Learning Swedish in the Ukraine

Four times a week, in the village of Gammalsvenskby in Southern Ukraine, villagers of all ages gather together at the end of the school day. It’s time for their next Swedish lesson. Why?

The clue is in the village’s name:

Gammal – old, svensk – swedish, by – village

Gammalsvenskby is an old Swedish village.

240 years ago, as the Russian Empire expanded southward into Ottoman territories, settlers were needed to populate the newly conquered lands, known as Novorossiya or New Russia.

One group ready to move was the thousand-strong Swedish speaking population of Dagö, an island in modern-day Estonia, who were in dispute with their landlord. The long journey south was arduous and half of them died en route. Cultivating the new lands was difficult and within two years the population was down to 136, but they recovered and made a prosperous village.

The Bolshevik Revolution, civil war, famine, purges and finally the Second World War decimated the village. Most villagers who could leave, went ‘back’ to Sweden or on further to Canada but a few stayed on. Now there are only three ladies left for whom Swedish is a first language, but a new generation of Swedish speakers are emerging. I went to the school to meet their teacher Larisa and some of her students.

I wanted to talk to them about why they were spending their free time learning Swedish. Although Larisa speaks very good English, she was clearly determined to do the best by her students and made sure this was going to be a lesson. Of course we could all talk, but we would do it in Swedish …

I know some basic Swedish, thanks to my other half and her relatives, but now I was in at the deep-end and wondered if I’d be thrown enough linguistic buoyancy aids to ‘swim’.

But I needn’t have worried. With help from Larisa and the patience of everyone, we had a pretty good chat.

My new classmates…

So why are my new fellow classmates learning Swedish? For one 15-year-old girl, it was clear, she wanted to do broaden her horizons and travel to Sweden to study and then maybe work. But for the older students, learning Swedish was a chance to connect with their roots and not just in an abstract way.

Links between the villagers who stayed and emigres (or their relatives) have been fostered through Svenskbyborna, an association based on the Swedish island of Gotland. Every year, Swedes come to the village, many retracing their ancestors’ footsteps, and spend a few days living with one of the families.

I ask what feels like a cheeky question. All Swedes speak English right? So why not learn English and then it would be easy to take in guests from other countries as well? Of course, this would be a sensible idea in the same way it would be sensible for everyone to just give up their own languages and speak English or perhaps Mandarin.

As it stands, non-Swedish visitors to Gammalsvenskby are few and far between and are certainly unlikely to arrive on a tour bus. A couple of years back, Larisa saw a guy standing at the bus stop who clearly wasn’t a local. She asked him in English if he was a tourist. “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller” was his Livingstonian reply.

It was time for me to say goodbye to my new classmates and go for a wander around the village. Gammalsvenskby, which is part of the wider settlement of Zmiivka, also includes three other old villages which had been set up by German settlers. However, none remained after the Second World War so the only evidence they were here is in the buildings.

Zmiivka commands a dramatic view of the Dnieper river and is mostly made up of modest single story houses. Each has a garden to grow fruit and veg as well as a yard for chickens, geese and an apparently mandatory dog.

The most striking buildings in the village are the Soviet-era library and the cultural centre. For a community of around 2,400 people, they are much grander than you might get in Western Europe, but therein lies the problem – maintenance. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the more recent hostilities with Russia, buildings like these have fallen into disrepair.

Whilst repairing the village’s public buildings may feel urgent to a visitor, for locals there are more immediate concerns. Since the war with Russia and the loss of the coal mining areas in Ukraine, heating homes during winter has become a real worry. So the
Svenskbyborna association is looking to provide practical support with planting fast growing willow which will make them more self-sufficient, not to mention the environmental benefits.

The association is also planning to set up a museum in the village which they hope to open in May 2020.

As a longer term aim, they have looked into possible land reform to make sure the locals have more than basic subsistence plots. However first things first: a democracy project has been initiated to empower the locals in the village to take charge of and run whatever the association helps to provide.

It isn’t just the buildings that need work. Last summer water from the village wells was sent to Sweden for analysis and found to be not fit for drinking.

So who will carry out the work? A quarter of the villagers are pensioners and about 100 people from the village are currently working in Poland, probably back-filling for the Poles working in Germany, UK or even Sweden. But in the long chain of migration, the village has it’s own immigrant, Enoch from Zimbabwe, although I unfortunately didn’t manage to track him down.

Wandering around the village on a spring day it’s hard not to feel optimistic, albeit slightly impatient that the village hasn’t already opened its museum and thereby had a means of sharing it’s story with the wider world. After all, the Swedes are just one chapter of a story that goes back to neolithic times.

For the Greeks this was on the Amber Road that connected the Black Sea with the Baltic. Archaeological digs have found treasures here which are kept in the Kherson Museum. The story of the Scythian, Tatar, Cossack, Russian, Ukrainian, German and yes, Zimbabwean settlers should to be told.

By telling their story, there’s an opportunity for everyone, visitors and locals to learn about what makes this village special. It is also a chance to rethink our understanding of migration, nationhood and what it means to belong somewhere.

So when the museum opens, I intend to be it’s first visitor – as a tourist and not a traveller.

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