts on a scale before unimaginable, we began to understand that the world had indeed changed forever.

It also became clear that the architectural characteristics of modern forms of digital communication enabled the success of divisive partisan narratives, joined by state actors and ideological extremists. By hijacking and exacerbating shareable concepts and values, they infiltrated the debate, gaining a stronghold on people on a mass scale. Even the values we celebrated were turned upside down and used to penetrate people’s discontent. The fight for equality against the 1% that fostered a renewed idea of participatory democracy became an alt-right justification for the lowest anti-elite populism and victimisation against an alleged global agenda. The arguments used to criticise our Western system were flipped and used to attack democracy itself, suggesting we could be better off with ’alternative’ models. The idea of finding personal guidance, not only through intellect and logic but more holistically through intuitions and emotions (‘The seed is the feeling’ as we stated in the first issue of DUST), became a spreading belief that justified the empowerment of the worst gut feeling as own personal truth worthy of expression. The willingness to challenge outdated structures and concepts has been applied without any compass to the extreme of making ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘true’ or ‘false’ indistinguishable. These techniques went hand in hand with gaslighting, trolling, and dehumanising the opponent, all in the name of ‘freedom of speech.’

While we were trying to cope with our dismay in understanding how this raging populism could be contained, we didn’t realise how our reaction to it and the radicalisation of progressive values created an equal sinister phenomenon stemming from the ‘left’. So-called ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’ has morphed digital spaces into aggressive spaces that resemble the spaces they claim to oppose. While everyone was pointing fingers, divisions were sowed throughout the political spectrum. The magnitude of the digital age have been so overwhelming that people, or for lack of adequate emotional vocabulary, or for the ethical urge to police everyone’s vocabulary, seemed to have no choice but to reclaim a language they could own in the face of a rapidly changing world. If their intention was to place people’s needs back to the centre, their unleashed delusion, expressed in anti-systemic rage, led to highly corrosive results. This was a nightmare becoming true—one that, from the inside, has undermined and deconstructed our democratic institutions, our trust in public discourse, and the shared stories and ideals our culture has ever produced.

If everything was confusing back then, this matrix carried on through various Western elections, throughout the pandemic, and the greatest test to democracy yet: the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The miscalculated war, expected to bring quick victory and further divide Western societies, ended up, for now, resulting in the total opposite—ultimately uniting the international community against this ruthless aggression. But, it has become clear that the Russian-led matrix underlying Western populism, right-wing ideas, alternative facts—or any other kind of divisive arguments—revealed itself for what it clearly is. An effort aimed at discrediting and destroying our democracies by exacerbating our flaws and disproving our moral superiority. The admiration of autocracy as a better and more ‘moral’ government for our times has proven purely delusional. The extension on which at its very core lies the suppression of freedom and human rights—and what this entails—is undeniable. For how much their rhetoric suggests that our democracies aren’t that different but degenerated and dysfunctional, they won’t be able to win people over against our sacred fundamental principles such as freedom and human dignity.

The outstanding Ukrainian bravery, sacrifice and honour it’s saving Ukraine, it’s saving Europe for that matter, and is also saving Europe from itself—from its lack of common vision about who we really want to be as a European community. At this very moment, we should question ourselves and realise where sowing division is leading us.

Part of the new generation in the West seems to have lost trust in democratic politics and institutions. Still, for how even valid their arguments may be, the bottom line is that there’s no other guarantee for freedom and justice. We can see it now that the very essence of democracy is directly under attack. If we don’t try to better ourselves and our social fabric, in what we do, what we say, what we produce, we risk fostering division and weakening the very system that enables our freedom. Finding a common way to stand united should define all our efforts.

Improving the design of democracy to fit with the digital age and preparing the ground for a new civic engagement era is this generation’s most challenging task. It’s about discussing how to reform social media, strengthen our institutions, and limit the unrestrained powers of governments and corporations on our lives. But mostly, it is understanding that any forces threatening our freedom and self-determination can have their grip on us by exploiting our ‘subconscious minds’ and induced behaviours. It is understanding that we do need a suitable framework to cope in the first place with our subconscious mind and awake our potential, a framework through which we can appreciate that we are all connected and equally responsible for the earth—or digital space—we inhabit. It is understanding that fundamental truths exist—even if we don’t believe they do—and that we can experience and share them despite our differences. It is understanding that while we increasingly indulge in virtual worlds, we must agree upon a tangible one. It is understanding that being an ‘epitome’ of democracy should emphasise the need to connect, share and understand one another. If our revived optimism should point to something, it should be this.

Democracies fail when they can only stand on a cluster of fragmentations where people either impose themselves or are afraid to speak up—and disagreements cannot be resolved. The current situation in which right and left-wingers are out-competing each other, pointing out who is the craziest, may be understood as an old story. Yet, how our digital age exacerbates these divisions is now beyond manageable.

If contemporary times demonstrate how ill-equipped we are in facing the digital age, all our daily efforts today should be directed to elevating ourselves, taking sovereignty over our psyche, and finding the essence that most makes us all human. The hope is that our generation will opt out of this division and come together to remember what unites us and what those western values we cherish stand for.

In the last decade, our disorientation in the face of the overwhelming tech-led reality made it almost impossible to speak the same language or even accept the same truth.

As Pier Paolo Pasolini—whose centenary we celebrate in this issue—once said, “Death lies not / in not being able to communicate / but in no longer being able to be understood.”

Under the thick dust of dying democracies—a layer that in the past decade has obscured our optimism, we know that there is much that we can share, much we can all believe in, much we can agree upon, and much that we can still understand about each other.


Luigi Vitali




Photography: Willy Vanderperre


LUIGI VITALI in conversation with LISA AMBJÖRN

Wilhelm, Prince of Sweden, is sent to a boarding school where he falls in love with Simon, a working-class boy—if at first glance this may look like another predictable coming-out teen drama storyline, on a closer look, the Swedish coming-of-age series Young Royals has proven to be a gem in itself. In the absence of plot points dealing with redemption, incommunicability, sexualization or expected bullying, we are led by a thoughtful and heart-led narrative aiming at exploring above all, the genesis of feelings in the process of defining awareness and the role of ‘the other’s gaze’ in defining identity. There is a reason this Netflix queer romance series is so distinctive, and it’s probably because of its female leadership. From the writers to the film directors and editors, to the coordination of intimacy and more, the creative team and on-set crew is led by women. We can truly say that the future is female, and hopefully not just for teen drama series.

