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Published: August 7th 2009
Sign announcing that you are entering Gammalsvenskby
In the middle of the district Kherson Oblast in the south of Ukraine there is a small village with an interesting history. The village is called Gammalsvenskby
. Gammalsvenskby is today incorporated with three other villages, Schlangendorf, Mühlhausendorf and Klosterdorf, and on maps they are shown under their combined name, Zmiyivka.
Gammalsvenskby is a Swedish name and it means Old Swedes Village or Old Swedish Village.
The story of this village starts in the year 1781 on the Estonian island Hiiumaa
, 2000 kilometres away from Gammalsvenskby. In 1781 Estonia was under Russian rule. But between the years 1561 until 1721 Estonia was part of Sweden. The people living on the Estonian islands, Hiiumaa is one of these islands, lived rather isolated so they kept on speaking Swedish in spite that they were Russians. Here historians disagree on what really happened. Some say that the people on Hiiumaa asked the empress Catherine II of Russia to free them from a slave-like situation that they suffered under a local landowner. Others claim that the people were forced into exile against their will.
In August 1781 the people had to pack their belongings, leave Hiiumaa and start to walk down
Coat of arms
Gammalsvenskby coat of arms
to what today is southern Ukraine. In May 1782 they arrived in their new home. Of the about 1000 people who started the march only half arrived in Ukraine. The rest perished from the ordeal of walking for months through rain, snow and ice.
When the people arrived they were left with nothing to start their new life. After one year the population had decreased to only about 150 people.
After a few years they had managed to cultivate enough land to feed the population, they had formed a community and they built a church. They were later joined by settlers from Germany who founded the villages Schlangendorf, Mühlhausendorf and Klosterdorf. The German villages practically surrounded Gammalsvenskby.
In spite of being a small community of Swedish speaking people surrounded by three villages where they all spoke German in a country where the spoken language is either Russian or Ukrainian the people of Gammalsvenskby kept with their old traditions. They continued to speak Swedish and they kept their Swedish traditions alive from generation to generation. "Var svin vid sin ho" (translates best as "Each pig should stay in his own pigsty") was the proverb the grandmother of one
Flag in the local store
In the local store they had a Swedish flag. ...and behind it there is vodka... are they trying to tell us something....?
old woman who lives in Gammalsvenskby today used. What she meant was that the Swedes should marry other Swedes, not Germans or Ukrainians.
They succeeded so well to keep their Swedish heritage alive that still today there are people living in Gammalsvenskby who speak Swedish. They actually speak two kinds of Swedish. They speak the standard Swedish spoken in Sweden today but they also speak Old Swedish. That was the language spoken in Sweden more than 300 years ago. It is possible for Swedes to understand Old Swedish, it doesn't differ very much from modern Swedish, but it takes a bit of training.
When we visited Gammalsvenskby in summer 2009 there were still 9 or 10 people left in the village who could speak Old Swedish. There are a few more living elsewhere in Ukraine who knows Swedish but rarely get the chance to speak the language since they have nobody to talk to. The few who are left who speak Old Swedish are all very old. The youngest being close to 80 and the oldest 85 or 86 years old. When they are gone, and considering their age they will all be gone within the next 10
This is what we could call the city hall. Outside the building there is an empty platform where there used to be a statue of Lenin. After a referendum the statue was pulled down
or 15 years, there is nobody left in Gammalsvenskby who can speak Old Swedish. There will be a few who speak modern day Swedish because some of the younger people in Gammalsvenskby learn Swedish in school to keep at least some of the Swedish heritage alive. But Old Swedish will soon die out as a language.
We went to Gammalsvenskby by taking an early bus from the city Kherson to Berislav and from there a local bus to Gammalsvenskby. Well we had to say we wanted to go to Zmiyivka, because the village is to the locals known under that name. On the bus from Berislav to Gammalsvenskby we talked about this and that when an old lady sitting in the bus turned towards us and said, in Swedish, "I hear you come from Sweden. I guess you are here to visit Gammalsvenskby." Her name is Maria Malmas and she is one of the very few Old Swedes left in Gammalsvenskby. We talked with her for a while and she told us a little about Gammalsvenskby and the people who live there.
