I began writing the following in September 2022. With the startling success of Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the eastern region of Kharkiv, observers of the war expected Kherson, the gateway to the Crimean Peninsula, to be the next major theater of operations. February 24, 2023 marked the anniversary of the full-scale Russian war on Ukraine. There are no indications the war will end soon, as both sides prepare for new offensives in the spring.
This essay is a race against the pitiless amoeba oozing towards, engulfing, disgorging names on the bloody map of Russia’s war on Ukraine. One of those village names means both everything and nothing to me. It is a place I feel powerfully connected to while not yet having been there, a mockery of my dallying and a small hope of what might yet be. In the time between writing these words and you reading them, will this place be liberated or destroyed? If freed, what horrors might be discovered there?
Gammalsvenskby, Red Sweden, Zmiivka. Names past and present for this hamlet hugging a sharp crook in the Dnipro River. It is situated, once providentially, now precariously, close to the occupied city of Kherson. It is even closer to the bridge and dam in Nova Kakhova that has been repeatedly attacked by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in an effort to disrupt Russian army supply lines. As I write these words, “my” village is occupied territory and farcically claimed by Russia after its sham “referendum” in that region.
My village. The possessive is presumptuous, and I admit, as indefensible as the town itself may be at this moment. Although I have traveled extensively in Ukraine, I have never been to the Kherson region. I have wanted to visit Zmiivka for several years, since first learning that it had been founded by Estonian-Swedish subjects of the Russian empire in 1782, invited there to resolve the lingering question of their status since the Great Northern War between those two powers. The tiny village has the distinction of being the furthest Swedish settlement to the east of the mother country. In fact, there still may be a few elderly Swedish speakers left in the village. In 2019, I began making plans with Ukrainian friends for a grand driving tour east from Odesa along the Black Sea coast through Mykolaiv and into the Kherson region. Zmiivka was to be the culmination of our journey.
The Kherson region has perhaps the most curious borders of all the administrative oblasts in the country. It is bisected by the Dnipro River as it flows from the northeast, an arm whose elbow bends exactly at Zmiivka, narrowing as it slips into the constricting sleeve of the Nova Kakhovka dam and through Kherson city itself, before finally flexing its fingers, with rivulets and spongy estuary slipping between them, and tumbling into the Black Sea. Renowned for its warm climate, wildlife, and unusual natural features like the Oleshky Sands and several salty lakes whose pink waters are pure Instagram-bait, Kherson is an ideal summer holiday destination. If only its southern border weren’t the disputed frontier of Crimea, illegally occupied by Russia in 2014 and one of the primary causes of the current widespread war.
After months on a static front, an unexpectedly quick Ukrainian offensive at the beginning of October 2022 recaptured some villages in the northern portion of Kherson oblast (the “right bank,” as the river flows), still some distance from Zmiivka. After this initial success, though, there has been little movement while artillery duels grind on.
Tak / Tack: The words for “yes” in Ukrainian and “thank you” in Swedish are nearly identical and overwrite the same register in my brain. Ukraine has become a second home for me in the last decade, with friends, business connections, and now family across the country. My Ukrainian language skills are quite basic, but thanks to my partner and our daughter, who lived in western Ukraine prior to the full-scale war, I can read quite a lot, understand some conversation, and speak enough words to manage running some of our household errands alone. I was among the Americans who had to leave Ukraine suddenly in January 2022 when the embassy warned its citizens to depart immediately due to unmistakable signs of imminent Russian attack. Shortly after the invasion, my family, following our contingency plan, abandoned our apartment with only a couple of backpacks full of essentials, and fled to a neighboring country in Europe, where they wait interminably, frustratingly for documents and visas to reunite permanently, while I divide my time between both places.
Besides my deep ties to Ukraine, as a young adult in the early 1990s, I lived in Sweden for two years in half a dozen cities across the county and retain a lot of the language. Though rusty, I can still read, understand Swedish films without subtitles, and even carry on a lengthy conversation. Adding to what starts to seem like a cosmic coincidence, several years ago I established a consultancy firm in Estonia and travel there periodically.
