Marked up to be included in the Scandinavian-Canadian Journal
The foremost authorities on the Swedish minority in Ukraine, Jörgen Hedman and Lars Åhlander, continue to expand our horizons by documenting the fascinating past of the Swedes across the Baltic Sea. While the remarkable history of the Ukrainian Swedes has received considerable attention during the last decade, not least due to the enthusiasm, dedication, and solid work of Hedman and Åhlander, many chapters of the history of the Swedish population in Estonia is perhaps less known among the general public. Yet in many ways the history of the island of Runö (Ruhnu in Estonian) may be even more extraordinary than that of Gammalsvenskby in Ukraine. The culture on Runö differed sharply from that of other Estonian Swedes. While Runö became a part of independent Estonia after World War I, following a diplomatic conflict with neighbouring Latvia, the island had historically been a part of Kurland and Livonia. Among the four Estonian Swedish dialects, the Runö dialect differed sharply from the other three, and remains almost incomprehensible to other Estonian Swedes. Runö was also the richest of the Swedish-Estonian islands. While ethnically Swedish, its inhabitants perceived themselves to be a people distinct from other Estonian Swedes.
The Scandinavian contacts with the Baltic and Slavic world go back to time immemorial. Runö is strategically located in the middle of the Bay of Riga, on the sailing route the Vikings took to reach the Daugava River. The name of the island, rather than stemming from the word
Lacking a proper port, the island was isolated for hundreds of years. From the Swedish settlement in the thirteenth century up until the collective evacuation to Sweden in 1944, the islanders maintained a very peculiar societal organization. The Swedes on Runö were the only free people in the Baltic countries; while other Estonian Swedes ended up under the rule of various landlords, those of Runö alone maintained their own inheritance laws, under which land and property were passed down to the next generation. At the same time, decisions involving property disputes and farm ownership were made in a democratic fashion. A royal decree by king Karl XI in 1688 banned further expansion of the population and house construction. Firewood was scarce on the island and what little that was available was needed to fuel the lighthouse that protected ships in these treacherous and shallow waters. As a result, the population on Runö never exceeded 400, a number that was maintained by social control and enforced by the
Loandskape, the local parliament, in which all confirmed men had voting rights.
After Sweden lost its Baltic provinces in 1721, Russia allowed far-reaching autonomy for the island, which operated as a mini-republic, with its own
the noble Germans.
The few Swedes who visited the island before 1930 were astonished by the conservative nature and the old-fashioned life style on the island. They felt visiting Runö was
like visiting an outdoor museum
det svenskaste av allt svenskt
Intrigued by this pre-modern society, anthropologists and racial biologists from both Sweden and Finland took an active interest in the Runö Swedes, recording their folk songs and measuring and categorizing their race, determining in the scientific language of the day that
language and race far from completely correspond to each other
… the Runö population constitutes a mixed product of the Nordic and Eastern Baltic race.
World War II brought an abrupt end to this unique and isolated culture, as the islanders were evacuated, or
With this book, and the accompanying attachment, the first scholarly work on the history of the island, Hedman and Åhlander have made a little known and unusual part of Swedish history available to scholars and a general readership. Their writing is engaged and their research thorough, displaying an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the Estonian Swedes. This is popular history at its best, and will likely find a wide readership among people interested in Scandinavian history.