Russian-speaking, Polish-praying

They were resourceful people so they organised themselves quite quickly in Siberia. They cleared the taiga and built long houses. Their wealth turned out to be a problem, starting from 1920, when the Bolshevik revolution reached them. And since June 1941, i.e. the German invasion of the USSR, it was their surnames that became a problem.

We know that, centuries ago, Poland was settled, among others, by Olęders [pronounced: “Olenders”] – contrary to the name, not only Dutch, but also Germans. But quite surprisingly, we can find Polish Olęders in Siberia too. Speaking Russian, they have Polish prayer books, albeit written in the Gothic alphabet.

And paradoxically, the ancient Olęder customs have survived in villages many thousands of kilometres to the east of Poland rather than in our country.

Father Ignacy Pawlus’s discovery

On the website of the St Rafał Kalinowski Parish in Usolye-Sibirskye one can read an account by Fr. Ignacy Pawlus SDS. “I think in 1993 or 1994 Mr Adolf Kuntz wrote to me (…) that in (…) Pikhtinsk there is a group of Germans and that they are Lutherans who meet for prayer, they find it hard because the community has shrunk very much (…) They asked me to look after them and send them some literature. And it so happened that shortly after receiving this letter I set off on a trip to Poland and, in Warsaw, I went to the Evangelical Consistory in Miodowa Street – that’s where I met with Lutheran priests and asked for literature. They gave me a few books in Polish, including catechisms by Doctor Martin Luther, which I either took with me or dispatched. Apart from that, I sent them our Catholic catechisms in Russian (…)”.

He then recounted how he had reached Pikhtinsk in the winter. He entered one of the houses there. “I said in Polish: and everywhere I heard the answer: . Then I thought to myself that since the people responded correctly to the Catholic salutation, the marriages there must have been mixed ones, Catholic-Lutheran, and that something had remained in the consciousness of these people. (…) We began the carolling, it turned out that these people, especially Auntie Aniela, knew a lot of Polish carols. She had a hymnal in her hand and so we carolled as much as we could. Then I said Holy Mass, it was the first one. (…) It turned out that Auntie Aniela knew plenty of those songs, I didn’t know some of them. I learnt from her several old Polish chants. She didn’t go to school herself, she would study with the help of prayer books and hymnbooks. These prayer books are very interesting: a Bible in Polish, but written in the Gothic alphabet, a prayer book, a passional, a hymnal in the Polish language, but the letters are Gothic”. …
They are Russian-speaking, Polish-praying. Photo from the website of the St Rafał Kalinowski Parish in Usolye-Sibirskye
In his opinion, they were of German origin. “Although it is commonly said that they are Dutch, I haven’t met any Dutch surname there. All their names are typically German, and these are such classic German names: Ludwig, Kuntz, Hildebrandt, Hindenburg, Pastrik. We know that they are DPs from Volhynia, which once belonged to the Grodno Governorate, we know that they came here to make a living, as a result of the Stolypin reform in 1908. Because they were famous as people who knew how to clear forests, they were given these forest plots in the taiga. They founded their own villages and initially named them the same as in Volhynia: Zamosteche, Noviny and Dagnik. Then someone changed it to Pikhtinsk and Sredniy, Dagnik stayed with its name.

Called to drain

The Olęders appeared in Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries. At first they were settlers from the Netherlands, and then also from Germany and other countries. “In our country, the settlers who came from Holland, who mostly enjoyed breeding cattle, are called Hollanders, Hollenders, Olanders, Olędras, Olenders” – Samuel Bogumił Linde wrote two centuries later, in 1807, in the “Dictionary of the Polish language”.

Some of these settlers belonged to different branches of Protestantism, such as the Mennonites. First they went to Ducal Prussia (later East Prussia) and Pomerania, and then further into the interior of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They were very good at dealing with floodplains, so they were usually settled where they had to drain the occupied land.

