Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2017/25 posted by hidden europe on

The Gotland village of Roma has become the cradle of memory for Sweden's historic link with the Black Sea region. The village of Gammalsvenskby in Ukraine was established by migrants from Sweden. The links betweeen Gammalsvenskby and Gotland are very much alive today.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

All roads lead to Rome. Or so they say. And if not Rome, then Roma. But there's more than one Roma. Two years ago we visited a small town in Lesotho which really does take its name from Rome in Italy. Last week, we visited another Roma - this one on the Swedish island of Gotland. It evidently has no connection at all with Rome, and you would probably be hard-pushed to find any Roman Catholics in that Swedish Roma. But it does have a very fine parish church, elements of which date back to the thirteenth century.

In the well-tended church enclosure at Roma, there is a detached wooden bell-tower containing bells which until 1929 hung in a church in a small village near the banks of the River Dnieper in Ukraine. Eleven years ago, we told the story in hidden europe of how in the late eighteenth century Swedish farmers and peasants moved from the Baltic region to the Black Sea lands. There they settled in a community which in time became known at Gammalsvenskby.

Generations later, their descendants accepted an invite from the Stockholm government to relocate to Sweden and this they did in 1929. The Swedes had not had an easy time in the Soviet Union, but community leaders like Lutheran pastor Kristoffer Hoas and his wife Emma created a bond of hope and eventually the Swedes took the plunge and set off for Sweden - a country which none of them had ever visited before.

The move was mediated by the Red Cross. As a symbolic link with the place they were leaving, the Swedes took with them the church bells from Gammalsvenskby which nowadays are kept in the small tower by the church at Roma on Gotland. Many of the migrants who travelled to Sweden in 1929 settled eventually in Gotland. Others moved on to Canada, and a significant number returned to the Soviet Union in 1930 and 1931, having realised that life in the Swedish countryside was far from easy. Those returnees went back to Gammalsvenskby, followed in time by Swedish communists who were taken by the notion of the first Swedish kolkhoz.

The Gotland village of Roma has become the cradle of memory for Sweden's historic link with the Black Sea region. Down on the Dnieper steppes, many in Gammalsvenskby still cherish their village's links with Sweden in general and Gotland in particular. It was a real joy for us last week to meet members of two families whose forebears moved from Gammalsvenskby to Gotland in 1929.

"In a way, the Swedes were used by both pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet media," said Peter Knutas. "Their decision to leave Gammalsvenskby was fuel for anti-Soviet sentiment," he explained. "But the decision of so many to return to the Soviet Union just a year or two later was a gift to the Soviet press."

"Family names like Knutas mark us out as being somehow different," said Peter's mother Christina who has been assiduous in following up the Gammalsvenskby diaspora. She's even been to the Canadian prairies to visit Gammalsvenskby families who settled there.

Sofia Hoas is equally conscious of having a name that has rich Gammalsvenskby associations. We asked if she was related to Kristoffer Hoas.

"Only distantly," Sofia explained. "Kristoffer was a cousin of my grandfather Gustaf Simonsson Hoas."

Sofia is among a keen group of Gammalsvenskby descendants in Gotland who sustain the memory of an extraordinary episode in European history. An exhibition in a simple wooden building across the road from the church in Roma recounts the Gammalsvenskby story. It is a story which has touched the lives of Sofia, Christina and Peter.

"And not just us here," said Sofia. "There are Swedes around the world who can trace their family history back to that community in Ukraine. We get enquiries from around the world," she explained, "often from people with a Swedish family heritage who know of a Black Sea link. But they are often unsure. Some wonder if they have Russian roots. Many people are keen to establish their identity."

"It's an important reminder that migration to Sweden is nothing new," added Peter.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Our thanks to Sofia, Christina and Peter for making us so welcome when we visited Roma last week. The Föreningen Svenskbyborna, the organisation which keeps the memory of the Swedish settlement in Ukraine alive, has a good website with a lot of information (currently only in Swedish). Our original article on the Gammalsvenskby community was published in issue 8 of hidden europe magazine. Copies of that issue are available for sale in our online shop.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.