Maria Malmas told us that in 1929 the Old Swedes were for a brief period permitted
The village Klosterdorf is very close to Gammalsvenskby. Here is the church in Klosterdorf
to emigrate from the Soviet Union and move to Sweden. Almost all of the Old Swedes in Gammalsvenskby took this chance and left. At that time Sweden was going through a rough period economically and was not prepared to take care of the 900 or so Old Swedes who wanted to immigrate. So after a year or two many of the Old Swedes were disappointed and started to make plans for a better life elsewhere. Some moved to other places in Sweden, some moved to Canada or to the USA and some returned back to Ukraine.
Maria Malmas told us that she was born in Stockholm in Sweden. She was actually born within walking distance from the flat we life in. Her parents were among those who first immigrated to Sweden and then moved back to Ukraine. A decision she thought was stupid and a big mistake.
She told us one other interesting story. In 1975 there were in Sweden plans for a reunion of Old Swedes from all over the World. They invited all the Old Swedes they could get in touch with including the ones who lived in Gammalsvenskby in Ukraine. Maria Malmas and a few
Farm houses and farm land
This is a typical view of what it looks like in Gammalsvenskby. The people who live there are mostly small scale farmers
others went all the way to the Swedish embassy in Moscow to apply for visas to Sweden so they could visit this reunion. When they arrived in the Swedish embassy the staff was totally baffled. They had no idea that there was a Swedish community down in Ukraine. I hope the staff at the embassy at least had the decency of being embarrassed for such lack of knowledge. Soviet Union was a closed country back in the 70-ies but the existence of Gammalsvenskby is something that the Swedish representatives in Soviet should have been known about.
We left the bus in the middle of Gammalsvenskby near the local food store. Maria told us a little about what there was to see in the village. Before she left she told us of one more thing. This day at lunchtime the Old Swedes were expecting visitors. A tour group from Sweden was scheduled to make a stop in the village at 12 o'clock and most of the Old Swedes would be there to greet the them. The reception would be at the village church and of course we too were welcome to be there when they arrived. That sounded like a
Fairly typical street in Gammalsvenskby
great opportunity for us to meet some more Old Swedes so we promised to come by the church later that day.
After Maria left us by the store we had a look around in the village by ourselves.
On our little improvised sightseeing we first came to Klosterdorf, one of the German villages. Gammalsvenskby is a small village and you don't have to walk far until you cross the border to the neighbouring villages. We turned around and walked back into Gammalsvenskby again because we knew of a few places in Gammalsvenskby we wanted to see. After some looking we came to the village church. We walked in and had a look at the church.
Next to the church there are two memorials/monuments set up. One is a stone saying that it was raised there to the memory of "the innocent Swedish villagers who were taken away and disappeared in the years 1937-1938"
followed by the names of 18 people. These people were probably close friends and relatives to the Old Swedes who are still living in the village today. One of the names on the stone read Petter Simonsson Malmas. Likely a close relative to Maria
Memorial to the "the innocent Swedish villagers who were taken away and disappeared in the years 1937-1938"
Malmas, whom we talked to on the bus. Another name on the stone was Simon Simonsson Sigalet. We would later that day have the honour to talk to a woman named Anna Sigalet. Most likely Anna and Simon were close relatives.
The other monument tells the story of the village from 1781 in Estonia to the 1930-ies when some of the Old Swedes who weren't happy in Sweden moved back to Gammalsvenskby. The text on the stone reads as follows: Memorial
On this spot on May the 1st 1782 500 of the original 1000 farmers from Hiiumaa outside the coast of Estonia arrived. For eight months they were forced to walk the 2000 kilometres, most of the time in rain and snow. The farmers had, against their will, by orders from the Russian Catherine II orders carried out by Prince Potemkin, been moved here to as the first people colonise land recently conquered from the Turks. Within a year only about 150 people remained. In the following years until 1795 the population fell to about 130 people before the Swedish farmers began to feel at home and founded this village known as Gammalsvenskby
This cross is a kind of memorial to the first Old Swedes who came here in 1782
and their descendents was known as Old Swedes.
They kept their traditions and religion. The wooden church from 1787 was in 1885 replaced with a stone church. This was in 1991 restored from ruin to its present state.
For nearly 150 years worked and lived these Old Swedes in the village until they, by their own request, were moved home to Sweden where roughly 900 Old Swedes arrived on August 1 1929. About 250 of these decided for various reasons to return to Gammalsvenskby in the years 1930 and 1931. Today there are in and around the village about 200 people who have Swedish ancestors.