DUST met with the creator of the show, Lisa Ambjörn, screenwriter and showrunner, to discuss how Young Royals is here to set a different standard.

Luigi Vitali: Let’s take a step back and begin by discussing the general context in which Young Royals is set before diving into details. The first thing to note is that it’s a series from Sweden, resulting in a distinctive narrative and aesthetic style that stands out when compared to similar series on Netflix. What traits do you think make this a recognisable Swedish series? Or better, tell me how Young Royals is a Swedish series without telling me it is a Swedish series.

Lisa Ambjörn: Audiences can tell right away that Young Royals is Scandinavian, and it was also something that Netflix was very keen on. I would like to think that we managed to approach a dramatically elevated story in a realistic way. It stands out because, as a pure drama without action or suspense elements, it combines the realism that stems from Swedish cinema without the mundane low pace or low stakes storyline that usually accompanies it. The basic storyline is: the Law of Jante meets royals at a prestigious boarding school in Sweden. Which makes it pretty Swedish, to begin with.

L.V.: We will return to the Scandinavian Law of Jante further on, but as you mention, it is the realistic aspects that give the series a certain Swedish flair.

L.A.: What has come to characterise Swedish cinema, and culture is this unpretentious style that focuses on realism and emotional honesty, emphasising simplicity and minimalism. Even today, most internationally-acclaimed Swedish films have this kind of documentary-style approach. As someone from such a background, I have always struggled to do anything different and break free of this convention. Yet, when foreign critics praised our series for being, in fact, realistic, I recognise this is the very tradition we come from. Even if Young Royals is supposed to feel very emotionally realistic, it is not necessarily so in its method. We follow the Swedish cinematography approach in some ways, but in many others ways, we move away from it. Even if it feels realistic, it’s still different to classic ways of storytelling in the Swedish context.

L.V.: Is this tradition something we can trace back to Ingmar Bergman’s influence on Swedish culture?

L.A.: Well, to give a little bit of context, Scandinavia played an important role during the transition between the subjective traditions of the Romantic Movement and the more objective approach of realism and naturalism in the late 19th century. Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, is considered the father of realism, and here in Sweden, we had August Strindberg, our first modern writer famous for his naturalistic approach. If his plays were considered revolutionary at the time, this approach soon became the norm. This was a legacy that Ingmar Bergman brought to the cinema in the 1950s, going on to become one of the most influential film directors of all time, with his existential/philosophical dramas displaying intimacy and vulnerability. Many authors and directors carried out this realistic Swedish way and introspective/psychological approach to storytelling through theatre, novels and film. Today, this artsy way of filmmaking or theatre almost feels unrealistic because it has become an art form of its own. We feel part of a new generation of writers and filmmakers trying to break away and bring this heritage forward in new directions.

L.V.: As you mentioned before, there’s this other element which represents a ubiquitous mindset in Scandinavia: the Law of Jante—a widespread social code that emphasises a code of modesty, where one should not try to be more or different or consider oneself more important than others.

L.A.: In developing the reality of these boarding schools in Sweden, we tried to portray that no matter how privileged you are, the Scandinavian mentality will try to prevent you from believing you’re better or trying to stand out. What we call “Jantelagen” is something very traditional across Scandinavia. This term comes from a satirical novel written in 1933, in which each dweller in the fictional village of Jante has to adhere to these ten laws. The first law is you’re not to think you are anything special—so you can understand how paradoxical this is. Still, it does speak volumes about the group mentality in Scandinavia. To give you an example, there is this popular book that was one of my references, about the current King of Sweden. It describes him going to a famous boarding school, and the entire narrative is about how royals are just like us. He was just a regular kid. He wanted to be out in the forest. He wanted to play sports. He didn’t want to get all of this attention. All he wanted was to be like everyone else. Even though he may seem like any other kid, he is the Crown Prince with all the privileges and responsibilities that go with that title. He’s still part of the 1%. This contradicting narrative is what I wanted to show in Young Royals. Even though the Prince does his own laundry and everyone in the school is equal, there is still this very hierarchical system based on such old ideals to which everybody adapts. A focus during the writing process was to show the daily lives of these elite boarding school students while also portraying them as ordinary teenagers.

L.V.: Talking about ordinary teenagers, in recent years, Sweden’s youth has caught media attention in a variety of ways, from Greta’s Fridays for Future to the less admirable phenomenon of youth gangs leading to the highest firearm fatality rate in Europe. Youth in Sweden are shaping national discourse in many different ways. It’s also worth noting that the country has one of the youngest populations in Europe, and they seem to have more social and financial freedoms than any of their global peers—let’s consider that young Swedes leave home between 18 and 19 compared to the EU average of 26. Several factors give Swedish youth this sense of independence, centrality and agency that is not so common elsewhere (being from Italy, which sits on the opposite side of the spectrum, I can maybe say something about it). Is this something you recognise in your upbringing?

L.A.: It depends on what class you are born into. Among the working class, which has massively expanded during the last few decades, not so much. But middle-class and upper-class children surely grow up with the idea of being independent. Maybe this stems back to the strong educational and political focus on childhood in Sweden during the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, there were many stories of young children and their struggles for political change. It was a period in which the new Left thought to “counter-indoctrinate” children from an early age. They were to be freed from the power structures and false concepts of right and wrong that adults uphold. Think of Pippi Longstocking, a 9-year-old anarchist creating her vision for an egalitarian world. She is one of Sweden’s most famous characters. We all grew up believing that our voice matters as much as the adults. The culture embeds this feeling of empowerment in us, and I certainly experienced it while growing up. 

This is something that perhaps parallels the school strikes against climate change a few years ago. It was empowering seeing such young kids protesting in the city, demanding a better future. Thinking about it, one of my favourite movies as a child was Sopor by Tage Danielsson, featuring Lena Nyman, who plays the Crown Princess. This film tells the story of a group of kids who occupy the Royal Palace in Stockholm to protest the ways that adults have ruined their future. Now that I say it out loud, I realise that it is the only story I know concerning a fictional Swedish royal family, and probably it may have inspired me inadvertently.

