Vera Rolander was an eminent activist and translator of Russian literature, nonfiction and fairy tales.
Vera Rolander was born just before the revolution in 1917 in the Russian town of Jaroslavl on the Volga, 250 kilometres north of Moscow. She was the daughter of Peter Kvist who had Swedish roots and his wife Olga. Vera Rolander’s grandfather was a Swedish emigrant who instead of taking the boat as most emigrants did to America, travelled to Russia in the 1880s. Peter Kvist worked for the Swedish company Allmänna Svenska Elektriska AB (now ASEA) in Russia but when Stalin wanted the state to take over all foreign companies, production was moved to Västerås. The company offered Peter Kvist the opportunity to move with it, and since his marriage was already coming to an end, he accepted. Vera Rolander and her brother Nikolai moved with their father while some siblings stayed with their mother. Vera Rolander first married Rune Linderborg, a turner at ASEA, and they had three children: Nina, Tatjana (Tanja) and Jan. She married again in 1954. Her second husband was the artist and theatre décor-maker Julius Rolander.
As a consequence of the world economic collapse at the beginning of the 1930s, fascists took over the power in several European states. Vera Rolander, who had grown up with communism in the new Soviet society, chose then to join the Swedish communist party. With her Russian background, she became a valuable asset for the party and was able to travel to visit her relatives and friends in the Soviet Union without any problems. Her daughter Tanja, born in 1943, was thus able to participate in a pioneer camp in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and was treated on the same terms as the children of the party elite. Tanja also made her career in the Swedish communist movement. She was a member of parliament for the left-wing Vänsterpartiet in 1994–2002.
After the end of the second world war, Vera Rolander’s mother Olga moved to Sweden while her former husband Peter Kvist had started a new family there. Vera Rolander and her mother with their differing experiences were each other’s opposites. Vera Rolander’s powerful image both physically and in her socialist engagement contrasted with her mother who was almost 100 years old and according to her grandchild Åsa Linderborg was a tiny Russian babushka: “not even a hand’s breadth tall any longer”. Olga Kvist lived in the past in pre-revolutionary Russia. In her little rented flat, there were no symbols of the Russian revolution, but on the other hand a prayer corner with Russian icons, with continually lighted candles.
Vera Rolander was a communist activist. She wanted to get things done, not just discuss theories. She had independent opinions, and, as Åsa Linderborg expressed it: “those views did not flatter anybody”. Vera Rolander worked at the basic level in the party. She handed out flyers, organised demonstrations, and sold Ny Dag, all with the intention of improving people’s living conditions in the community. For her, socialism was alive in everyone who had an open mind, had courage, and knew a thing or two about injustice.
It was at the same time not at all easy to be a communist during the war years and the beginning of the 1950s “cold war”. The nation-wide razzia against active communists in February 1940 meant that the police broke their way into the party premises and members’ homes. Books, newspapers, and association documents were confiscated as “subversive papers”. Vera Rolander and her first husband had however been forewarned and managed to hide their party books and Ny Dag under the children’s mattresses. On the upper floor of the house where they lived, they had also allowed German and Polish activist refugees fleeing from the Nazis to hide, but the police never checked that part of the house. The family was however being watched perpetually by the Swedish security police.
Vera Rolander and Rune Linderborg probably met at ASEA. Both worked there, he as a turner and she as a milling machine operator. Vera Rolander was soon to be sacked for having represented the union Svenska metallindustriarbetareförbundet (Metall, now IF Metall) at a union meeting in Warsaw during the first years of the cold war. Like many other communists, she was black-listed for her political views.
In 1954, Vera Rolander remarried. Her second husband was the painter and theatre décor-maker Julius Rolander. The couple moved around first in several countries in Eastern Europe, mainly Poland and Czeckoslovakia, while their three children remained in Västerås with their father Rune Linderborg. Julius and Vera Rolander settled down in 1958 in Moscow and she was employed by Moscow radio to report the news in the Swedish-speaking broadcasts. Her clear voice could be heard on short-wave when she introduced the news with the words “This is Moscow”.
Vera and Julius Rolander were strong supporters of the Soviet system. However, how did they relate to the Swedish communist party’s change of course in the 1960s? As perhaps most communists, they realised that changes were necessary, but at the same time did not share the anxiety that the new party leader Carl-Henrik (C-H) Hermansson would compromise rather too much with the basic socialist principles. They were both convinced that a strong and well-organised people’s front was needed to conquer the fascism that they saw as a middle-class phenomenon. Vera Rolander therefore found it difficult to recognise the flaws in the Soviet system. According to her grandchild Åsa, Vera Rolander’s conviction was solid as a rock that genuine socialism was superior to the capitalist system.
Vera Rolander also worked as an interpreter when Russians visited Sweden. During the visit of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1964, for example, she was his interpreter in permanent attendance. She also accompanied Russian companies on their tours in Sweden, whether they were circus artists, magicians, dancers or ballet dancers. She even got to be the interpreter for the Soviet ice hockey team with their association captain Tarasov.
As translators of Russian literature, nonfiction and fairy tales, she and Julius Rolander made great contributions. Their comprehensive translations of the theatre critic and actor Constantin Stanislavsky’s works to Swedish were pioneering. Even children’s fairy tales like the Russian version of Little Red Riding-Hood were translated for Swedish child readers. They both also had a shared life-long project concerning the language in literature, and the possibilities for expressing oneself in words.
The Rolanders’ home in Västerås was distinguished by an aesthetic cultural radicalism. The walls were covered with bookshelves holding titles by Brecht, Lars Forsell and Rosa Luxemburg, and on the walls hung pictures by for example the Swedish communist-orientated artist Sven X-et Erixon. Vera Rolander’s musical taste was apparent in her radio programme in 2000 in which the programme notes stated that she wanted to “share with the listeners thoughts that a woman of my age has and experiences that she has gathered in her life”. The music in the programme included the well-known Russian song-writers Vladimir Vysotskij and Bulat Okudzjava, and also Violetta Parras, the Swedish comedians Hasse å Tage, Chopin and not least Russian songs. Russian folksongs in particular filled an important place in her life. Åsa Linderborg’s memory of her singing grandmother showed another side of the engaged activist Vera Rolander:
“Grandma sang melancholy Russian folksongs about birches that had lost their leaves in the middle of summer and fathers who never came home from war. She rocked gently back and forwards to these words and I thought that nobody had a grandma like mine.”
Vera Rolander died when she was 93 years old, in 2010, five years after her husband. She lies buried in the Wallinska Cemetery in Västerås. Her daughter Tanja’s husband’s rather crass admiration of his mother-in-law can perhaps be a good summing-up of her exciting life: “She was despite everything a bloody remarkable woman, wasn’t she”.