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Saint Petersburg group wants memorial for Rusluie at cemetery

Vriezenveen trekked overland to Russia

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

VRIEZENVEEN, the Netherlands – A Saint Petersburg, Russia group wants to erect a memorial honouring Vriezenveen traders, who in earlier centuries fostered ties between the Baltic Sea port and their landlocked former peat colony in the Twente district of Overijssel. The traders, called Rusluie in the local dialect, mostly trekked to St. Petersburg via a 3-week land route when their Dutch contemporaries preferred a sea route.

In 1703, Saint Petersburg was founded by Czar Peter the Great, who earlier worked as an apprentice on a Zaandam shipyard. It had a Dutch community from the very beginning, and the Dutch in fact helped build it. The earliest Vriezenveen folks traveling to Russia are believed to have been tradesmen who were employed there in the 1720s.


The Russian port city is situated in a marshy Delta region and has over 120 bridges, which connect its various districts. When Saint Petersburg supplanted the much more northern port of Archangel as the Russian window on Europe, most Dutch traders, who were from Amsterdam, relocated there and were joined by entrepreneurial men from Vriezenveen after 1730. The Rusluie were largely focused on selling textiles, a Twente product, but also dealt in wine, tobacco, cacao and even flowers. Several Rusluie supplied the court of the Czars. Another one, Wijchert Berkhoff, a farmer’s son, first rose to prominence as the general manager of Russia’s naval shipyards and later was promoted to admiral.

Spokesman Elena Makarova of the Saint Petersburg group has received a sympathetic ear in Vriezenveen and the municipality of Twenterand of which the town is a part. Several local groups are eager to pick up broken ties with Saint Petersburg, which had withered away as a result of the 1917 Russian Revolution.


Also on Makarova’s wish list is the restoration of her city’s cemetery where some Rusluie found their final resting place. Most Rusluie retired to Vriezenveen where they lived out their days as upperclass citizens. Only a few headstones remain at the cemetery and even on these the text is barely legible. Makarova wants to place the Vriezenveen traders’ memorial at this graveyard.

A Vriezenveen foundation has formulated a plan for the memorial. As part of their initiative, the group is now collecting contact information on descendants of the Rusluie. They are specifically targeting offspring of Gerhard Johannes Engberts (1835-1911), who died in Saint Petersburg and who was a partner there in the trading firm of Smelt, Engberts & Co, later named Engberts Bros. & Co.

Rusluie descendants and others interested in the Saint Petersburg connection are invited to contact vereniging(at)oudvriezenveen(dot)nl and check out for further information. Those interested in the Dutch in Saint Petersburg and Archangel can find books in the Dutch language on Archangel, Nederlandse ondernemers in Rusland, 1550-1785 by Jan Willem Veluwenkamp, and Hervormd in Sint-Petersburg 1717-1927 which has as co-editor P.N. Holtrop.