L.V.: Besides popular books and stories, what other factors provide young people with this sense of freedom and agency?

L.A.: It certainly has to do with the fact that Sweden is a social welfare state—we have excellent schools, a strong health care system, and infrastructure to support citizens on every level. It’s a system that sets many up for success, even from a young age. This is why I feel that paying the amount of taxes that we pay is great because it’s a system that has worked in a lot of ways, and I’ve already gotten back more than I will ever pay in my lifetime. For this, we are still considered a very socialistic country, even if we haven’t been socialist for 40 years. Actually, the divide between the rich and poor has grown faster than in any other high-income country in recent decades. The middle class and the upper-middle class are breaking away from the working class exponentially. Hence, you have this situation with rising violence in the suburbs, the gangs, and the shootings that made world headlines. The growing class divide is really exacerbating things, so no, I wouldn’t describe this country as ‘socialist’ anymore. In Europe, we are one of the countries that have the most millionaires per capita, and you have these kids who are at the absolute top, born into these families that have the control. It is this extreme division of the social classes and disparity—typically something overlooked in Sweden—that we tried to convey in Young Royals with characters like Sarah and Simon. They are non-residential local students from the working class who access Hillerska Boarding School through a scholarship. As they enter these rooms, which they were not allowed to enter before, they realise the upper class has their own code of honour that keeps it in power.

L.V.: Like other Scandinavian states, Sweden is a constitutional monarchy. Can you explain what the relationship between Swedes and the royal family is like? We see how this unfolds in your writing—Wilhelm exists more as an archetypical figure, but how do you reconcile and portray this relationship in his characterisation?

L.A.: One of the reasons I wanted to write this story was the lack of discussion I felt growing up about our so-called democratic constitutional monarchy—I never really thought about it. I remember being told in school that the royal family had no official power and made tourists come to Sweden, and that was that. Growing up, it felt like your personal opinion about the monarchy, if anything, was dictated by your political stance. If you were left-wing, you were against it, and if you were right-wing, you were pro-monarchy.

Overall, the Swedish media has a very respectful relationship towards the royal family compared to the UK, for instance. I see how this is great for them as individuals, but it raises some questions about our democracy. Very few journalists are allowed to or dare ask the tough questions. While social media has become a space for gossip and rumours, it is also used by the royal family to enhance a narrative that they want to push. The narrative is always the same… the subtext being: we are very white, very straight, and very wealthy, but you can count on us as a very down to earth family that represents an idea of ‘normality’ in our rapidly changing world. What I tried to convey in Young Royals is this idea of continuity being their only strength and, at the same time, their greatest challenge. When their PR strategy is about denying the rumours of Wilhelm being gay, it’s not about them being homophobic. The Queen would accept her son and his sexuality… that is not the issue. However, the norms of conduct are of greatest importance to her. In this mentality, as soon as something little changes, people form opinions, shift sides, and everything risks being questioned. What the Queen says to Wilhelm during their dialogue in the car is that it is much more convenient to stick to these white, traditional, heteronormative values because their only job is to preserve continuity. She is trying her best to protect her son in her own way. She’s saying to him, this love may feel like the most important thing right now, but you can’t rely on it. Feelings are temporary—the crown is forever.

L.V.: We must stress that this series isn’t something Netflix discovered on a regional TV channel and then bought up. This was a Netflix production all along. Behind the easy-to-sell teen-drama-meets-Cinderella storyline, what’s really taking place here is an authorial approach to narrative and filmmaking that makes this series a jewel that stands out. How did you negotiate the freedom to create such a series? Do you think that if this had been for an indie movie production, your script might have been different?

L.A.: I mean, of course, maybe it would. But what it boils down to is that an independent production on a regional network would have a very small budget in comparison. When I created Sjukt [Sick], my first series, I had so much freedom. They allowed me to do my own thing because it was such a low-budget production, yet they didn’t even have a PR strategy. I had to arrange a lot of the interviews and social media outreach myself. Whereas obviously, Netflix it’s a well-oiled machine. This makes things easier, but at the same time, they want to have control. They are with you at every meeting, discussing every aspect of it. They were very picky at the beginning and gave us pages and pages of notes. But all feedback, honestly, is good feedback. You just have to let go of your own ego at some point. It wasn’t easy sometimes to come to an agreement, but our ideas were so clear that they trusted us towards the end. Somehow, Netflix allowed us to do it our way, on our own terms. In hindsight, the fact that it was a small Swedish series also helped. Because we are still much more affordable than many other international productions, they could take a chance to experiment with what works for specific audiences. After the first season’s success, we proved ourselves, and it felt like everyone was on the same page going into the second season.


Photography: Sarah Stenfeldt – Lisa Ambjörn on the set of Young Royals Season 2 



L.V.: Let’s take a step back. Can you tell us how Netflix contacted you in the first place? And how did you end up pitching this story?

L.A.: When I created my first series Sjukt with the production company Nexiko, we started talking about possible future projects while I was finishing those scripts. Nexiko pitched me three one-pager ideas, and it so happened that one involved a fictional prince at a boarding school that Netflix had shown a slight interest in. But it was a different genre. It started with a murder and then backtracked a few months leading up to that event. I didn’t want to write a teen crime drama with queer overtones only to end bitterly with a queer death…but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fundamentals of it. Thinking about a contemporary fictional story about the monarchy in Sweden, I imagined a scenario where Coppola’s Marie Antoinette meets Skam. Bringing up the questions of honour and heritage through the eyes of a queer prince was undoubtedly stimulating. 

My mind just started racing. I borrowed all books I could find about the monarchy, nobles and upper class. I was given free rein to rewrite the story. One of the first lines I changed in the pitch was about the series “being set in beautiful soundings among beautiful people”. I just took it away, not that our cast isn’t beautiful (hey, they are, but they look like actual people you could have gone to school with), but for me, that entailed going towards a glossy kind of tone, and I wanted to push in the opposite direction.

