The history of how Czechs came to be found on the territory of modern Ukraine is closely tied to the rule of the Russian Emperor Alexander II and the epoch of his “Great Reforms” in the 1860s and 1870s.
After the suppression of the Polish uprising in the governorships of the Russian Empire’s Southwestern Krai in 1864, large swaths of land were vacated, confiscated by the authorities from Polish landowners involved in the revolt. Trying to find a counter-balance to Polish influence in the region, the Russian government decided to re-colonise the territory, settling a friendlier and more loyal group of people on it. The choice was made in favour of Czechs living in Austria-Hungary.
In the opinion of Ukrainian scholar Alexander Vlasenko, the main reasons compelling the Czechs to resettle within the Russian Empire were “poverty, landlessness, unemployment, spiritual oppression, and most of all, pro-German politics in the Czech lands. The loss of Moravia caused by the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 also played a decisive role.”
Adding to that, lands in Volyn were cheap and the Czech attitude towards Russia was traditionally sympathetic while liberal reforms undertaken up to that point had significantly improved the country’s image. Moreover, the popularisation of the ideas of Slavic mutuality and pan-Slavism also played a role in the government’s policy. In 1867 the Slavic Assembly was held in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, and a large Czech delegation participated in it since they saw in Russia a friendly Slavic state and mighty empire capable of protecting its subjects if necessary.
On 10 July 1870, Emperor Alexander II signed a decree that not only legally cemented the main principles of the resettlement, but also gave Czechs in the Russian Empire significant benefits. Czech settlers were exempted from paying taxes for five years and from mandatory military service as well as received the right to acquire land as private property and become Russian subjects. Czechs were guaranteed the freedom of religion, permitted to build “fraternal Czech churches” and allowed to create their own schools with instruction in their national language as well as their own bodies of local self-government even as far as setting up Czech municipalities. As the Czechs who came to Volyn called themselves Hussites, the ban on Catholics acquiring land in the Southwestern Krai did not apply to them and Czech land-owners faced no restrictions whatsoever.
With the adoption of this decree, many Bohemian and Moravian peasants eagerly responded to the offer to relocate to the free lands of Volyn. The first colonists appeared there as early as 1868. The Lyudgardovka Colony of 17 families was founded in the Dubensky district of the Volyn Governorate. In 1875 the number of Czech settlers on the Volyn exceeded 19 thousand, and by the late 19th century they already numbered over 27 thousand, which was nearly two-thirds of all Czechs living in the Russian Empire.
Czech immigrants were widely represented in industry, handicrafts, trade, service, education and culture. Most of them were able to attain a standard of living rather high for those times and improve their social status.
The economic well-being of Czechs in their new homeland was significantly higher than that of the population surrounding them. The Czechs brought with them to Volyn new agricultural equipment and technology. As Ukrainian historian Maya Lutai writes in her research, “each Czech-peasant had in his yard the necessary agricultural implements: ploughs, harrows, seeders, reapers, threshers and winnowing machines. Foddergrass (clover) was cultivated and fertilisers were applied to the land.”
Thanks to the Czech colonists, in the 1870s the hop-growing industry began developing robustly. Czech colonists opened breweries, companies for processing milk and sugar beets, and handicraft workshops. In the 1870s in Volyn, no less than 200 manufacturing enterprises, mills and workshops were opened with the full or partial participation of Czech capital. In the cities, Czechs owned tenement buildings and commercial bureaus.
It is notable that Czech colonists are treated in Czech historiography as if they had been carrying out a special “civilisational” mission. Researcher Elena Pogrebnyak observes that in the works of Czech authors the “role of the Czechs as the sole bearer of agricultural progress and domestic culture” is emphasised.
However, this did not hamper the assimilation of Czechs with local inhabitants. The settlers became Russian subjects, entered into mixed marriages and educated their children together with the Russian population. In particular, in eight out of twenty-three Czech schools in Volyn were studying not only Czech children but also those from local communities. The Czechs often converted to the Orthodox faith, as well. By the late 19th century, two-thirds of the Volyn Czechs were already Orthodox.
In the 20th century, the Czech community on the Volyn had to live through a fair number of difficult moments. After the Soviet-Polish War ended and the Treaty of Riga was signed in 1921, the area where the Volyn Czechs lived was divided between the restored Polish Republic and the Ukrainian SSR. The minority of Czechs (about 7 thousand) found themselves in the Soviet half and the majority (over 30 thousand) in the territory of the Volyn region of II Rzeczpospolita.
In the USSR, the Volyn Czechs were subjected to active Ukrainization, which impacted literally every area of their lives. In the correspondence of Professor Evgeny Rychlik – one of the most prominent representatives of the Volyn Czech intelligentsia in the late 1920s – it was mentioned that the Ukrainization has already affected the style in which homes were built. In Poland, thanks to the support of the government of Czechoslovakia, local Czechs enjoyed more favourable conditions for cultural and economic development.
During the Second World War, many Volyn Czechs actively participated in the Resistance and served in the Polish Army, partisan divisions or Red Army. In 1944 over ten thousand men and women from Volyn joined the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps under the command of General Ludvík Svoboda. The Volyn Czechs made up over half of the personnel in this union. Later on, no less than eight thousand Czechs returned to their homeland and helped to liberate Czechoslovakia.
In 1940, the number of Czechs living in Volyn was even more substantial and exceeded 40 thousand persons. In accordance with the agreement concluded between the governments of the CSR and USSR in 1947, nearly 33 thousand Volyn Czechs returned to Czechoslovakia and were placed primarily in the Western oblasts of the country (the Sudetenland).The last major “exodus” of Czechs from the territory of modern Ukraine occurred in 1990-1993, when 1,812 persons left the country. The resettlement affected, in particular, the northern regions of the Zhytomyr Oblast, located not far from the area of the Chernobyl disaster (Ovruchsky district).