This unlikely trifecta of personal connections to the same countries as those long-ago peasants and their handful of living descendants drives my obsession with Zmiivka. Unable for now to travel there, I settle for Google Maps and online research, finding a fascinating Swedish academic study, a Ukrainian travel video, and a few brief English tourist articles. But the Ukrainians I’ve spoken to have never heard of this place or its history, and most publications about it have been in Swedish, whether intended for a scholarly or popular audience. For English readers, the Swedish settlement in Ukraine is almost entirely a blank slate. In recent years, I’ve been privileged to be entrusted with personal stories from Ukrainians that served as material for various writing projects. In the future, I would like to write a novel about the settlers of Zmiivka, their joys and their struggles in a new land that must have initially seemed like Canaan but eventually turned hostile. For now, without being there, overlooking its mighty river vista, only fragmented scenes come to me when I think of this place, born of the histories I’ve read, stories I’ve been told by my Ukrainian friends and family, and my own intuitions of how things might have been. To properly honor the past and present people of Zmiivka, I will have to go there.
But I missed my chance as I dithered with life decisions. The pandemic soon followed, and after travel became possible again, there was never a suitable time. That lost opportunity haunts me now as I see this unique place, just another unpronounceable name on a map to many, engulfed in a senseless war. So, instead of planning a route across the southern steppe to speak Swedish in Ukraine, I nervously follow the shifting front line, hoping both to hear and not to hear the name of this village. So far, there has been no news.
Ukraine has asked for radio silence about their troop movements in the Kherson region. Rumors of heavier fighting in the region in recent days seem confirmed: a renewed counter-offensive has begun. Zmiivka lies in its path.
Maps are the toy flipbook of war. Fan the battlefield’s nightly updates rapidly, and the awful advance of death flickers and stutters. But from a distance, linger over a single page and there is a macabre beauty. A nonsensically squiggled line here, a delicate fractal frond there. Every line conceals a mystery: a feint, an exhausted battalion, a field tracked into impassible mud, an over-extended supply line, unexpectedly determined resistance. All the while, the front ebbs and flows mercilessly.
The historic map lines of Zmiivka’s settlers spider across Europe. The first line boldly traces a grueling but hopeful journey from the Swedish island of Dagö, now Hiiumaa in Estonia, its arrowhead culminating at this point in the river surrounded by some of the richest farmland Imperial Russia could offer them. More than a hundred years later, with that empire violently toppled, dashed lines speak of hardship and a desperation to return to Sweden, and soon after, shockingly, for a few of the villagers unhappy with their new circumstances there, a last abortive homecoming to Zmiivka as the Stalinist Terror began its awful crescendo. The map’s final hairlines scratch their way to the secret police headquarters in Kherson city, or far north to Komi in the Soviet Union’s vast gulag.
The extraordinarily fertile fields of Ukraine have beguiled settlers and invading powers alike, before records existed of the blood shed upon them, only to be plowed under to fertilize the next harvest. It can be difficult for outsiders to fathom Ukrainians who today refuse to leave their villages in the eastern provinces of Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Lugansk even as tanks rumble the steppe beneath their feet and missiles roar overhead. The Old Swedes of Gammalsvenskby would understand their fellow villagers, united in their preternatural oneness with this place though separated by the centuries. An invader may pass by or settle in, but the fields must be plowed, or the livestock won’t be fed and the grandchildren in the city won’t have vegetables for the winter.
Lulled by the land’s bounty, the Swedish colonists could be forgiven for not understanding that the latest invader, the atheistic, deeply suspicious Soviet regime, was more interested in remaking their souls than in taking their land (though they would do that too). Persecution of their religion, even more dangerous since it was foreign to that traditionally Orthodox land, was but one tool used to try to bring the anachronistic Swedes to heel. . .
The letter, when it finally arrived, battered along its way from Sweden to Alvina Hinas in Gammalsvenskby, had almost certainly rested first in the hands of the secret police in Kherson. Can’t be helped, I imagine Alvina muttering to herself. They will learn everything anyway, from this or one of our loyal Komsomol youth in the village.
