How has war changed life for Ukraine's Swedish-speaking village?

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected]
How has war changed life for Ukraine's Swedish-speaking village?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Volodymyr Dzyubak

Gammalsvenskby, or 'Old Swedish Village', lies in Kherson Oblast, one of four regions illegally annexed by Russia following staged referendums at the end of September. Here's how Russia's invasion has affected the villagers.


Who lives in Gammalsvenskby?

The residents of Gammalsvenskby are the descendents of Swedish farmers who were forcibly relocated in 1781 from Dagö in present-day Estonia to Ukraine. Over the years, they retained their Swedish language and culture to some extent, with around 900 villagers moving to Sweden – mainly Gotland, Västergötland and Småland – in 1929.

Around 240 returned to Ukraine, and around 70 emigrated to Canada.

How have they been affected by the war in Ukraine?

Gammalsvenskby is located in Kherson Oblast, one of four regions illegally annexed by Russia on Friday following staged referendums.

Sofia Hoas, chairman for Föreningen Svenskbyborna (Swedish Town Residents' Association), told public broadcaster SR on September 27th that the villagers had refused to take part in the staged referendum on annexation by Russia, deciding instead to lock their doors and gates and let dogs out into their gardens as a deterrent.


"They'd gone from house to house with armed soldiers to carry out this referendum," she told SR, "but the villagers had decided to close their gates and doors and not let them in."

"So they went inside their houses, apart from a brave few who went outside to say 'we're not going to vote'."

"They're proud that they dared to do this," she told SR, adding that "you can't vote under the circumstances they're in, not least if you have a Kalashnikov to your neck, so we've told people to do what is safest for them."

"It's a fraught situation right now," she continued, "the Ukrainian offensive is moving forwards, but they're between the offensive and the Dniepr river, the village is on the banks of the Dniepr, very close to a strategic bridge."

"So they're a bit out of the way, but at the same time, right in the middle of the front line. So it's a nervous wait right now and they're hoping to be liberated," she told the broadcaster. 

What has happened since Russia illegally annexed the area?

On September 30th, Russia declared that they had annexed the four Ukrainian regions of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk.

Writing in the Facebook group for those who live in and support the village, chairman Sofia Hoas described September 30th as "a heavy day in the history of Gammalsvenskby", sharing reports from the association's contacts in the village.

"The villagers are saying they're under great moral stress," she said, "they're not going to be able to freely express their opinions".

Their currency, the Ukrainain Hryvna will also "disappear and be replaced with the Russian Ruble", she said, adding that this has caused supermarkets to close in Beryslav, the closest small town.

"Since Monday [September 26th], cash withdrawals using bank cards have not worked. There are going to be big problems with buying food, hygiene products and medicine," Hoas said.

The occupying forces have also threatened to introduce taxes, which they will enforce under armed threat, Hoas writes.


"They say they will start using the Russian curriculum and are going to force their heraldry on us. We want the Ukrainian flag and Zmiivkas, our local state's coat of arms, in Gammalsvenskby."

The villagers are also worried that Ukrainians will now be mobilised to fight in the Russian army, Hoas said. "We think Russia wants to stop the West from reacting to annexation. And there's a risk that Ukraine won't dare to continue their counteroffensive, as Russia can argue through the annexation that they have the right to protect themselves with Russian nuclear weapons".

How can I help the people of Gammalsvenskby?

The Svenskbyborna foundation have a long tradition of carrying out humanitarian work in Gammalsvenskby, including language support, support for children and the elderly and donations to the village's churches, school and care homes.

Since the Russian invasion, the foundation has set up a special fundraiser as well as networks of organisations and individuals to provide supplies to the village.

You can donate to their fundraiser, if you wish, via plusgiro: 187879-2 or via Swish to 123 437 61 41.


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