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Mihajlo HORNJAK



RUTHENIANS IN VOJVODINA BETWEEN
DISPUTED PAST AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE


        (There are less and less of Ruthenians, they are melting like a snow under the spring sun, exposed to discord on the grounds of »who are we, what are we« issue, unprepared to face the challenges of the times coming up, but undoubtedly will sustain)


»To those who inquire whether these peasants are
Russians or Ukrainians, there is only one answer.
They are Neither. They are simply Ruthenians«

George F. Kennan

 

 

 



Ruthenians of Vojvodina  (»Rusnaci« as they prefer to call themselves) represent the part of Carpatho-Ruthenian population, divided between Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Romania. With Russians, Belarussian and Ukrainians, Carpathian Ruthenians belong to east-Slavic ethnic group; their colloquial language, in which several regional dialects are distinguished based on old Church Slavic language –Carpathian Russian, standardized for Vojvodina community in 1923 with Cyrillic alphabet and for north Carpathian community in 1995 with Latin alphabet, Ruthenian people call  ”Naš Ruski jazik, naš Rusinski jazik”,   »Naša Ruska bešeda« and they feel as “Mi svojo«, “mi našo” among themselves; they worship mostly in Greek-catholic, but also Orthodox Christian and Evangelist faith; never in their history did they have their own state nor common political history and in that respect they are comparable to Kurdes, spread between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran...    

In the middle of 18th century ancestors of Vojvodina Ruthenians, citizens with free status under Habsburg Monarchy (»Rutenus Libertinus«), moved from north-eastern to southern regions of Hungary and settled on the territory of today's Bačka (»Ad venae anno 1746 Ruthenus ex partibus Miskolczinum«). In first wave of immigration, approximately 200 families moved in abandoned locality of Kerestur (»Dessolata possessio Keresztur«) and during second wave roughly 160 families settled in neighboring place Kucura. At the end of migration process in 1765, there were about 2200 of them (in Kerestur - 1341, in Kucura 779). At last census in Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1910, there were 13,457 persons declared Ruthenians and at first census in Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1921 – 13,664,  just a fraction more considering large human losses suffered in First World War. But, with the population growth reporting steady increase in decades to come and reaching the peak in 1971 with 20,109 people and afterwards, the number went down and at 1991 census there were 18,099 Ruthenians and last census in 2002 reported meager 15,095 Ruthenians.

In new environment, Ruthenians developed and thrived without significant cultural and other ties with compatriots from Carpathian region, divided between several states. In Kingdom of Serbians, Croats and Slovenians in 1919/1920 they were granted the status of national minority of Slavic origin, which opened the way of national emancipation and cultural development that is still continuously in progress. Since the population increased naturally, they started to move out early from Ruski Kerstur and Kucura in pursuit of jobs and better life and to settle in nearby places (Kula, Vrbas, etc.), and then Novi Sad and Šajkaška (Đurđevo Gospođinci), Srem and Slavonija (Petrovaradin, Šid, Sremska Mitrovica, Vukovar, etc.), as well as America and Canada (Pittsburg, Toronto).

Today's distribution of Ruthenian population shows that Bačka remained the center of their territorial concentration, and Ruski Kerstur, with little over 5000 inhabitants represents the largest in number settlement and the cultural center of Ruthenian community in Serbia. In terms of population, it is followed by Kucura (2.500), Novi Sad  (2000), Vrbas (1.800), Đurđevo  (1.300), Kula  (850), Šid, Sremska Mitrovica and nearby neighborhoods (1600), etc. Except for Ruski Kerstur where they make up majority of citizens (approximately 90%) and Kucura (approximately 51%), in other places they are in significant minority and almost lost in majority population.


Ruthenians - who are and what are they


Ruthenians are historical people, just like other Slavs. They share their past with other Slavic people. Historical remembrance, tradition, cultural heritage and customs link them with Carpathian region and older Slavic-Russian heritage which is apparently confirmed in ethnonim Rusnak/Rusanci, prefixes and qualificators derived from noun »Rus», and adjective »Ruski« (»mi ruski ljudze – we, Russian people«, »naš ruski jazik – our Russian language «, »našo ruski običaji – our Russian customs«, »ruski pisnji«, »ruska škola«, »ruska cerkva «, etc.). They are distinguished by high degree of ethnic identity preservation (feeling of common origin, language, customs, religion, patronims) and their concentration on living and working with majority and other minorities in multi-ethnic and culturally diversified society of Vojvodina and Serbia.
   