In 1624 they reached Warsaw, where they settled in Saska Kępa and the Urzecze area (south of Warsaw, on both banks of the Vistula). In 1629, the Olęders signed a contract which was confirmed by the monarch John Casimir in 1650 by a royal act. We can read in it: “The Olendros will be allowed to build a mill on the site and grind all kinds of grain (...). These Olenders are allowed to bake bread, brew beer, distil vodka, run pubs and sell on the same land, but they are not allowed to engage in any other trade. (…) The Olendros will be allowed to fish in the river, and also to catch birds and shoot at the islet, up to the city limits.

They also came to the Lublin region, upon the Bug. In 2017, a monument was unveiled in Mościce Dolne (Sławatycze commune) on the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first colonies of Olęder settlers. “Dziennik Wschodni” then quoted Antoni Chorąży, a descendant of these settlers, who was researching their history: “They were brought here because they specialised in agricultural work in such marshy, flooded areas. They were able to build appropriate infrastructure. Their typical household consisted of a house, cowshed and barn all under one roof. In the event of a flood, the farmer could feed his livestock. The settlers were supposed to stay here for a few dozen years, but this extended to 3 centuries...

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As Chorąży himself wrote in the article “History of the colony Nejdorf – Nejbrow on the Bug”, the newcomers were settled under Dutch law. And this law conferred many privileges: “personal freedom, the right to inherit land, the so-called 7 years of [freedom to settle down without paying taxes], to have their own local government, school, and inn. In this case, the settlers were only responsible for paying rent to the landowner after the expired, providing horses and any other minor work regulated in the lease agreement, including the use of forests and rivers for logging and fishing.

As for Mościce, a large part of the local Olęders – evangelicals joined the Volksliste during the German occupation (perhaps under duress) and were deported to the West. The Germans replaced them with Poles from Greater Poland.

Of course, Olęders also lived on the eastern side of the Bug. After September 17, 1939, they were subjected to repression and were deported deep into the USSR. Those who remained later left together with those from the western side of the Bug. The empty houses that ended up in Poland after the war were allocated to the “repatriated” Olęders – Catholics.

Stolypin’s reforms

But let’s go back to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. As Father Mirosław Zięba OCD, who works in the parish of Usolye-Sibirskye, tells us, after the January Uprising, the peasants were given land. However, later this land was divided among their children and grandchildren. – After 30-40 years, it became very fragmented, which is why the farms were very small – says Father Zięba. The reform of the tsarist prime minister and minister of the interior, Pyotr Stolypin (1906-1911), prohibited any further division of the land, and one of the sons (chosen by the father) became the heir. The other children were left with nothing. They tried to go to the cities or hired themselves out as labourers to work in the fields.

Meanwhile, Stolypin introduced another reform, allowing Siberia to be settled. Those interested received tickets for the journey, money for development and as much land as they wanted. – And so, although many people went to America to find work, some decided to go to Siberia – says Father Zięba. This is how Polish Wierszyna or Siberian Białystok were founded. This is how Pikhtinsk and other “Olęder” villages were founded. – These people kept prayer books and a Holy Bible at home, all in Polish, although printed in the Gothic alphabet and published in Królewiec or Toruń – adds the monk.

They were resourceful people so they organised themselves quite quickly in Siberia. They cleared the taiga and built long houses in which there was a “white room” where they lived, a kitchen, a place for pigs or cows, and a threshing floor for the grain – all under one roof. Their wealth turned out to be a problem, starting from 1920, when the Bolshevik revolution reached them. They had many cows, were well dressed, so they were considered “kulaks”, as rich peasants were called at that time.
SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE In the 1920s, a priest, probably a Catholic one, visited them for the last time. He heard confessions, celebrated Mass, and gave Holy Communion. And he left a testament: to pray, to baptise children with water, to bury the dead under the cross and with prayer in the cemetery – adds Fr. Zięba. At the end of the 1930s, one of the Olęders, who said prayers due to the lack of a priest, was sentenced to death. And during World War II, starting in June 1941, i.e. Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, their German surnames became a problem. They were not conscripted into the regular army, but into the so-called Trudarmia (“Army of Labour”), where they were forced to work. According to strict regulations, they were to be supported by their families – they weren’t given any clothes and were treated like slaves. – The father of one of the inhabitants of Pikhtinsk, Grandmother Emma, was taken away in 1941 and did not return until 1953 – says the monk.

