Ukrainians are fleeing westwards into the unknown, with some also heading to Switzerland. More than 200 years ago, Swiss settlers migrated east to Ukraine and established two Helvetic colonies: Zürichtal in Crimea. And Shabo near Odessa.
Petra Koci is a freelance journalist and author. In her book “Weltatlas der Schweizer Orte” (World Atlas of Swiss Places), she profiles Swiss settlements on five continents.
Crimea had already been annexed once by the Russians before 2014: in 1783 the Tsarist Empire annexed the Crimean peninsula and parts of today’s Ukraine, appropriating the territory from the Ottomans. Tsar Alexander I had the fertile land of “New Russia” settled by colonists from the west.
Emigrants from the Knonau district
A poverty-stricken group of around 60 German-speaking Swiss families, many from the Knonau district in the Canton of Zurich, were among those who headed east to start a new life. In autumn 1803, 247 people set out for the new lands. It was to be a journey plagued by adversity, especially as promised loans to cover travel costs proved to be non-existent. Travelling by ship and by horse and wagon, the group made its way east via Regensburg, Vienna, Bratislava, Rosenberg and Lviv. It wasn’t until summer 1804 that the hungry, exhausted emigrants arrived in Crimea. At Easter 1805, they were allocated fertile land – albeit only half as much as had been promised – in a village previously inhabited by Crimean Tatars.
The Swiss settlement flourishes
The Swiss named their village “Zürichtal”. They built grand farmsteads with cellars. In the attics, meat was dried and grain was stored. A watercourse to each house was constructed to carry water from two reservoirs on the hill above the village. The people of Zürichtal made their living from agriculture and sheep-farming. After several challenging years to begin with, the community prospered.
Pastor Emil Kyber, who arrived in 1831 to minister to the settlers, gives an account of what the settlement looked like in 1839: “Zürichtal is favoured by nature in many aspects. It is located near the north-eastern spur of the Crimean mountains, by the Jendol stream. From the east, a long ridge of hills enclosing the stream hides the view of the village from the approaching traveller, until he enters its vineyard-covered slopes. It is exposed to the west and its red-tiled roofs can be seen from several hours’ journey distant. To the north, the village is bounded by a delightful grove of wild fruit trees, elms, willows and white poplars, and to the south the mountains unfold into a truly lovely landscape evocative of Switzerland.”
Zürichtal becomes Zolotoe Pole
For some time, Zürichtal was considered the finest colony in Crimea. The number of residents had increased, thanks also to scores of immigrants from Germany. The second and third generation of Zürichtal’s inhabitants spoke Russian and Tatar, but also the Swabian-Swiss German dialect. Things became difficult after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Many of the descendants of the Swiss villagers were considered Crimean Germans. Their land was confiscated and Zürichtal was turned into a sovkhoz, one of the Soviet Union’s state-owned farms. In 1941 Stalin had many of the residents deported to Kazakhstan. Zürichtal was renamed “Zolotoe Pole” – the golden field.
Some of the houses built by the Swiss still stand today. At one end of the village there is also the whitewashed church, built in 1860; it stands without its bell tower, which was blown up. On the other side, the spires of the mosque rise into the sky, surrounded by the dry steppe – the golden field.
Ukrainians in Switzerland
Cultural exchange and migration flows between Switzerland and Ukraine have existed since the reign of Tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century. The first Ukrainians to travel to Switzerland were mostly academics, students and artists. In 1783, Count Gregor Razumovsky was one of the founders of the Société des Sciences Physiques in Lausanne. Other historical figures include writer Nikolai (Mykola) Gogol, whose monument is in Vevey, historian and political thinker Mikhail Dragomanov, physicist Sergei Podolinsky, storyteller Marko Vovchok, legal history expert Maksim Kovalevsky and poet Lesya Ukrainka.
For their part, Swiss people were always appreciated in the great Tsarist empire as true professionals in their fields: as officers in the army, as tutors, as governesses, as teachers in the royal court and among the aristocracy, and also as architects and engineers, cheesemakers or confectioners who set up patisseries and coffee houses in Kyiv, Odessa and Kharkov.
The Tsar’s Swiss winegrowers
As tutor to Tsar Alexander I, Frédéric-César de La Harpe from Vaud played a part in the founding of a second Swiss colony in “New Russia”. In any event, it was thanks to de La Harpe’s mediation that botanist Louis-Vincent Tardent received a decision from the tsar, who allotted him land for settlement on the western coast of the Black Sea. Tardent, a native of Vaud, planned to set up a wine colony in southern Bessarabia, as the area was called.The group of colonists consisted of only about 30 people, mainly Vaud winegrowers. The Swiss contingent set out from Vevey on 19 July 1822. They travelled in horse-drawn wagons via Munich, Vienna, Brno, Lviv and Chisinau to the town of Akkermann, now known as Bilhorod. About 60 km from Odessa, beside the lagoon where the Dniestr empties into the Black Sea, was their destination. It had taken them a little over three months to complete their 2,000 km journey. On 29 October 1822 they came to the former Turkish village of Asha-abag – meaning “the lower gardens”. The Romands shortened the name to Shabag, and it later became Shabo.The small settlement grew mainly thanks to German Swiss and German colonists. German and French were spoken. From 1840 onwards the settlement made good economic progress, in part because the quality of the wines from Shabo improved steadily; the local wines even won medals. In 1850 the colony numbered 53 families, or 269 people. After 1917 life in the region became difficult, just as it had done in Zürichtal. Bessarabia didn’t fall under communist rule, as it was occupied by Romania. In 1940, however, the village fell into Soviet hands. The colonists made a hasty departure. Many had kept their Swiss passports and were able to return to their old homeland. Those who stayed in the settlement were deported.
200 years of Shabo
After the colonists’ departure, a group of workers got together and founded a sovkhoz. This venture was finally bought out by a Georgian businessman in 2003. He had 1,100 hectares of vineyards replanted, and modernised the wine production operation. Shabo wines are exported to scores of countries, and the town is also home to Ukraine’s first wine culture centre.
There would have been plans for a big party there this year: 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of the once Swiss settlement of Shabo.
The diplomatic starting point is surprisingly complex and requires explanation: A Russian general coming from Italy, with the support of Austria, enters into battle against France in what is now Switzerland.