Who are the Volhynian Czechs?

Volhynian Czechs

It may surprise you to know that Ukraine has its own Czech-speaking community. Although they are collectively called "Volhynian Czechs", their ancestors settled not only in the Volhynia region in the West of the country, but also in Crimea. Many of these Czech-speaking Ukrainians took advantage of the opportunity to repatriate to their ancestral homeland after World War II, as well as after the fall of Communism in 1989. Nevertheless, several thousand Czechs continue to live in Ukraine and are now experiencing the hardships of war, as is the rest of the country, due to the Russian invasion. Vít Pohanka has their story.

Zdeněk Štěpánek was probably one of the most famous Czech theater and film actors of the 20th century. But he was also a war veteran. While serving in the Austrian-Hungarian army during the First World War, he found himself on the Eastern front, which then went through today's Western Ukraine. And there he experienced an unexpected incident, which he recollected 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 (an obsolete Russian unit of length equivalent to 1.0668 kilometres) away, to find out if there was any enemy presence, and to file a report. The village was deserted, only here and there a forgotten chicken wandered around the yard. I entered one of the buildings, and imagine my surprise when I was greeted on the doorstep by a white-haired and somewhat hunched-over grandfather. He moved here many years ago from a village near Jedovnice. He offered me some milk, then reached under his shirt and handed me a newspaper with a strange, almost wicked smile in his eyes. I looked at it with amazement: Czecho-Slav! A Czech-language newspaper printed and published in Russia!"

This old man was one of the approximately 16,000 Czechs and Moravians who came to Ukraine in the late 1860s. They were mostly poor farmers hoping to improve their lives with the promise of cheap and fertile land. Their immigration was supported by the Russian authorities at that time.

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. With the Industrial Revolution in full–swing in Western Europe and the United States, it was becoming painfully obvious that Russia, with its largely agriculture-based economy, was falling behind the rest of the rapidly industrializing Western powers.

So, Alexander II decided to administratively abolish serfdom, which had been the basis of the socio-economic system in Russia since time immemorial. This, however, led to the near-collapse of many huge estates owned by the nobility that were cultivated by serfs. Russia desperately needed a new class of skillful farmers willing to introduce new and modern agricultural techniques.

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

Volhynian Czechs | Repro photo: Tomáš Vlach,  Czech Radio

According to the Association of Czechs from Volhynia and Their Friends, famous Czech historian František Palacký met Tsar Alexander during his visit to Moscow in 1867 as the head of the Czech delegation at the “All Russia 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 delegation came back from Moscow. The effort was led by a certain František Přibyl, who had been administrator of the Schwarzenberg aristocratic family in the South of Bohemia, and a former teacher, Josef Olič. The Czech "colonization" then proceeded quite quickly: in the first ten years, the Czechs either established or immigrated to about a hundred villages in Ukraine. In the following years, Czech-speaking communities continued to settle in other areas, and, according to the Association of Czechs from Volhynia and Their Friends, there were Czech-speaking communities in 634 municipalities before World War II.

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

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

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

Nevertheless, most Czechs in Ukraine were Catholics. 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 areas where they settled. The Association of Czechs from Volhynia and Their Friends states that they built "16 breweries, 5 sugar refineries, 1 cement mill, 107 mills, 27 large machine shops, 32 dairies, and a large but unspecified 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 alive there. There were Czech fire brigades, theater associations, and so on. And then Czech associations were established, such as the Czech Beseda in Zdolbunov and the Czech Association of Jan Amos Comenius in Kyiv in 1906. Newspapers were published such as Czecho-Slav, formerly  Russian Czech. They tried to publish Czech-Ukrainian newspapers in the town of Čechohrad in the 1930s. It must be said that until 1928, even in the Soviet Union, compatriots could organize their compatriot life a bit ", says Alexandr Drbal.

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

During World War II and the Nazi occupation, the Ukrainian Czechs suffered again. Those ethnic Czechs who served in the Red Army then took the opportunity to enlist from 1943 in the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade (later the Army Corps), which was formed under the command of Ludvík Svoboda. After the end of the fighting in 1945, they remained in Czechoslovakia and many other Volhynian Czechs took the opportunity to leave for 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 the beginning of March 2022, 88 Czech-speaking Ukrainians had already been evacuated from Ukraine to the Czech Republic, and preparations are underway for further evacuations.