The society Old Swedes in Sweden erected this monument in 1998, 216 years after the first villagers arrived here.
After we had seen the church and the monuments we left and walked down to the other end of the village. When we arrived on the bus in the morning we noticed that there was a cemetery there that we wanted to see.
In the cemetery we noticed that most of the more recent graves had Ukrainian names on them. We had to look for a while until we found
Inscription on the memorial
For a translation of the inscription see the text in the blog
a few stones with names that are typical for the Old Swedes, such as Utas and Annas. This tells us that the Swedes in this village have for many years been outnumbered by Ukrainians. We could also see that there were older graves in one end of the cemetery that were overgrown and not tended at all. Some of the graves were also just mounds with no grave marker at all. Ake noticed that there had been a fire at some time in recent years and he guesses that many of the grave markers might have been made of wood and that they simply burnt to ash in the fire.
After we left the cemetery we met an old lady on the road. She started talking to us in Ukrainian and we replied that we didn't understand what she said because we don't speak Ukrainian. Then she smiled and said, in Swedish, "then I guess you are Swedes". Her name is Anna Sigalet and she is also an Old Swede. She was on her way to the church to greet the tour group they expected to the village later on. Since we were also going to the church to
When Ukraine was part of Soviet Union the church was turned into a cinema and a nightclub. Later it fell into ruin. The church was restored again in 1991
see the tour group arrive we walked together all three of us up the road back to the village centre.
On the way Anna told us a little bit about what happened to the Old Swedes during and after World War II. When the German troops came in the 1940-ies the Old Swedes were forced to leave their village. They were taken out of Ukraine and brought to German occupied territory in Poland. In the end of the war that part of Poland was liberated by American troops. But in the Yalta Conference (see previous blog entry) it was decided that Poland would be under Soviet command so the Americans were replaced by Russians. The Russians told the Old Swedes that they would arrange for a train to take them back to Ukraine. But the train never reached Ukraine. Instead the Old Swedes were taken to labour camps in Siberia. They were sentenced to 10 years of forced labour, probably for collaborating with the Germans or something, together with a lot of Germans. After a few months in Siberia a guard noticed that the group he was guarding did not consist of only Germans. He asked around and realised
Different view of the church
that among the German prisoners there was a group of Swedes, the Old Swedes. The Old Swedes weren't supposed to have been sent to Siberia in the first place. Probably the Old Swedes were confused with Germans. Appeals were sent to Moscow and the Old Swedes were allowed to leave and move back to Ukraine after only one and a half year in Siberia.
Anna Sigalet also told us something else. A few years ago one of the Old Swedes applied at the Swedish embassy in Kiev for permission to immigrate to Sweden to live with relatives there. The application was denied so this woman still lives in Ukraine. The Old Swedes see themselves as Swedes. If must feel strange to them to find out that the Swedish authorities see them as Ukrainians. We are not taking sides here saying that the decision of the embassy is wrong or anything. We only wish to point out that it must be a strange feeling for a person, who her entire life thought of herself as being Swedish, to find out she is not.
We followed Anna Sigalet to the church. When we arrived there we met some of the
The interior of the church
other Old Swedes who live in Gammalsvenskby, Maria Malmas included. We sat down and kept on talking to Anna and Maria while we waited for the tour group. When the bus with the tourists arrived Anna told us to come along and greet the visitors. So when the tour left their bus we were standing in the "welcoming committee". That was an odd feeling. It somehow felt like we were on the wrong side. Maybe we had unknowingly been dubbed honorary Old Swedes for the day? We stood in the back and happily watched the show take place there in front of the church. When the tour group left the bus and started to shake hands with the Old Swedes it really was more of a show or theatre than a real welcome. I think we had a more honest welcome, less of a rehearsed theatre, when we arrived in Gammalsvenskby.
After a short welcoming ceremony the tour group, the Old Swedes and us all walked into the church. There the priest held the introductions and explained a little about the history of Gammalsvenskby, all translated from Ukrainian into Swedish by Maria Malmas. After the speech the Old Swedes
gathered in front of the church and sang two songs, hymns I think they both were, and then the Old Swedes and the tour group went to have lunch together. We could not join them for lunch because we had to leave for the bus back to Berislav and on to Kherson.
That was story of how we met some genuine Old Swedes in Ukraine. Something that soon will not be possible to do.
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