Slipping out of the envelope too easily, the letter unfolded its news in the familiar script of Pastor Kristoffer Hoas. Since helping to orchestrate the colonists’ exodus back to Sweden in 1928 after prolonged conflict with the Soviet regime, he had been in contact with the small band of his former parishioners, such as Alvina in Zmiivka. Disappointed by their reception in their ancestor’s homeland, a small band of colonists had repeated that migration back to their village in Ukraine just a year later.
Alvina read the letter once, and, tossing it into the stove’s flames, returned to the meal she was preparing. Her husband Johan would be home from the fields for lunch, and the children, unable to attend school in Swedish now, would soon come back from tending to the chickens. The smell of meat, acrid with peppers overripe from the Kherson sun and the earthiness of corpulent eggplants, partially assuaged memories of the famine they had just endured.
She would never tell her husband about the letter, though he would not feign surprise when the following Sunday, Alvina walked suddenly to the front of their leaderless flock in the barn where they gathered in place of their damaged, locked church. There were no murmurs of disapproval when she began to intone the Lord’s Prayer in her mother tongue, lingering over the words Tillkomme dit rike. Thy Kingdom come, as they believed, though to do so would mean usurping Stalin and the police who hounded these living relics that vexed their own temporal dogma. Perhaps perseverance and craftiness would deliver them, as it had their ancestors who outwaited and outwitted feudal landlords on Hiiumaa as well as Catherine the Great, her lover and advisor Potemkin, and generations of tsarist officials who tried to pry away their rights as foreign colonists. Now it was the turn of the grubby Soviet local authorities confounded by a proud, stubborn remnant of a hated past.
The Church of Sweden would not ordain women as priests until 1960. Yet, exhorted by her absent pastor, in desperation after the last Lutheran priest of a nearby German church was arrested in 1933, and possessing that rare gift for a peasant foreign woman, a primary school education, Alvina Hinas became the spiritual leader of Gammalsvenskby.
“You cannot be the pastor, but by God’s grace I now ordain you Deaconess. You are called to lead our brothers and sisters in this time of great need.” Alvina repeated the words of Pastor Hoas to herself as the pimply-faced local official in a gun-gray greatcoat and blue and red bestarred cap pulled her youngest son away from her leg at the farmhouse door. They would be her silent chant through her imprisonment for “religious propaganda” and during the trial, where she was miraculously released by the court. She imagined the pastor’s thrilling but poisoned chalice each time she organized meetings, baptized a weepy infant, or read the last rites for those fortunate enough to sleep amidst this tumult. If her pastor and her God had chosen her as the final vessel for their nearly lost tribe, refusal was as impossible for Alvina to imagine as the Dnipro’s waters turning to blood. . .
President Zelenskyy of Ukraine warns of possible Russian plans to destroy the dam at Nova Kakhovka and flood a vast portion of Kherson to cover the retreat of its military.
I recently flew over Hiiumaa on the way home from Tallinn, a breathtaking teardrop of small woods and fields just off the coast. Its northern shore is completely exposed, somewhat dampening the relentless winds and waves of the Baltic Sea from its larger neighbor, the isle of Saaremaa, a popular summer retreat for Estonians and foreign tourists.
I wondered how the Swedes from wave-wracked Hiiumaa felt when arriving at the languorous bend in the Dnipro River at what became their new home. Did its unhurried waters, so unlike the frigid Baltic they knew, seep into their veins, transforming hardscrabble farmers into peasants drunk on the easy abundance of some of the richest farmland in the world? Perhaps they planted watermelons in their first years, a crop that is synonymous with Kherson now, but impossible to grow in the northern climate of their birthplace. How sweet the juice must have been as it dribbled down their chins while they watched the river on late summer evenings, swatting away the flies while the village children romped around them, shouting gleefully in the Swedish that would atrophy in the generations of isolation to follow.