I changed the genre and characters. For example, I added Simon and Sara as that sibling dynamic really interests me—that’s also why Erik, the prince brother, came to be. Now that I think about it, I turned August into a second cousin as well. So, I guess you can say I keep coming back to family dynamics and how they shape us. In the pitch, you had the prince, who has been in a fight, and he comes into this new school. You have the bad guy, August. You have Simon, the nice working-class boy trying to survive in this environment. You have Felice, the posh horseback riding girl, who lies about her competence. You have Sarah, who’s on the spectrum and who has a hard time connecting with people, and you have the romance between Simon and Wilhelm as the main storyline.

We set up a call with Netflix Nordic, and they liked it. There were some very catchy and commercial elements in the story, so they had every reason to like it. I was confident that it would be accepted, and indeed the ball started rolling. As soon as I sat with the writer’s room, we took the pitch, and we shifted every chord, exposing the depth and contradictions within each character’s dynamics. We wanted to put out all the standard stereotypes and focus on their inner journey. We tried to portray their problems as something authentic to their respective characters. I didn’t want audiences to look from the outside towards them. Instead, I wanted the story to evolve from their internal perspective. For instance, Young Royals is different from other productions like Riverdale or Elite, where you have these strong storylines of murder and crime around which the characters are built. Our journey is mostly internal inner workings. Surely our director Rojda Sekersöz provided a big step forward in defining the identity of the series. From the get-go, she understood what I wanted to do and the vision of how we wanted to portray the characters, what kind of music and tone we wanted—it all aligned right away. Many series and movies show royalty in a modern setting using elements like classical music, incredible locations, and opulent student rooms. And we were like, no, our prince has regular teen acne, lives in a standard boarding school room, and eats the school food like everyone else. After meeting Rojda, all the glossiness from the original pitch definitely disappeared… thank god for that. Both Rojda and our second director Erika Calmeyer were deeply involved in the script writing process. We rewrote many scenes as we were shooting and found the DNA of our story together along the way.

L.V.: What strikes me is that the series you created is not a coming-out story, as it would seem and as its natural category would have been. Instead, the narrative departs quickly from this expectation, becoming a story about the phenomenology of feelings and how they shape awarenesses. It’s at a different level and thought process. How did this come about?

L.A.: I guess we wanted to bring something else to the table. As a woman, I tried to understand what it’s like being a young man discovering his own feelings for the first time and falling in love with another guy. To do that, you always have to see yourself in a body that isn’t yours and try to understand what it feels like. Still, when you connect to a deeper level with the characters and tap into deep emotions, the gender barrier becomes mostly irrelevant. As you say, it’s not a coming-out story… it’s not about Wilhelm deciding if he’s gay or not… that’s not interesting to me—I wanted to go beyond that. In our interviews with directors, many assumed that Wilhelm’s main problem was his sexual orientation as if that was the story’s main driving force. And I was like, no, the problem is that he’s the Crown Prince—there is more to his conflict than his sexuality. This character can be explored in so many different ways. On a broader level, we can say that this story is about the struggle to define your reality through your own feelings.

L.V.: In fact, I would say that this series has such an interesting and profound angle because it’s a story about two boys falling in love written, staged and directed by women. Can you tell us how did it happen that so many women hold key positions in this production? Did it born as an experiment, or did it happen naturally?

L.A.: Honestly, I didn’t realise how many women were involved in the team at first… I guess it just happened. The production team included queer, gay, and trans people who provided feedback and research from very early on. The first stage was putting together my writers’ room, which happened to be all non-men. The second stage was to find a director. Considering I’m a woman writing a story about what it is like to be a young man, I thought initially it would be best to have a queer male director that could bring that perspective, but then we met Rojda and Erika, and I knew they were the right directors to bring this story to its full potential. Somehow, we became the majority in leading positions. For instance, our head editor Sofia Lindgren, who doesn’t get mentioned enough, worked her magic on every single frame of the show. But, I guess it’s that thing where it feels like we are a million women just because we are not in minority for once. There are also a lot of cis men in the crew, even if not being fronted. I guess I am drawn in my creativity towards people with skills and emotional capabilities that are culturally more coded as female traits but that exists in all of us if we let them.

L.V.: So, how is leadership and work organised in this kind of environment?

L.A.: In the past, on other projects, I have felt I needed to take on a more traditionally ‘masculine’ approach, where you have to be very ‘strong’, stand up, raise your voice, and play games to ‘succeed’. Somehow throughout history, society decided that a good leader is a man in command who knows right from wrong and can stand up to those who challenge him. On the contrary, I’ve realised my own sensitivity and vulnerability are my strengths. Because it allows others to show their fragility and makes us feel free to question the creative decisions we take. If you dare to be fragile and vulnerable, you can be a better leader and creative visionary… even better than big men like Coppola, Kubrik, or even Bergman. Everyone always praises Bergman. And yes, he was amazing… but behind him, there was a team of really talented people whose creative force and talents he used for his storytelling, and because of hierarchy and because he’s a man, he got all the credit for that.

That’s the set-up we had historically, and you would always look at the whole process from the director’s perspective, never from the perspective of the other roles in the production. I feel that the creative process today is no longer an individual pursuit but a joint venture in which you are a good creative leader if you have the ability to incorporate your team’s viewpoints and value them. When I look at the generation of women before me, now in their fifties, I see many of them have grown up to be very tough leaders. They have had to push through to their position by behaving like men—again in terms of ’masculine’ coded traits—they can be rude and angry, and they will try to frighten you. To get their job done, they will use all the tactics men have been using against women. This is so not me; that’s not what I consider to be creative. That’s not the kind of leader we need today. I want people to feel great when working with me. My biggest accomplishment is that my writing team and crew are happy in the working environment and thus become more creative.

L.V.: Considering this inclusive and empathic approach to your work, how would you describe the creative process?