Today they live a normal life, although – of course – it is a Siberian normal life.

A few hours from Irkutsk

From Irkutsk you need to get to Usolye-Sibirskoye (Russian: Усолье-Сибирское), which is only 87 kilometres away and the second station on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow, just after Angarsk. This is where Father Zięba’s parish is located. Usolye was founded in the 17th century, and at the end of the 19th century it became a place of exile for Russian Decembrists and SRs, as well as Polish January Uprising insurgents. Rafał Kalinowski, the minister of war in the Lithuanian insurgent authorities, who worked in a saltworks in Usolye, was exiled there in 1864 and joined the Carmelite Order in 1877. John Paul II declared him a saint. Today Usolye has a population of 76,000. From there you can go by car, another 200 kilometres or so. First – along a good road leading west from the Angara River, to distant Krasnoyarsk, then, behind the town of Zalari, west, along a dirt road. And then there is Pikhtinsk and other towns settled by Olęders.

If anyone wants to see what it looks like there, look for Father Paweł Badziński’s OCD report on YouTube. Here, for example, “lipiec 2023 Pichtinsk”:

We can see wooden houses, beds with piles of pillows, and a shower in a small wooden booth next to the house... Then praying women, dinner and idyllic-looking landscapes. There are several such videos about Pikhtinsk on Father Badziński’s channel.

But perhaps most revealing of all is the half-hour film of Xenya and Alexei's wedding in 2022: Ксения и Алексей. You can see people there speaking Polish and Ukrainian with Russian accents. The wedding takes place in the form of a field mass, celebrated by Father Zięba in Russian. After the mass and the wedding ceremony, we can watch the wedding reception and the special customs of the inhabitants of Pikhtinsk. Interestingly, the songs we will hear there are Polish or Ukrainian. It makes an amazing impression: Russia, a region 6.5 thousand kilometres away from us, beautiful Siberian nature, people who look like inhabitants of an ordinary village, but sing in languages they do not use on a daily basis...

Siberian Olęders are interestingly described in the Russian Encyclopedia: “They don’t consider themselves Germans, they call themselves , . They retained Polish and German names and surnames, (...) in the older and middle generation – a variety of the Ukrainian language [is used – ed.], in the ceremonial sphere (weddings, baptisms, funerals) – [it is] Polish. The Russian language dominates among the younger generation and in mixed families. (…) They preserve elements of traditional Polish cuisine (wedding borscht, krupnioki, potato pancakes, etc.), arts and crafts (basket-making, weaving), clothing (lace hats, mainly as an element of the wedding ceremony), long log houses without a basement (the residential part of the house is whitewashed). (…) Until the 1950s, the O. (Olędrzy – ed.) cultivated endogamy (marriages concluded within their group – ed.), now mixed marriages dominate”.

Don’t let’s forget about Pikhtinsk

Alas, the current global situation makes it very difficult to travel from Poland to Piktinsk. Which is a pity, because it is perhaps worth taking an interest in the local Olęders, and helping them. Fortunately there are people – priests, for instance – who visit them on a regular basis, and there are Polish researchers who stayed there in the past. Therefore, don’t let’s forget about Siberian Olęders, about Pikhtinsk, for difficult times will pass and one day it will be anew possible to pay them a visit.

– Piotr Kościński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Today, after a difficult century, they live a normal life, although – of course – it is a Siberian normal life. Photo from the website of the St Rafał Kalinowski Parish in Usolye-Sibirskye
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