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The former Swedish church in Gammalsvenskby. St John's Lutheran parish church has been rebuilt and serves as an Orthodox church today.
The location of the village in Ukraine.

Verbivka (Standard Swedish: Gammalsvenskby, local Swedish dialect: Gammölsvänskbi; literally: "Old Swedish Village"; Ukrainian Старошведське, Staroshveds'ke; German Alt-Schwedendorf) is now part of the village of Zmiivka (Ukrainian: Зміївка, Russian: Змеевка) in Beryslav Raion of Kherson Oblast, Ukraine which has a Swedish cultural heritage. Zmiyivka also includes three former villages settled by ethnic Germans. These were the two Lutheran villages of Schlangendorf and Mühlhausendorf and the Roman Catholic village of Klosterdorf. In the nineteenth century, the whole region, and large parts of southern Russia contained villages settled by Germans belonging to various Protestant faiths, particularly Lutherans and Mennonites, as well as Roman Catholics. Askania-Nova biosphere reserve is nearby.


  • The founding of Gammalsvenskby 1
  • Maintaining the Swedish heritage 2
  • The Russian revolution 3
  • Soviet period 4
  • Gammalsvenskby today 5
  • See also 6
  • External links and further reading 7

The founding of Gammalsvenskby

The population of Gammalsvenskby traces its origins to Hiiumaa (Dagö) in present-day Estonia, once a part of the Realm of Sweden. Under the Russians, in the time of Catherine II of Russia, the Swedish-speaking population left the island in August 1781 destined for new lives in the newly conquered territories known as New Russia, in present-day Ukraine. Enticed there by promises being granted fertile new land, they trekked overland to southern Ukraine, as colonists for new territories Russia had won from the Ottoman Empire. While some sources call the Estonian Swedes' migration an outright expulsion from their Baltic homeland, other accounts stress the fact that these poor and oppressed serf farmers were made what to them must have seemed a generous offer for that era. Regardless of the impetus, the outcome of this mass migration was, however, disastrous. Many of the nearly 1,000 villagers died on the march to their new home. On arrival, they found no trace of the houses they had expected to find. Moreover, in their first year in Ukraine, an even larger portion of the settlers died. According to the records of the Swedish congregation, of the original thousand or so who had set out for Ukraine 18 months earlier, only 135 people remained alive by March 1783, a terrible near-decimation of their numbers.

Maintaining the Swedish heritage

Three neighbouring villages were founded in the years 1803 to 1805 by German colonists: Schlangendorf, Mühlhausendorf and Klosterdorf. Prince Potiomkin gave a wooden church to the Swedes. Sometime in the mid-19th century it was destroyed by fire. As a consequence of the later arrival of the Germans and their own losses during migration, the Swedes were soon outnumbered by the German newcomers. As a result, in later years many of the pastors and teachers serving the area were German. This, along with a growing shortage of arable land caused the relations between the Gammalsvenskby Swedes and the nearby German villages to become rather strained at times.

Although contacts with Sweden were virtually nonexistent for nearly a century, the people of Gammalsvenskby maintained their traditions and their Lutheran (Church of Sweden) faith. They also kept their old Swedish dialect. At the end of the 19th century, some ties were reestablished. Considerable funds were raised in Sweden and Finland to build a new Swedish church. The resulting parish church of St John was opened in 1885. For a time, before the revolutions following World War I, visits from Sweden became rather frequent, and some villagers even subscribed to Swedish newspapers.

The Russian revolution

Caricature on the Gammalsvenskby returnees published in the Communist newspaper Folkets Dagblad Politiken August 1929. The picture portrays the settlers as fair-entertainers, being put to display at a community fair in Ljungby.
World War I once again cut off the communication channels. After the Russian revolution, the villagers pleaded for the right to leave the Soviet Union and settle in Sweden, where their case had been adopted by a movement with a nationalist flavour, supported by Archbishop Nathan Söderblom. On August 1, 1929, around 900 villagers arrived in Sweden. Just a handful had opted to remain in Gammalsvenskby. Nearly a hundred soon moved on to Canada, a country to which earlier emigrants from Gammalsvenskby had gone. Most of them settled in Manitoba. Some later returned to Sweden.