L.A.: Personally, when it comes to creativity, I’m like religious, meaning that I have total faith in the process. I know the story will find its way. I don’t have to force it. I just nurture the idea until it unfolds. I know it’s going to work. I just have to trust it and not get stressed by others’ worries around me. This trust is like an anchor in the creative storm. Slowly people get closer to the vision, they tune into it, and then suddenly, everyone agrees, and you’re like, yeah, this is the magic. This is what happens. The biggest part of my job is to manage everyone’s expectations on the script—from the first to the final version. It’s normal that everyone freaks out along the way. I know that craziness is part of the process. It takes patience and trust to get to the result. The most common phrase I use in the writers room is, ‘Let’s sleep on it. We’ll decide tomorrow’. And it works, you usually wake up the next day knowing what’s the right thing to do. Creativity can surprise you, and it takes patience. Sometimes I feel it’s not me writing. I don’t want to force or impose a method on everything. It usually feels like I’m tapping into this never-ending energy source, and as long as I continue writing, I know the story will reveal itself. I know the characters will surprise me and guide me to what is needed to happen. It’s an energy that you can feel inside, and if you just let it, if you just allow it to exist, it will surprise you. I can always trust that.

L.V.: Returning to the script, as we mentioned before, the obstacle that characters encounter in expressing their feelings is not a hostile world towards being gay (the word gay is barely even mentioned in the script for that matter, and there are no aspects of homophobia, not even in the antagonists, nor in the conservative royal family) instead, class differences seem more of an issue here—defining how characters express their feelings. How would you describe the actual obstacles the characters encounter throughout their development?

L.A.: I would say the characters are all kept captive in different ways to the emotional expectations people have of them. Their social class is one aspect of this, but there are further nuances to their characterisations. In this regard, there was a YouTuber who criticised the romanticisation of poor people in movies and used Young Royals to illustrate this argument, noting that Simon’s character was only the Prince’s emotional support—a common narrative where everyone who’s rich is ‘depressed’ and everyone who’s poor at least has ‘love’. Let me tell you, that’s not the story we tried to tell at all. In my view, Simon and Sara are much less free than Wilhelm, August or Felice because their non-existing economic freedom is a burden in addition to the problems they, like the other teenagers, have. Yes, Simon’s queerness might seem freer in some way, and it does not evoke such a response as Wille’s does because he’s not of national interest. Let’s be honest; he may look freer because no one cares about a random working-class boy in a small town. The obstacles the characters face are about how they are affected by expectations and opinions other people or society have of them.

L.V.: This leads me straight to my next question. The first season opens with Wilhelm looking directly at the camera and ends the same way. This circular start and end, where audiences feel watched by the main character, is not just an effective way to make the viewer feel like an intruder entering an intimate private space, but encapsulates a recurring theme throughout Young Royals: the gaze of the other—or as you frame it; the emotional expectations and opinions people have of each other. We see how this ‘gaze’ is present throughout all developments concerning script and characters. We have the adult gaze—how society has a certain expectation of us. We have the peers’ gaze—how we look and define each other’s identity. We have the lover gaze—how we reveal ourselves to the person we love. And, we have the technological gaze—how our identity is perceived and shaped through media. The personal journey of self-discovery and self-actualisation inevitably passes through these ‘gazes’, opening new challenges and fragilities in today’s youth—aspects brilliantly portrayed in the series. I’m curious, how did this element of the ‘gaze’ come about?

L.A.: Unlike theatre, where your gaze might wander through the scenery, in films, you have to be very direct in how you engage with the audience through the lens. We enter Wilhelm’s world quite abruptly and are led in and out of the story when Wilhelm looks directly into the camera, breaking the classic ‘4th wall’. It takes us away from that documentary-style feeling, and clarifies that there is an element of elevation to our story. There are other aspects regarding the gaze besides those you mentioned, like when Wilhelm looks at the online comments after the video is leaked—all we see are those that stand out to him, revealing what lingers inside his head. Or in episode 3, when Wille walks through the corridor and sees a couple kissing, he has a flashback of Simon looking at him. There are many examples like this where the ‘gaze’ becomes a witness to the character’s inner truths.

Our FAD (First Assistant Director) Ernesto Sánchez Valdés, once told me that he was not used to how I express characters’ inner thoughts directly in my scriptwriting. It’s a classic rule that you should not write in a script what you cannot express in image or sound. My writing goes against that. It’s kind of a mix between a novel and a script. People use a lot of words to describe what a script is… a work document, a map, a recipe or a story broken down into scenes interpreted by others. But, I think it fulfils more functions than that. It should be a reading experience as well. Not only for the actors and directors but for the entire team. I think that is what shaped the directors of photography, Marek Wieser and Karl Erik Bronbo, in their portrayal of Rojda and Erika. If the script can make you emotionally agree with its twists and turns, you become freer in how to express it. It becomes playful and broadens one’s fantasy. 

To give you a glimpse into the process, while talking about the gaze, in an early version of the first episode, we introduced Simon with a scene of him watching Wilhelm’s apology to the nation on a clip on YouTube. Here, he met for the first time Wilhelm’s gaze through the screen. We later cut this scene to introduce him while singing in the choir. It was more organic, and it made Wilhelms’s speech scene completely his own. His inner struggle is clarified, and he invited us—almost dared us—to join the journey. I believe Rojda was the one who came up with the idea of having Wille look straight in the camera, and I was just like, of course, that’s what he needs to do! Yet, in hindsight, it’s interesting to see that the question of who is looking at whom and why was a part of the story’s DNA very early on. It’s that gut reaction, that collaborative creativity that happens when you trust the process. We continued playing with the ’gaze’ through the entirety of the story. The need for acceptance, understanding, desire, the sense of expectation, interrogation and scrutiny is all there, charged in many different ‘gazes’.


Photography: Sarah Stenfeldt – From left to right: Lisa Farzaneh (episode director on S2), Lisa Ambjörn (screenwriter and creator S1 and S2), Pia Gradvall (episode writer S1 and S2), Sofie Forsman (episode writer S1 and S2), Ebba Stymne (episode writer S2, script editor on S1), Theo Boguslaw (script editor S2), Tove Forsman (episode writer S1 and S2) on the set of Young Royals Season 2.