If the dam is destroyed, it likely will not affect Zmiivka directly. The dam is just downriver, but that elbow is bent enough that the water won’t flow far enough backwards. I watch simulations of the projected flood path and note with satisfaction that freshwater to the canal that supplies Crimea to the south will be blocked. Let the occupiers drink the salty Black Sea waters they craved so much.
There has been little news from the front lines until today: rumors aplenty that the Russians are evacuating troops from the Dnipro’s right bank, and possibly deporting civilians to Crimea and much further into Russia. Is anyone left in Zmiivka?
This morning I watched a Russian soldier’s decapitation. Flooding Twitter and the Ukrainian Telegram channels I subscribe to for real-time updates on the war, and set to a throbbing beat, the video shows an explosive floating gracefully after an initial tumble as it clears the drone’s catch. A soldier in the trench below sights something downfield with his rifle scope but is oblivious to his incoming Internet fame. The grenade explodes, and his helmet lands far away after impact, presumably with head attached. The comments were full of appreciation and funny memes. It will be replayed and reposted all day until the next no-longer-shocking video or photos drop.
Cruelty as daily sustenance, sliced into advertisable segments, so easily digestible while sipping my morning tea. The ease with which we consume these tiny bites of war’s ultimate violence is as troubling as it is ironic: the frame rate and resolution of real-life war footage pales in comparison to the first-person shooter game my son is playing right now in the next room, yet both have that same pulsating soundtrack and endlessly spooling comment thread. Reality may increasingly seem a poorer experience than the virtual, and, I fear, the boundaries between the two no longer apparent to many who are not directly impacted by the horrors of modern conflict.
Despite its benefit of bringing unprecedented transparency and awareness to the public, this same distressing hyper-online way of war cynically packages violence into that most valuable commodity in today’s economy: attention. Punchy videos of soldiers dancing to a background of their mates firing a mighty salvo of HIMARS rockets, interspersed with silly cartoon Shiba Inu memes may be morally questionable, but they do channel empathy for the underdog defenders into much-needed humanitarian aid, winter clothing, lifesaving night-vision gear, and drones that have become essential to modern warfare. There is even a project to allow donors around the world to finance ammunition, personalized with a handwritten note to the enemy. I hate that I want to buy a rocket too, while I fantasize about what message mine will bear. “From Zmiivka with Love,” perhaps. In the end, I can’t bring myself to place the order, but I know that if any of my friends or family are killed in the war, I will.
This horrible gamification of war betrays our humanity while it bestows virtual trinkets, like badges or leveled-up armor in a MMORPG, to onlookers yearning to help in some way. But alongside this betrayal of the self, the outward kind that always accompanies war abounds today, too. It’s a complicated reality, where Ukrainian patriots pretend there are no Russian sympathizers when people can always be found to help administer the occupied territory.
There is always a point, though, at which petty collaboration becomes just getting on with life. The children must attend school, no matter what language is spoken or which leader’s portrait peers over the blackboard. The mail must be delivered, and banks must circulate someone’s currency. Somebody has to sell food and essentials, and while most buyers are neighbors, sometimes they are the occupiers. The colonists of Zmiivka had informants in their community as well, and they all in some way had to accommodate the Soviet reality imposed upon them. From afar, I feel sympathy for those today who, out of everyday necessity, must engage in some way with the enemy that surrounds them while their country lies beyond a brutal front line and a severed mobile connection.
Privilege-agony, guilt-grief: watching a war from safety far away while tied to the country by family, friends, colleagues, or just an affinity from travel or study. The burden of half-understanding, of knowing that separation by distance and degree brings a different perspective that might not be shared by Ukrainian friends and family who wait daily for destruction from the skies. Their bravery, fear, despair, determination, and hope for a better future in the face of unimaginable loss and damage are the only perspective that truly matters. Yet, each new air alert message on my phone, each report of a destroyed apartment building is a knot in my stomach. What district in Dnipro City did this morning’s missile hit? What is the address of the volunteer I help there? Why hasn’t he answered my messages?
