The Swedish Village in Ukraine

In southern Ukraine, as a byproduct of ceded territory, there’s a Swedish village. Now in the heart of President Putin’s southern offensive, it was shut off by his sham referendums…

Xander Brett

In the south-eastern corner of Ukraine, there’s a village where a resident still speaks a dialect of Swedish. This is Gammalsvenskby, and villagers are descendants of farmers relocated from an outpost of the Swedish Empire (now present-day Estonia) in 1781, when Sweden lost the Great Northern War to Russia. In 2022, over two hundred years later, they, like their ancestors, are under attack. Though they never fell victim to President Putin’s forced ‘evacuations’, the Kherson Oblast (in which the settlement sits), was annexed during Putin’s sham referendums in September. The Gammalsvenskby neighbourhood forms part of the village of Zmiivka, about a hundred kilometres from Kherson, on the shores of the Dnipro River. Villagers were reported to have locked their doors during the referendum, refusing the demands of occupying forces to vote. Their bravery was exemplary. But, positioned close to strategic river crossings, they may soon face further tests. As the Ukrainian counteroffensive moves forward, though they were freed this month, they are set to find themselves on the military front line.

While the village was under Russian control, food and medical supplies were scarce, and the change in currency reportedly led bank cards to fail. Villagers were also wary they could be conscripted to the Russian army, as they share an international concern that, when Russia claims territory as their own, Putin can attempt to justify using nuclear-grade weapons in a last-ditch throw of the dice. Life in Gammalsvenskby this winter is certainly a far-cry from the daily-routines of ten years ago. Sofia Hoas, who runs a society for the village in Gotland, and has visited twenty times, says electricity and phone signal is often switched off during the occupation, so communication was difficult. “My grandparents were from Gammalsvenskby, and I fell in love with the village,” she tells me over the phone. Hoas runs a society in Gotland that celebrates the village, and her neighbours include the only other two remaining speakers of Gammalsvenska, which she says is fairly intelligible to modern Swedish. The King and Queen of Sweden stopped by during a state visit to Ukraine in 2008, and the Church of Sweden led economic support efforts after the fall of Communism, despite the Lutheran faith now having been all but been replaced by Orthodoxy. The change in religious denomination is, at least in part, thanks to a mass exodus of villagers in 1929.

In the summer of that year, the Soviet government had reached an agreement with Sweden about disposition of residents’ property in Ukraine, and farmers who’d campaigned to return to Sweden (to safeguard their Lutheran faith) were allowed out. Taking with them only what could be packed on a passenger train, they set off by steamer, before making a rail journey across the continent. The migrants arrived in Trelleborg, Skåne, where they were received by Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland. Later, of those who’d chosen to remain, a further nineteen families would move to Canada (where earlier emigrants from had settled), while a further six returned to Sweden. It makes today’s population small. But, receiving (before the war, at least) odd groups of Swedish tourists, residents of this geographical anomaly are proud of their unique heritage, and loyally serve under a municipal coat of arms that includes the distinctive three Swedish crowns in its composition. As this illegal invasion fails, and as Putin’s forces are pushed back, it’s our duty to remember their courage, as we wish them due fortitude in reclaiming their culture once more.

Pictures from Magister Nyman.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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