L.V.: What I see happening in this series, and what makes it a great contemporary product, is that different approach to dealing with the trouble of coming of age—or in general, from an extensive part of pop culture—is that the focus isn’t on sexual, instinctual, basic pulsions. Instead, the series tries to elevate these matters to a different level, one of awareness, understanding, and depth of feelings. In this universe, characters are not sexualised. Instead, they are shown in their real physical imperfections. The body is present but more as a way of connecting between separate souls, sex exists, but it’s not the drive. The coming out is not just the discovery of a physical attraction but mainly of a mutual feeling as the base of a conscious relationship. Forgive the new age terms, but what’s happening in this narrative is that energy is not moved from the sexual-instinctual low second or third chakra, which dominates contemporary culture; instead, everything moves from the fourth chakra, the heart centre. The results are noticeable—It is not a case that there’s a team of women behind this product. The angle is different, the approach is different, the narrative is different. My question is, what were the challenges of depicting love and sex in the ways you wanted to portray them?

L.A.: With the response to Young Royals, I think I can say I’m not alone in experiencing that while watching it; you don’t end up fantasising or sexualising the characters, as you would do with other series, perhaps. You connect with the characters on a different level. Personally, when I watch other shows depicting teen intimacy, I often feel disconnected. We, the filmmakers, often just repeat the images we have seen in other movies instead of imitating actual life. Like we have this idea that teenagers are porn addicts who strangle each other, but actually, Gen Z has much less sex overall than previous generations.

In a way, I’m so tired of how teenage or young adult sex is mostly portrayed. Young people doing something for the first time don’t know what they are doing. They are trying to connect with each other, and they’re trying to find out what they like and how it feels. When I think about my own teenage years, for us, it was never about the actual sex. It was more about seeing someone you like at a party, eventually making out with that person, and feeling excited and empowered. And then you kissed someone who has bad breath, and you were like, oh, that’s weird. It was an exploration. It was about finding out who you were and what you liked. I never remember this exploration being like, sexy. I love Euphoria, for example. I was just watching an episode the other night, and there’s a scene in which two of the characters have very hard sex against a door. I was like, that has never happened to teenagers. Or if it happens, it is to replicate the porn they’ve watched, but still, I don’t find it interesting from a writer’s perspective to perpetuate that image again. I find it more interesting to be in that person’s head and go through their feelings and emotions. There is a saying, “everything is about sex, except sex“, and I do believe sex is not about sex.

Let me tell you this; we just went to this gay gala in Stockholm where we won the prize for best series. It was a fun night, with a lot of irony and jokes, and one of the jokes came like, “Thank you, Young Royals, for all the wanking material provided.” Some of us got a little bit upset. But I was like, you know what? If someone wants to masturbate to people being honest with each other, connecting and loving one another, then great, it may even be an elevating experience for them.

L.V.: The love scenes do indeed revolve around connecting, honesty, and delicate feelings. In fact, they were choreographed by an intimacy coordinator—which happened to be a woman as well. How did her job integrate the script and film direction?

L.A.: We only have two certified ICs in Sweden right now, and Sara Arrhusius did her first job with me and the crew on Sjukt. So, it was a no-brainer to bring her onto Young Royals as well after seeing the benefits of having one. Sara began by reading the scripts (and rewrites) and did a breakdown of the intimacy scenes, after which we discussed exactly what we were trying to achieve with each scene. The subtext, intensity, meaning and tone of each one. The IC role is similar to that of a stunt person. But instead of making action scenes that are performed safely and fulfil the vision, they work with the psychological safety of performing and executing intimacy on screen.

For me, it was very important, when writing scenes that involve simulating aspects of sex, that our actors knew that this would be taken care of, especially when involving young actors. Every intimate interaction between the characters is meant to move the story forward and contains vital information about their relationships. From a handshake to a physical fight. For example, I seldomly write what level of nudity is needed for the scene. Because that can be portrayed in so many ways, and that’s a discussion that needs to involve the directors and actors as well. And that’s not to shy away from making it feel real, but the opposite I think. We can fake anything, I mean, that’s our job. In Sjukt almost all intimacy scenes contained a lot of humour, whereas in Young Royals, we see Wille and Simons’s relationship progress through them getting physically closer and closer to each other. Working with an IC helped me find a new vocabulary to express what I wanted to convey. Sara would ask me things like “is it like stiff spaghetti slowly softening in boiling water?” Or, “is it like a match being lit, intensely and tingling?”. It broadens your view of how and why we should portray a scene a certain way. When everyone feels safe and relaxed and sure of what we are telling in the scene, we become more creative as well.

For example, after having started to work with ICs I find actors themselves are more likely to suggest nudity or something else that might be considered vulnerable, not coming from the writing or directing. This shows that there is great trust and creative energy to be won by safeguarding the procedure.



Photography: Sarah Stenfeldt – Lisa Ambjörn on the set of Young Royals Season 2 



L.V.: The reason why I don’t consider this a teen drama series is that probably Gen Z teenagers aren’t fully getting the operation made on the narrative. They would see it as a cute love story in a classic narrative context. While for Millennials, watching this series is instead a totally different experience, and it’s a devastating one. To have such deep awareness of our own feelings and effortlessly act on them while building a shared conscious relationship is something that was precluded for the majority of Millennials, especially LGBTQ+, who grew up not having many narratives exploring this angle so extensively. It’s as if this series, with very few precedents, opened new possibilities that have been mostly missed or are not yet imaginable. (A millennial friend commented: I’m watching Young Royals just so that my inner child can process what normal adolescence could look like). As a writer, how do you see this generational difference? While writing, did you closely observe younger generations to capture their dynamics or were you more motivated by writing about a more positive masculinity that you’d like to ‘enhance?’ 

L.A.: That’s also why I’m telling a story about sensitive young men because I feel like there’s so much destruction in what patriarchy has decided masculinity and men should be like. This kind of masculinity is bringing all of us down, and we have to step away from that. Gen Z somehow have more tools and ways to understand themselves in comparison to previous generations. Depicting their life is a way to reflect on this shift in awareness. One that is opening up to inner feminine energy that, for previous generations, has been more difficult to deal with and accept.