Potemkin’s remains are being relocated from a Kherson church crypt to Russia, along with statues of their imperialist icons and Soviet heroes.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was designated its successor state under international law. More than thirty years on, Russia has truly earned that title, as it replays the same tired repertoire in the current war: ethnic cleansings, suppression of languages, deportations, risible propaganda, and secret prisons.
The Communists were a hammer pounding human nails into the wall, then flush with the surface, penetrating, boring into wood’s flesh, but keep swinging, comrade, smash-smash until the wall shatters. It matters not what was built or destroyed: only that the hammer is mightier than the nail and always, always keeps swinging. . .
Thump-whack came the NKVD to their door. Their telltale kick-punch left no doubt who Alvina and Johan’s visitors were.
Johan and Alvina threw off the blanket and immediately ran to the wardrobe. Hastily, they donned every warm garment they could find. Johan ran to delay the intruders while Alvina hurriedly stuffed their only bag full of clothes for the children in case they were both taken. Their four children, awoken from the tumult, began to sob, whether from fright or grim understanding. She shoved the bag under the bed of the oldest and kissed them all quickly. “Take as much food as possible with you if you must leave.”
“Hustru,” called Johan from the front of the small farmhouse. “Wife, come.”
She looked back at the children and smiled. She disappeared through the door. The children heard their mother exclaim in a strange voice, “Young man, my name is Deaconess Hinas!”
November 2022: The Russian Defense Minister gave the command to evacuate Kherson and the entire right bank of the Dnipro, the army’s position there having become completely untenable. My thoughts drift to a future kernel of hope seeding Kherson’s bountiful fields.
I stand at the memorial stone, its loamy hue a reflection of the soil that succored and buried the Old Swedes here. My finger traces the first of eighteen names and lingers over its Scandinavian patronymic, Wilhelmsdotter: some Wilhelm’s beloved daughter. I read the Swedish inscription: “To the memory of these innocent Swedish villagers who were removed and disappeared. 1937–1938.” But Alvina Wilhelmsdotter Hinas, double émigré, the last keeper of her people’s rites, did not disappear entirely. Her fate was shared by so many in those horrific years: after her second arrest, she was imprisoned in Kherson and subsequently shot. Her body was discarded in an unknown mass grave with other innocent victims. The last name on the stone belongs to her husband, Johan. One year later he was also shot, leaving the four Hinas children orphans.
Beyond the memorial I see freshly dug graves lining a neighboring field. Like many other occupied settlements in the Russian invasion of 2022, soldiers and villagers alike were hastily dumped into a new set of mass graves. Some bodies bore signs of torture or abuse and cry for a vengeance that will echo through generations. Nothing is forgotten here.
The crumbling, bullet-ridden walls I notice all around Zmiivka will be patched and rebuilt, but their bricks will remember, too. In time, in the shade of the old Lutheran church of the Swedes, a new memorial stone will rise here out of the blood-soaked earth bearing Ukrainian names. Heroes will be celebrated, while collaborators will be punished and face a disappearing of their own, though in my heart, I hope it will be more humane.
I turn away from the Swedish names; before me are a dozen neatly planted fields. The harvest will surely come, as it always does here. I walk between the rows of wheat as they decline slightly, encircled by a dirt track at the far end. Here the grassy bluff drops off more steeply until it meets a narrow stand of trees and a fringe of sand. The river lies at my feet. The Dnipro flows, confident, stately, just as it did more than two centuries ago when it bore the Old Swedes here. Tak. I gaze at these waters that nurtured those ancient souls and will raise a new generation, yes, tack, a thanksgiving prayer for those who sacrificed everything then and now for the new life that will flourish here again.
Zmiivka, Gammalsvenskby, was liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine on November 11, 2022. Since then, I’ve not heard any further news of Zmiivka, except that the largest nearby town with shops and a hospital has suffered repeated damage from artillery fired across the river. As the spring weather begins warming and the mud dries, all eyes are on the long-expected Ukrainian offensive, rumored to include efforts to recover the rest of Kherson oblast and possibly Crimea, just as the residents of Zmiivka and other already freed villages begin planting their famous watermelons in freshly de-mined fields.