In Vojvodina, they survived and advanced into what they are at today not only because of the fact that they have been recognized as minority of Slavic origin in Yugoslavia, but also because they adjusted to the politico-social environment they have entered and identified with the interests of Serbian people representing ethnic majority. It was a sort of mutual acceptance on the grounds of awareness of common Slavic background and interests of living together.  As equal citizens with recognized national minority status, they were included to the point of unrecognizibality into social and political fabric of this society. They do not have illiterate people and they probably have the largest number of University graduates; they developed and sustain with their own staff educational institutions in native language from primary to university level, as well as cultural institutions and media of mass communications. Language of Vojvodina Ruthenians (»Ruski jazik«, »Ruthenian language«) is accepted in Vojvodina as one of six official languages and it represents fundamental feature of their specific ethnicity and confirmation of their cultural identity.  

At this point one should ask a question how it was possible that colloquial and literary language of one ethnic community in Vojvodina, never counting more than 20,000 persons, separated from their compatriots, in terms of speaking scattered all across in foreign environments – developed to such degree that it is recognized as different and accepted as equal in the large family of Slavic languages, while on the other hand the language-dialect of the similar, compact and autochthon ethnic community in Carpathian region of today's Ukraine, having 950,000 members UNESCO classification sorts out into the group of endangered languages, likely to disappear.....

All things taken into consideration, it seems that Vojvodina Ruthenians, although not without problems in this society, were better off than their compatriots divided between different countries, two of them not even Slavic, exposed to assimilation, forced as individuals or ethnic community to declare themselves in accordance with the preferences of various Governments until changes taking place in 1990/1991, in time being reduced to marginal number in certain countries, without biological power to revitalize the population and serving only as a proof for present policy of equal, non-discriminatory rights for all citizens, irrespective of the nationality.


What kind of problems Ruthenians are facing nowadays


Statistics indicate that during 30-year period from 1961 to 1991, number of Ruthenian community decreased by approximately one third (27,14%). During ten year period, from 1981 to 1991, that number was decreasing at 0.9% rate annually, representing the decrease of 1,653 persons out of total population number with the estimate that it included approximately 1000 persons who immigrated to West Europe, Canada and USA, and the rest was attributed to the reduction in natality rate. Negative trend continued after 1991 due to civil unrest and military action at the territory of former Yugoslavia, and the fact that break up of former Yugoslavia caused that roughly 15% of Ruthenian community found themselves within the borders of the Republic of Croatia.  

Negative demographic trends within Ruthenian community are reflected in alteration of number of children covered by primary education in native tongue. In  2000/2001 school year, number of students decreased by 288 in comparison to the previous year which translates into 17.73%. Alteration tendencies are more obvious from the data confirming that in 2000/01 school year, out of 1238 students covered by primary education, 630 of them attended classes held in native language and 608 in Serbian. Today, primary education in native language is offered only in Ruski Krstur and Kucura, but even those locations exhibit more visible tendencies of students opting for lectures in Serbian language. In Đurđevo, classes in native language are provided only for about ten students signing up annually and it is just a question of time then it will shut down. In Vrbas, Kula, Novi Sad and Srem region, there is not a single class held in native language on the primary education level. In high school in Ruski Krstur, which is the first and only one in the world still considered  »Ruthenian«, there is one class not completely filled with students in mother tongue and two classes in Serbian language. At University of Novi Sad Department for Ruthenian language and literature, ratio between students and teachers is roughly the same (though number of University and College students enrolled at Technical Sciences in Serbian language is however maintained at the equally high level). Negative demographic trends are reflected upon the structure of matrimonial unions. Data based on estimates speak of ratio of  »same background« against »mixed« marriages being approximately 60 against 40, taking into account that the age structure of married couples of the same background is approximately 60 versus 40 in favor of ones that can not expect children any more.  