The interesting aspect of studying Gen Z is that they extensively document their teen years online as it unfolds. It’s not curated through the eyes of adults; it’s pure self-representation. Then you see how adults represent them in movies or series, and they are always being portrayed as being so stylish, cool, and edgy like no teenagers are. When I look at the youngsters I encounter, I’m like yeah, I remember so well; you’re trying so hard. And I see all that insecurity and pain, the desire to be accepted and loved. Even if it looks like a different generation, they are fundamentally the same as us, Millennials, the boomers, or even the ancient Greeks…. It’s the surface that changes, not what lies underneath. We are dealing with the same kind of feelings and emotions. I bet it was like that 2000 years ago as well.

There are just different rules and structures in society that force us to do things in certain ways. The human brain hasn’t changed in millennia, and definitely, it won’t do it within a generation. That’s always my core, the emotional experience we are having on earth, no matter in which time or space, it’s always the same. And I also think that’s why Young Royals works for both a fifteen-year-old and eighty-year-old. One of the oldest fans that wrote to me was 85. My grandma and my grandpa watched it. They are 84. They understood everything. They could connect to everything. The emotions are the same.

L.V.: What struck me is that half of the dialogues between Simon and Wilhelm are about checking on each other’s emotional state…the, ‘how are you?’ ‘How are you feeling?’ are almost redundant in every interaction. But, I guess this shows how in a conscious relationship, the connection itself stands as the third entity of the relation, which both have to serve with honesty and commitment. There is no prevarication, manipulation, ‘my view’ against ‘your view.’ There’s only a common space to nurture with care and understanding.

L.A.: These sort of pleasantries in the conversations between Wilhelm and Simon come back in many scenes, and you know what? It is surprising because that’s actually how it’s supposed to be. It’s about two people checking on each other’s feelings, and no one is trying to dominate the other, take advantage, pursuing an interest or a craving. It’s about creating a connection, tuning into each other feelings, and seeing how things evolve from there.

It’s interesting because usually, you use the tension between characters in build up the story, and then you have to use every opportunity to display those struggles. Between Simon and Wilhelm, we worked so much on building a positive balance and taking any power factor away. You can see how the various, ‘how do you feel?[s]’ come mainly from Simon and from a script point of view; it’s about him giving Wilhelm an opportunity to answer that question while being honest. He gives him space to reflect and articulate his feelings rather than constantly thinking about how he should behave and what is expected from him. We wanted to show another kind of relationship between two boys who fall in love with each other without sexualising it or exploiting it to create drama. There are many nuances between Simon and Wilhelm, but obviously, there is no manipulation, no power games, no using one another. Each struggle with their inner demons and the world there are in, but it’s not a struggle between them. In the emotional space they built together, they are equals, and they give each other the chance to exist beyond forms.
It’s all about a genuine feeling and how you protect this feeling. There’s a lot of discussion about that end scene when he says, “I hope you have a nice Christmas”. It’s the most devastating line… Many asked why he didn’t reply; “I love you back?” But he had already proved it; his actions already said it. He cannot say it because he will diminish his heart if he does. He’s in a place of awareness, and there’s not much he can say or do.

L.V.: And that’s the very end of season one, the peak of the Hero’s journey for Wilhelm, where everything is collapsing around him, and he has to trace the line between what feels real and what does not, finding his path forward.

L.A.: Yeah, that’s how we’ve left them. I’m so looking forward to talking to you after season two comes out!

L.V.: No spoilers, please. Yes, I’m so excited to see what you girls came up with!


Photography: Sarah Stenfeldt
From left to right: Lisa Farzaneh (episode director on S2), Lisa Ambjörn (screenwriter and creator S1 and S2), Pia Gradvall (episode writer S1 and S2), Sofie Forsman (episode writer S1 and S2), Ebba Stymne (episode writer S2, script editor on S1), Theo Boguslaw (script editor S2), Tove Forsman (episode writer S1 and S2) on the set of Young Royals Season 2.


Remembering the Baltic Singing Revolution
by Arvydas Umbrasas

“In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. In this connection, the interest of Lithuania in the Vilnius area is recognized by each party.”

This is an excerpt from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. To be more precise, it’s from a secret additional protocol of the pact that pushed back Lithuania with the rest of the Baltic States into the arms of the “Sleeping Bear” of Europe, a bear that hadn’t been sleeping for quite some time. With the goal of tearing apart imperialistic cannibals of the West, Stalin had put Leninism into action. And alongside his bogus ideology of a world proletariat with Hitler’s Germany, people’s lives were savagely torn apart. Barely could be found the “joy and satisfaction of all labourers” that the Father has promoted. “Both ideologies were the methodologies of pure force bearing sense to neither an individual nor a nation, (…) they were just abstract ideas, sublimating the power and will of their leaders.” – R. Ozolas, Lithuanian philosopher, state and political official.

Despite a non-aggression pact between the Nazis and the Soviets, conflict was inevitable. Ultimately the course went as follows: In 1941, Hitler begins the invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa); in 1943, surrenders at Stalingrad mark Germany’s first major defeat in World War II; finally, in 1945, Auschwitz is liberated by the Soviet troops, the Russians finally reach Berlin, and Germany surrenders on the 7th of May. While the West started celebrating and rebuilding the ruins of Europe; Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were left, once again, in the arms of Russia. Let them decide between themselves, thought the West. And so the decision was voluntarily made: the Baltic States became a part of the USSR, a true imperialistic cannibal that brought fifty years of darkness and slavery, starvation and delusion, in a demonic spell that can’t find peace even today.



The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed on the 23rd of August, 1939. Precisely fifty years later, in order to protest and mark its anniversary, all three Baltic States in 1989 literally took each other hands and started an extremely refined, non-violent (and non-military) resistance for freedom and independence: over two million people joined their hands to form a human chain over 600 kilometers long, that stretched from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, through Latvia’s Riga, finally reaching Tallinn in Estonia. Demonstrators linked hands for almost 15 minutes at 19:00 local time (16:00GMT). Special radio broadcasts helped to coordinate the effort.


The following day Reuters News reported that about 700,000 Estonians, 500,000 Latvians and 1,000,000 Lithuanians participated in the event. Latvians agreed instantly to the concept of the commemoration; however, Estonians rejected the idea and called it typically Lithuanian and very baroque. They were right by saying so; the substantial amount of Lithuanian participants, one-third of the population, was proof of romantic notions of this country. In the end, they agreed to the idea, and indeed it was a theatrical and emotional event.


