Who are the Volhynian Czechs?

Zdeněk Štěpánek was probably one of the most famous Czech theater and film actors of the 20th century. But he was also a veteran. While serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, he found himself on the Eastern Front, which then ran through what is now Western Ukraine. And there he experienced an unexpected incident, which he remembered in his memoirs many years later:

Zdeněk Štěpánek |  Photo: František Kutta, Ročenka Kruhu solistů Městských divadel pražských 1925, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

“Our platoon was ordered to go to the village of Malinovka, about fifteen versts away (obsolete Russian unit with a length equivalent to 1.0668 kilometers), to find out if there was an enemy presence, and to make a report. The village was deserted, only here and there a forgotten chicken wandered in the yard. I entered one of the buildings, and imagine my surprise when I was greeted on the doorstep by a tall- father with white hair and a little hunched over. He moved here many years ago from a village near Jedovnice. He offered me some milk, then put his hand under his shirt and handed me a newspaper with a strange, almost wicked smile in his eyes. I looked at him in amazement: Czech-Slav! A Czech-language newspaper printed and published in Russia!”

This old man was one of some 16,000 Czechs and Moravians who came to Ukraine in the late 1860s. They were mostly poor farmers who hoped to improve their lives by promising them cheap and fertile land. Their immigration was then supported by the Russian authorities.

Tsar Alexander II |  Source: Library and Archives of Canada, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Tsar Alexander II acceded to the imperial throne in 1855. He wanted to liberalize the ossified system of the Russian monarchy. As the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in Western Europe and the United States, it became painfully clear that Russia, with its largely agriculture-based economy, was falling behind the rest of the rapidly industrializing Western powers. .

Thus, Alexander II decided to administratively abolish serfdom, which had been the basis of the socio-economic system in Russia from time immemorial. However, this led to the near collapse of many huge estates owned by the nobility and cultivated by serfs. Russia desperately needed a new class of skilled farmers ready to introduce new modern farming techniques.

There is also another factor that pushes the Russian authorities to encourage immigration. Part of Poland was under Russian control. In 1863 Polish patriots launched what would become the January Uprising. The uprising, however, failed and was bloodily suppressed by the Russian authorities. Much of the land in what is now Western Ukraine belonged to Polish aristocrats who rebelled against the Tsar. Many of them were executed or sent to Siberian exile and their property confiscated. As a result of this, Alexander II had a lot of land that needed to be resettled and cultivated.

Volhynian Czechs |  Photo credit: Tomáš Vlach, Czech Radio

According to the Association of Czechs of Volhynia and their friends, the famous Czech historian František Palacký met Tsar Alexander during his visit to Moscow in 1867 as head of the Czech delegation to the “All-Russian Ethnographic Exhibition”. . It is not certain, but there was probably a discussion about the possible Czech “colonization” of western Ukraine.

What is certain is that back in Bohemia and Moravia, the departure of the Czechs began to be organized after the return of the delegation from Moscow. The effort was led by a certain František Přibyl, who had been an administrator of the aristocratic Schwarzenberg family in southern Bohemia, and a former teacher, Josef Olič. Czech “colonization” then proceeded quite quickly: in the first ten years, Czechs either settled or immigrated to about a hundred villages in Ukraine. In subsequent years, Czech-speaking communities continued to settle in other regions, and according to the Association of Czechs in Volhynia and their friends, there were Czech-speaking communities in 634 municipalities before the Second World War.

Bohemka, Ukraine |  Photo: Andrej Jančík, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

A particular chapter in this process of immigration and resettlement was the arrival of Czech Protestants who had lived in western Poland since the 18th century. Alexander Drbal, a Ukrainian-Czech, spoke to Czech National Public Radio a few years ago:

“Our ancestors left the Czech lands in the 18th century, more precisely in 1743. They first moved to Prussian Silesia and from there to Poland, where they founded the city of Zelow in 1803. And from there they moved traveled to Ukraine in 1862. Some went to the city of Brod, through Galicia and Volyn, and settled in southern Ukraine, while others passed through Crimea, founding there villages. About four settlements in southern Ukraine were founded by Czech Protestants from Zelow. In 1905 the village Bohemka was founded, and it still exists today.”

Nevertheless, most Czechs in Ukraine were Catholic. They managed tens of thousands of hectares of land, thousands of hectares of forests and made a significant contribution to the overall economic development of the regions where they settled. The Association of Czechs in Volhynia and their friends claim to have built “16 breweries, 5 sugar refineries, 1 cement works, 107 mills, 27 large machine shops, 32 dairies and a large but undetermined number of small craft workshops”. They also built their own schools and founded social organizations:

Volhynian Czechs of the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade |  Photo: Memory of the Nation

“The Czech community was very lively there. There were Czech firefighters, theater associations, etc. And then Czech associations were created, such as the Czech Beseda in Zdolbunov and the Czech Association of Jan Amos Comenius in Kiev in 1906. Newspapers were published such as Czecho-Slav, formerly Russian Czech They tried to publish Czech-Ukrainian newspapers in the city of Čechohrad in the 1930s. compatriots could organize their life as a compatriot bit “explains Alexandr Drbal.

However, after the Bolshevik revolution and especially Stalin’s rise to power, repression began to upset the life of the Czech community in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian Czechs ended up in the “Gulag” concentration camps. The scheme primarily targeted the more educated and socially active members of the Czech community.

During World War II and the Nazi occupation, the Ukrainian Czechs again suffered. Ethnic Czechs who served in the Red Army then took the opportunity to enlist from 1943 in the 1st Independent Czechoslovak Brigade (later the Army Corps), which was formed under the command of Ludvík Svoboda . After the fighting ended in 1945, they remained in Czechoslovakia, and many other Volhynian Czechs took the opportunity to move to Czechoslovakia after the war, which was made possible by a new treaty between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

However, several thousand still remain in Ukraine. Czech NGOs are trying to help them through the current crisis. By early March 2022, 88 Czech-speaking Ukrainians had already been evacuated from Ukraine to the Czech Republic, and preparations are underway for further evacuations.

Berta D. Wells