All things considered, it is obvious that there is less and less Ruthenians and the answer to question regarding the roots of the problem rests with the fall of birth rate, immigration and assimilation. Explanation to all of the above should be looked for in realm of overall economic conditions and political circumstances. As for assimilation – it remains to ascertain that it began in 1919/1920 when sparse Ruthenian community got recognized in Yugoslavia of that time as national minority of Slavic background and Ruthenians   spread across larger area of former Yugoslavia and as equal citizens began to take part in social and political life of that environment, therefore nowadays it is possible to distinguish them as »different» only when they declare themselves in that manner.



Prone to break up regarding »who are we and what are we« issue...

Partitions in regards to the issues, such as  »who are we and what are we «, »are we Ruthenians or Ukrainians« represent the greatest obstacle in solving acute problems of domestic Ruthenian community since it brings the futile disputes, exhausts the energy of the community, creates inertia, passivity and isolation of the people or escape into assimilation which in the end generates mistrust from the environment they live in.

Causes of those partitions do not lay with »internal condition« of ethnically and culturally defined Ruthenian community since people do not have any doubts about it, and the science is clear and vocal on that issue. Disputes can not be reduced to »two national options« or »declaration« in favor of either of them. In fact, the disputes do not concern ethnic background or national identity, but reflects specific foreign political interests. One can not look for reasons in the attitude of Serbian authorities, although they were not spared from sporadic incidents which can be attributed to overall condition of the society, their unrealistic requests for financial assistance and addressing external factors when sorting out financial problems by certain segments of Ruthenian community. Disputes  have been brought in from the outside to serve political interests that have nothing to do with Ruthenian community, nor the community can have influence on them.  

Not ready and not prepared for times to come


Events from previous decade, in addition to psychological and political trauma, brought upon Vojvodina Ruthenians, collective and personal impoverishment of catastrophic proportions undermining possibility to accomplish personal and common goals. Transition from system of public-budget subsidizing of cultural and other institutions which foster to preserve and development of ethnic and national identity to self-financing is going to be very difficult. Ruthenian community simply does not possess financial capabilities to maintain existing institutions designated to preserve ethnic and national specificity. At the moment it is out of question to consider any coordinated action on the community level (there is not a single penny and there will not be any for a while on the bank account of Ruthenian Heritage Fund, opened several years ago!) not only because of devastating financial situation, but also because of the discord on the issue of »who are we and what are we« brought upon the community by the external forces and inadequate response by domestic authorities.

Experience of Vojvodina-Ruthenian community as well as Ruthenian communities in other countries, historically, culturally and nationally defined as national minorities (either recognized as such or not) teaches us to look for problem-solving opportunities only in cooperation with local authorities. Ties with outside factors (unless it is UN or relevant European organizations), regardless of how familiar or well meaning they might be, lead not only to political and national confrontations and disputes within community, but also breed mistrust by the society Ruthenians live in, and facing the policy of »going Ukrainian« accelerates assimilation,  »melting« by to much closer Serbian than Ukrainian society and environment – or immigration to foreign countries, preferable to Canada and USA.

It is obvious from material perspective that social and political changes occurring in the course of transition process do not challenge »equal rights of all citizens«, including national minorities, since they are equal both as citizens and as tax payers. As such, they can not be denied right to participate in budget financing of education and functioning of ethnic institutions under equal terms as ones applicable to national majority.  However, above that, one can not expect too much in terms of financing particular, specific activities even under the conditions defined by law based on  »positive discrimination«, which has been accepted as basic law concerning national minorities. It should be expected that the Government and society will restrain to a greater degree to establishing general framework for enforcement of civil and human rights that naturally generates ethnic minority rights, leaving room for activities of special ethnic groups on the basis of voluntary association and self- financing. The fact that Ruthenian community was established on such foundation and has maintained and developed own institutions between 1918 and 1941 points to the conclusion that one should not fear the future under the conditions of stable political and social circumstances and economic development of the State. In that sense one can not feel anything but encouragement by the fact that Ruthenian ethnic communities actually survived on such grounds in the USA, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Australia, etc. Solution, of course, rests with focusing on establishment of sustainable material conditions by way of identifying with fundamental democratic aspirations of society and state in which Ruthenians were accepted as such and reciprocally they accepted it as their own.   



Belgrade, April 10th , 2002                       

                                         

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