The alignment of souls was breathtaking: people left their workplaces, homes, and gardens and went to make a change. There was no theft or crime reported, just civilized and serene acts of free will. The uplifting confidence set free suppressed hearts, and many people built crosses, placing them every few kilometres and dressing them in flowers. Someone thought about the need for water and drove tank cars to bring spring water for the participants. Children, the elderly, fathers and mothers, cousins, friends, and teenagers all were connected in that very moment, and for fifteen minutes, it was us, us as human beings, us as creatures made from love, made to love, us being free of red ribbons, imaginative walls of political maps, us – souls.



Energy flows where attention goes, and energy started flying. Correspondents from abroad wanted to document the whole event from the sky, but Moscow had strictly forbidden flyovers during the human chain. Thanks to the pilot K. Šalčius and the aviation company Avio Paslauga, a flight was made against all odds. The Baltic Way was documented from above, and thrown from the plane in the name of the victims of Leninism were hundreds of flowers, all donated by the supporters of the Sąjūdis, the Lithuanian liberation movement. As spontaneous as it may seem, the demonstration was meticulously planned and consciously developed in the whole strategy of the liberation of the Baltic States. On April 13, 1988, there was established in Tallinn a national Estonian movement, the Popular Front of People, Rahvarinne. On the 3rd of June, in Vilnius, Lithuanians established the Persitvarkymo Sąjūdis. Finally, on the 30th of August in Riga, the Popular Front of Latvia was established.


The main goal of all three national movements was to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Due to the fact that it had been made in secret, the annexation was illegal, as international law adheres to the roman law principle Ex injura non oritur jus. And so USSR actions had violated the regulation of the League of Nations as well as the Kellogg – Briand Pact’s art.10. “You did not recognize our incorporation into the Soviet Union, then do recognize our liberation!” – V. Landsbergis, honorary president of Sąjūdis, musicologist, state and political official. Even though strategies in each country varied, there was strong mutual work with the principle of solidarity between the three nations, which led to the formation of a trilateral or international structure, the Baltic Assembly, which was proposed by Latvian national front member Janis Gaigals. On the 13th of May, 1989, this new and well-organized political body was created to facilitate the process of the Awakening. The non-violent resistance expressed itself in very peaceful forms: meetings, demonstrations, wreath-laying ceremonies, petition signings and organized mass protests. One of the notable ones happened on the 5th of September, 1988. After an environmental disaster at a nuclear power plant in Ignalina, Lithuania, protestors and activists decided to make a Circle of Life – a live human chain around the whole atomic power plant.


Human chains had become quite popular and were taking place throughout the region before the occasion of the Baltic Way. However, the true origin of human chains was accidentally promoted by the Soviet media, which widely advertised protests in England, where the ‘ordinary western people’ surrounded the US military base, forming a human chain around it. If anyone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other one also. It was indeed unbearable to stand the constant slapping, so at critical moments, to reduce tension and stress, to hearten participants, and to psychologically disarm the opponents, the people sang. Almost all demonstrations were led by the song, and ultimately it became the Singing Revolution in literal and metaphorical terms. People had just one weapon: the truthful voice of freedom. And at the climactic events of January 13, 1991, men and women turned not only the other cheek. They put their bodies under the USSR’s tanks with no resistance but with hope and a profound understanding of fundamental truths of what is right.


On the 11th of March, 1990, Lithuania declared the restoration of the independent state with its highest authority – the Supreme Council – and began to realize its complete sovereignty. The continuity of the 1938 Constitution followed, as well as an annulation of the imposed Soviet constitution in Lithuania. Latvia and Estonia took similar paths, but inequality in status between the three nations could have been dangerous. All was kept quiet until the chairman of the Estonian Supreme Council, Arnold Rüütel, proposed the levelling of positions by legally and officially renewing the pre-war, pre-occupation Baltic Concord.



On the 12th of May 1990, top state officials from all three Baltic countries met in Tallinn and adopted documents on the establishment of the Council of the Baltic States as the continuation of the 1934 Baltic Concord. From that day on, declarations, letters, and memorandums were discussed, adopted and announced to make possible and demonstrate the affinity and the identical profile of the three Baltic States. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were seen as countries with the same destiny, declaring the re-establishment of independence and seeking international recognition. Finding the right tune and tact for a non-violent path to liberation required highly developed intellect, mentality and imagination of the three nations. Conscious decisions were made to avoid the self-determination path of re-establishing statehood that could have led to the Chechnya situation. Application to the UN wasn’t a choice, as Soviet-appointed delegates could simply veto the request. The Baltic States decided to stand alone for just principles and legality, which over time became a moral victory for Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Western civilization.


Introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 – Glasnosts (‘openness’) and Perestroika (‘restructuring’) were the last hope of the failing Russian economy and power. But it backfired, causing problems with non-Russian nations occupied half a century earlier. Ungraceful moves and political mistakes were made in an effort to preserve the imperialistic ambitions of the USSR. The final attempt to shut up the Singing Revolution in Lithuania was made on the 13th of January, 1991. During that day, many lives were lost, but people still managed to withstand their fight with no guns in hand. The provocative Red Army threw weapons at the public in an attempt to bring out aggressive reactions, but the people kept singing, composed and determined as ever to preserve their right to be free. And after a failed coup d’état in August 1991, international governments recognized Lithuania’s independence, along with the entire Baltic region.


On the 8th of September, 1992, after two years of negotiations, in Moscow was signed the schedule of withdrawal of the Russian army from the territory of Lithuania. The agreement was treated by the Lithuanian party as the Peace Treaty, but it was briefly rejected by President Boris Yeltsin. However, Russia followed the schedule, and by the end of the year, almost eighty per cent of the Russian soldiers had been removed from Lithuania. By the 31st of August, 1993, the last of the Red Army was gone—The occupiers finally left the country. “… the alien army entered without declaring war on Lithuania and left without signing a peace treaty” – R. Ozolas, Lithuanian philosopher, state and political official.