INTERVIEW: 'We know there are Russian tanks in Ukraine's Swedish village'

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
INTERVIEW: 'We know there are Russian tanks in Ukraine's Swedish village'
A sign for Gammalsvenskby in Ukraine, featuring the Swedish national symbol, the three crowns (tre kronor). Photo: Дзюбак Володимир, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

In April, Russian troops arrived in Gammalsvenskby, a village in Ukraine's Kherson Oblast populated by the descendents of Swedish farmers relocated in 1781 from Estonia. We spoke to Jörgen Hedman, who has written books on the village, about what's happened since.


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. Their descendents in Sweden, and other interested people, have kept in touch with the village over the years through the Föreningen Svenskbyborna. 

According to Hedman, who has written several books on the village, at least 50 of the 2,000 villagers came up to Sweden in April and May, as about 60 percent of the inhabitants fled to move west, with most settling on the island of Gotland, where they had relatives. 

Jörgen Hedman at the Bookfair in Gothenburg representing Svenskbyborna. Photo: private

He said it had mainly been women and children who had fled the village. 

Although the Russians in the village arrived in April, it was only in June that the roads were closed, preventing those remaining from leaving for Ukrainian-held territory. Svenskbyborna have had daily contact with the village through satellite telephone and encrypted messages, Hedman says, giving them a good understanding of the situation. 

"The situation is hard today. The Russian military has occupied the empty houses and the school and nursery, and there are Russian tanks and Russian military in the village itself," he says.


"And we also know that the front line is just some 10 to 15 kilometres north-northwest of this village, and we know that the Ukrainian offensive is pushing on. Our fear is that battle lines will go straight through the village." 


Who is left behind in the village now? 

Hedman estimates that around 60 percent of the village's 2,000 inhabitants -- some of which are Swedish and some German --  have fled to Europe, with 40 percent remaining. 

He describes those remaining as "elderly people, those caring for the elderly people, farmers who don't want to leave their farms and cattle and so on, and quite a number of families with small children".

He estimates that only 20 to 30 of the 750 or 800 remaining are of Swedish origin, and that about 10 of the village's young men have been killed in the fighting. 


Föreningen Svenskbyborna has concentrated on supplying the village's elderly care home with medicines and other materials. 

"We are especially grateful to the people who have been staying and caring for the elderly people," he said. "We consider them very brave to stay and care for the elderly people who are really left behind and can't leave."

What has life been like under the occupation?

Hedman said that his impression was that Russian troops had generally "behaved quite well". 

"One Russian officer came up to a family and advised them that their daughter should not have such tight clothes on because he was a father himself of daughters and he knew how soldiers could react," he said.

 The location of Gammalsvenskby in Ukraine on the Dniepr river. Map: Google Maps

He said the Russian occupation of empty homes and a threat to shoot the village's dogs had caused some uneasiness, but that overall the situation had remained calm, with the Russians dependent on the villagers for selling them potatoes and meat. 

"They say that they can feel that the young Russian soldiers are very frightened, and they are drinking a lot and so on," he said. "The fear is that if they are driven out they could retaliate by destroying homes and so on, but nothing of that kind [has happened] yet.


What happened during the sham referendum to annex Kherson? 

The people of Gammalsvenskby refused to take part in the referendum, and Hedman believes the Russian troops largely understood and accepted this. 

"They closed themselves in their homes and said 'we don't want to take part in this'," he said. "They are pro-Ukrainian. And they say also loudly that ‘we are proud Ukrainians’".

The hybrid Lutheran/Orthodox church in Gammalsvenskby. Photo: Jörgen Hedman

There was, he said, "no reaction at all" from the Russians to this. "They let them be, also when they didn't want to take part if it. They didn't force them to vote. I think the Russians understood that it didn't matter. There were only 40 percent of the inhabitants left there and the outcome of the referendum was given already, so it didn't matter." 

How much Swedish culture have they preserved over the centuries?

You might expect the residents to have forgotten their Swedish culture over the last 300 years, but Hedman said that the Swedes in the village had "largely kept to themselves". 

"They have kept their customs, especially when a child has a Christian baptism, and at weddings and especially funerals and so on. But there is a decreasing number of Swedes, and Swedish was only spoken at home until 1992, when a Swedish teacher from Gotland began to teach Swedish in the school."

Although only "one or two families" speak Swedish at home, and those are mostly elderly, young people in the village have been taught Swedish in school right up until February when the invasion took place. 


"The young people like it, as it has given them an opportunity to make a connection to the West," Hedman said. "I have the feeling that the young people who learn Swedish and English may leave, but they would have left anyway. Some of them dream of going to Kyiv or Lviv and work for companies where they can use their language skills in English and in Swedish. And one could say that the whole of Ukrainian society has turned West, especially after 2014." 

He said it was possible to understand their Swedish, if you "have a feeling for the Swedish dialects from Gotland or from Dalarna or the Swedish dialect in Finland".

What happens if the village remains on Russian territory after the war?

Hedman said that, in the long-term, his fear is that the village will end up remaining under Russian control after the war is finished. 

"If Gammalsvenskby remains on occupied Russian territory, I think the connection will be very hard to keep up. And I don't think that the Russians would like Swedes to come there from Sweden," he said.

Even if Ukraine manages to take it back in its current advance, there could be problems. 

"It would be also probably some kind of border area, or quite close to the border. That means that it will be possible to to go there, but I think the Ukrainians will find it hard to forgive the Russians for what they have done and I think this will shape the whole future for this area." 


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