Deported from Estonia to Ukraine
Since sometime during the 14th century, a Swedish population had lived on the island Hiiumaa (sw: Dagö ) in present day’s Estonia. In 1781, the Russian empress Catherine the Great decided that they had to be moved. With a combination of threats and promises, she made the population walk the long way (more then 1000 km) to the village Zmejevka north of the Black Sea.
Kherson, marked on the map, is the nearest major city. Illustration from Google Map.
Around thousand people started the march. Only half of them reached their goal, the rest perished from hunger, cold or diseases. On the arrival they learnt that the empty houses they had been promised were not empty at all. One year after arrival only 135 where still alive, but during the coming decades, their number started to grow again.
Over the years, the Swedish population kept their Swedish identity and their Swedish language. Since they were isolated from a linguistic point of view, their version of Swedish did not develop as in Sweden. They still speak rather similar to 18th century Swedish. Gammalsvenskby is therefore a goldmine for linguists.
Arriving to the village
We arrived in Kherson near Gammalsvenskby by train. One of the villagers met us at the train station with his Lada. It was more than 30 degrees Celsius and the only AC in the car were the open windows. The landscape outside the warm car was spectacular. Yellow fields were reaching beyond sight in every direction. It is hard to imagine that the country known as ‘the breadbasket of Europe’ was struck by one of the worst famines in world history during the 1930ies. But that is another story.
Gammalsvenskby has around 300 inhabitants and is located at the river Dniepr in south Ukraine. On our arrival we got quarters in the house of Anna Annas, one of the few remaining Swedish speakers. Like most of the villagers, she has a fenced garden, a small strip of agricultural land and animals like dogs, ducks, hens and pigs.
Anna Annas. Photo: Maria Andersson
Anna served a typical farmer’s lunch; borsjtj with potatoes and bread with tomatoes. She was the only one we met who spoke ‘old Swedish’ to us. It was a strange feeling to listen to your own language but still not understand every word. Most of the other Swedish speakers had learnt main-land Swedish in school, or in Sweden. But they still speak ´old Swedish´ with each other.
The farm of Anna Annas, with a Swedish flag. Photo: Maria Andersson
Lily’s memories: Painful but interesting
We paid a visit to Lily Hansas, the oldest person in the Swedish speaking community. She was born in Gammalsvenskby in 1923. When we arrived to her little house, she felt sick. It was a very hot day and her water supply had been closed down.
Lily Hansas. Photo: Maria Andersson
We sat down in her living room and she told us her story. Lily came to Sweden, as so many other villagers, in 1929. That year, several hundred Swedes from the village were allowed to leave the Soviet Union, just weeks before Stalin closed the border for good. They went by boat from the Black sea to the south part of Sweden. When they arrived to Sweden most of them worked on farms, but Lily’s memories are not very clear:
- I was only six years old. Father went to his work on the farm and mother milked the cows. I was only running after my mother’s back, holding her skirt”, Lily said in clear Swedish.
Most of the Swedes from the Ukrainian village stayed in Sweden but a few returned in 1931. There was a financial depression in the West and no jobs. The immigrants were victims of xenophobia and for communist propaganda saying that life was excellent in Soviet Union and that they should go back.
Lily could also not remember much from the time when she and her family came back to the Soviet Union. We could sense the same unwillingness to remember that particular time also with other people we met in the village. Stalin and the Soviet time in general are perhaps still too sensitive issues to talk about. It was like they still feared that Stalin somehow could hear them and punish them if they said something ‘wrong’. Or perhaps they just did not want to remember.
Listening to Lily Hansas was interesting. Her Swedish was clear and very close to main-land Swedish. But from time to time she mixed in German and Ukrainian words.
The meeting at the elderly-home
After saying good bye Lily Hansas, we went to the home for elderly people in the village. There we met two Swedish-speaking old ladies; Melitta Portje Prasolova and Lydia Utas. We sat down in the shadow out in the nice garden and interviewed them in front of the curious eyes of their fellow residents.
Melitta Portje Prasolova and and Lydia Utas. Photo: Maria Andersson
Melitta was only three years old when she followed her parents to Sweden in 1929. She came back a couple of years later to a country in famine. Their story reminds of so many others, not only in Gammalsvenskby, but in the region as a whole.
During the Second World War they were taken to Germany since they were genetically related to the Germans according to the Nazis. After the war they were deported to Siberia. Melitta didn’t return to the village until 1954. Her life after Siberia was hard. She worked as a tractor driver on the kolkhoz for many years.
- At that time, we really had to work. In the morning when the sun went up, we started and we worked until the night. At the time, I had two small children, Melitta said.
Lydia Utas is a timid little lady with a low-voice. Her background was somehow tragic. Before she got a place at the elderly home, she had a desperate economic situation. One of our co-travelers with roots in the village said that she lost all her weight and had to walk around and beg in the village. As for so many others in this region, alcohol was the root to her problems. But despite her low, almost inaudible voice, her Swedish was in fact clearer than that of Melitta.
Will the ‘old-Swedish´ survive?
Those who speak ‘gammelsvenska’, the old version of Swedish are all very old. In the age of globalization and new possibilities, young people see no reason to learn it, which we find understandable. Therefore it is probable that the old version of Swedish will disappear soon as a living language.
But the Swedish heritage of the village makes it special. It is not common that a small village on the Ukrainian countryside gets buses full of Swedish farmers (wanting to learn agricultural techniques used in the region), visits from backpackers (mostly Swedish), linguistics and people generally interested in history.
Recently they even got broadband in the village’s school building. It was financed by pupils in a Swedish school at Gotland, where there is a substantial group of people who is descendants to those who came to Sweden in 1929.
Tourism means a lot for the village from an economical point of view. That might be one of the reasons why they actually do teach Swedish as an optional subject in the school in the village. But then they teach modern Swedish, the old version will unfortunately die with Melitta, Lydia, Lily, Anna and a few others.
Some examples of ´old-Swedish´ words that differ completely from Swedish
Tommie Ullman Mats Öhlén