The majority of the villagers stayed in Sweden, many of them settling in Gotland. Despite their common origins, they were not allowed to stay in a single, common settlement. Considered immigrants in a country in the middle of a severe economic crisis, they were sometimes met with hostility. Soon, some of the villagers started to talk about going back to the Soviet Union. Actively persuaded by the Communist Party of Sweden, the first families left before the end of 1929.

Soviet period

In total, around 250 villagers chose to return to the Soviet Union. Together with members of the Communist Party of Sweden, they established a minor collective farm called Svedkompartiya – the Swedish Communist Party.

In 1929, the church was closed by the Soviet government. Life in the Soviet Union turned out to be hard. The famine of 1932–1933 renewed interest in the idea of returning to Sweden – some villagers signed a list stating that they wanted to leave the country. This led to the arrest of 20 people by the secret police, the GPU. Five of them were sent to prison. Several villagers were killed in the Stalinist purge of the following years.

When the German army marched into the village on August 25, 1941, the soldiers were welcomed as liberators. With the retreat of the German army in 1943, the Swedes were evacuated along with the Germans of the area. Many ended up in Krotoschyn in Warthegau in occupied Poland, and nearly 150 were caught by Soviet authorities at the end of the war and sent to labor campsGulags, but were allowed to return to Ukraine as early as 1947. Others managed to go to Sweden or directly back to Gammalsvenskby. After World War II, Schlagendorf became Zmiivka (Snake-village), Mühlhausendorf became Mykhailivka (Michael's village), and Klosterdorf became Kostirka. Gammalsvenskby was renamed Verbivka (Willow-village). In 1951, the church (locally - kircha) became first a club, and later an agricultural storehouse. In 1951, after the exchange of territories by Poland and the Soviet Union, around 2,500 people were relocated to the area from the Drohobych Oblast villages of Lodyna, Dolyshni Berehy, and Naniv. Due to the resulting increase in population, the four villages were united into one larger combined village under the name Zmiivka. The village became home to the largest Boykos diaspora in Kherson Oblast (constituting approximately 80% of villagers). The newly relocated populace was officially prohibited from celebrating their traditional holidays such as Vertep during Christmas. To make matters worse, the locals among whom they were settled considered the newcomers to be Nazi-collaborators.

Gammalsvenskby today

Unofficial coat of arms of Gammalsvenskby by Christopher-Joseph Ravnopolski-Dean
(Lesser) Coat of Arms of Sweden
Coat of Arms of Zmiivka

After the fall of the Soviet Union, contacts with Sweden and Canada were reestablished. The Church of Sweden and Gotland Municipality have lent economic support. In 1996, Chumak, a Swedish-owned producer of oil, ketchup and canned food, was established in the nearby town of Kakhovka. Today, the village has only around 108 people who share a Swedish cultural heritage. Only a few of them still speak the Old-Swedish dialect fluently and German is often used instead. Zmiivka's emblem consists of three crowns (Tre Kronor), the Swedish national symbol, as well as the blue cross on the yellow field. The whole raion of Beryslav is heavily Ukrainianized due to the fact that a lot of people from western Ukraine were resettled here. Local villages include Lvivski Otruby, Lvove, Tarasa Shevchenka, which reflect the resettlement of the west-Ukrainian residents. In 2008, the Swedish King and Queen visited Gammalsvenskby.

Example of local vocabulary
Old-Swedish Swedish English
Pärter Ankor Ducks
Kardefflar Potatis Potatoes
Baglescani Tomater Tomatoes

See also

External links and further reading

  • Stockholmnews:Swedish village in Ukraine (October 2009)
  • The Svenskbyborna society in Sweden (Swedish)
  • A comprehensive history of Gammalsvenskby at the Wayback Machine (archived February 17, 2011)
  • A page about Gammalsvenskby (Swedish)
  • Recent short article on Gammalsvenskby: A Swedish village in Ukraine, in Hidden Europe magazine, May 2006 (Issue 8), pp. 40–43. ISSN 1860-6318. hidden europe
  • Photos from Gammalsvenskby

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