According to data from the national census (2001), there were 5,917 Czechs living in Ukraine, with nearly 1,300 of them living in Volyn (as a unitary historico-cultural region including the Volyn, Zhytomyr and Rovno oblasts). However, their number is steadily declining – primarily due to emigration.
At the present moment, the Volyn Czechs have social organisations in all three of the Volyn oblasts. Their common and sole aim is cultural and educational work, including the provision of services for Czech language instruction, the organisation of cultural events and the study of history and tradition.
The largest Czech diaspora is in the Zhytomyr region (approximately 700-800 persons). And the Zhytomyr Union of Volyn Czechs is active in the region. Four groups have been created by the society for Czech language study – two for adults and two for children. Excursions and Czech films screenings are organised periodically, as are meetings with various community figures from Ukraine and the Czech Republic, joint events and holidays.
In the Rovno region, the largest concentration of Czechs (approximately 300 persons) is in the Dubno district. The only Czechoslovakian society in the region was organised as early as 1991. In 2003 it was re-registered and formalised as the Czech organisation Stropovka.
“We currently have a sister-cities cooperation agreement between the Ukrainian Dubno and Czech Uničov. Within the framework of this contract, our children go there for summer holidays and also study at the Uničov Gymnasium to discover their roots. At the Dubno City Cultural Centre, there have been Czech language clubs running for ten years already, and it has a library,” said the society’s head Antoninia Ponomarenko of its activities.
The Dubno Society periodically holds scientific events dedicated to the history of the Volyn Czechs. One of the most recent was an international conference dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the resettlement of “Czechs in the Volyn lands”, held on 24 February 2016 in cooperation with the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The bastion of the Czech diaspora in the Volyn region is the Matice Volyňská Czech Society. Creation of the organisation began the 1990s. According to its chairperson Svetlana Kratofil, there are currently about 100 members. She informed Europe Insight what the organisation’s goals are: “preserving the language, culture and traditions” of Czechs.
Svetlana Kratofil says (full transcript of the interview here) that the life of the community was not altered after the change of power in Ukraine although the war which followed has left its traces all the same. “We are Ukrainian citizens and so we feel bad about the situation our motherland has ended up in,” explained the community representative.
Some have set off for the conflict zone; someone has been killed there. The society itself has not remained aloof from the events. “We are a non-profit organisation, so, unfortunately, we cannot provide assistance in the form of money, but our girls tried their best to help – they wove camouflage nets and packed field rations,” says Kratofil.
However, the effects of the war are felt even where it has not reached, and not only in the uplifting sense. For the first time since the early 1990s, the number of those wishing to leave Ukraine has grown many times over. The Volyn Czechs were worried about their lives and economic conditions; some did not want to lose their children to the army; others were counting on material support from Prague.
In March 2014, Emma Snidevich, the chairperson of the Volyn Czech Society appealed to the prime minister and president of the republic, requesting assistance for 40 families to move back to their historical homeland. In an interview with the online magazine Echo 24, she explained that the inhabitants fear for their lives and that the threat – in her words – is seen not only in the Russian army but also in the Ukrainian nationalists with whom clashes have regularly occurred and who have brought fear in one form already.
Prague sent a commission to the Zhytomyr region, but it could not see any threat to the life or health of the population. The words supposedly uttered by the country’s foreign minister about the desire of the Volyn Czechs to change their residency being dictated by “economic and social” reasons were widely publicised in the media. This, in turn, became a reason for the aggravation of already existing political tensions in the Czech Republic and worsening relations with the diaspora.
The societies continued sending requests for help to their historical homeland throughout 2014. At the same time, insisting on immediate action, they started to reproach the Czech Ambassador in Kiev for misinforming the country’s leadership. Social scientist Olga Vygovskaya thinks that the Czech president Miloš Zeman decided to take advantage of the situation. “He made his main goal strengthening his influence in the diplomatic corps. The Volyn Czechs had to become leverage with the help of which Zeman could put pressure on Ivan Počuch (the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Ukraine – Ed.),” the expert commented to Europe Insight.
The accusations were certainly taken seriously enough that the question arose of recalling the head of the diplomatic mission to Ukraine. Then, despite the intercession of the foreign affairs minister, an internal inquiry was launched into the ambassador’s relations, but it uncovered nothing.
Towards the end of the year, the Czech government finally approved an assistance programme, and as early as February 2015 a separate representative office was opened in Odessa for working with applicants towards repatriation. In fact, the intensity of the fighting in eastern Ukraine had gradually subsided by that time and the Minsk negotiation process had started. Thus, it is no surprise that, as the Czech media reported, the applications started to be denied sometimes.
But this story had yet another outcome. The discussion surrounding the fate of the Volyn Czechs has shown that there are surprisingly varied attitudes towards them in their historical homeland. The question of their future has had to continually vie with the issue of Ukraine’s future for priority. “I do not follow it; the Ukrainians’ fate interests me,” was the response of an unnamed but well-known Czech director to the question of whether or not she is paying attention to the problem of her compatriots.
A rebuke given by Jan Hamáček, the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament of the Czech Republic, bears witness to the fact that the government had also arranged priorities in a similar way on at least one occasion. He said, “the Czech Republic has found 50 million koruna for supporting the projects of non-governmental organisations in Ukraine. It would be good if such a sum could be allocated for the aid of our compatriots, too,” he said in March 2014.
Olga Vygovskaya notes that after the scandal with the ambassador ended, the problem of the Volyn Czechs lost its urgency and the attitude towards them also changed. “They do not receive any sort of political support now,” she said.