A People without a Country:

The Carpatho -Rusyns




Ja Rusyn byl,
Jesm'y budu,
Ja rodylsja Rusynom,
Cestnyj moj rod ne zabudu
Ostanus’ jeho synom!

I was, I am, and will always remain a Rusyn,
I was born a Rusyn,
I shall never forget my honorable heritage,
I shall remain its son.




                             WHEN STUDENTS SEE the license plate on my car reading “RUSYN,” they usually ask if I am Russian, to which I reply “No, I am Rusyn, Carpatho-Rusyn.” Then a conversation ensues. Who are we? Where is our country located? This article is an attempt to answer those questions about a nationality of which I am fiercely proud —  the Carpatho-Rusyns, or Ruthenians.




    Few have heard of my people, including many who teach history, yet Hitler and his cronies knew of us: a people who for the most part were poor, uneducated farmers dwelling in the Carpathian Mountain regions of present day southeastern Poland, western Ukraine and eastern Slovakia — and who were targeted for extermination by the Nazis.
    Carpatho-Rusyns are linguistically and culturally an East Slavic people, descendants of the White Croats who lived alongside the West Slavs (Poles and Slovaks), Magyars, and Romance peoples. The term Rusyn is derived from the noun Rus’ which originally implied adherence to the Eastern Christian Church (Magocsi, “Carpatho-Rusyns: 3”). Carpatho-Rusyn dialects have been heavily influenced by Polish, Slovak, and Hungarian vocabulary, along with other influences from both east and west, including terms from their Church Slavonic liturgical language plus words unique to Carpatho-Rusyns (Magocsi, “Carpatho-Rusyns: 2”). At one time there were at least 109 dialectical variants (Panjkevic).
    There is much debate about early Rusyn settlements, depending on the nationality of the historian. The Magyar tribes who created Hungary had crossed the Carpathians by the end of the ninth century. In so doing, they brought new Slavic peoples and subjugated other Slavs, including the Christian Rusyns whom they found living in the Carpathian Mountains and the Pannonian Basin around the Ung River (Slivka 30). Large numbers of Rusyns did not come until the 12th and 13th centuries, usually at the behest of the Hungarian government, which wanted to protect its northern frontier. Rusyn migration from the north and east continued until the 16th century Migration was made possible due to the low elevation of the Carpathians in this region, which provided many crossable mountains passes.


Typical Rusyn house in the Presov region


    By the second half of the 11th century, Rusyn lands south of the Carpathians came under control of the Hungarians, until 1526, when the kingdom of Hungary was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The Hapsburgs finally gained control of all Hungary at the outset of the 18th century. Thus these Rusyn lands were under Hapsburg control until 1918. North of the mountains, the Rusyn-inhabited Lemko Region was in the mid-l4th century incorporated into the kingdom of Poland. Polish rule lasted until 1772, when Galicia was annexed by the Hapsburg Empire and made into one of the provinces of Austria. As a result, all Carpatho-Rusyns found themselves under Hapsburg rule (Magocsi, “Carpatho-Rusyns: 3”).
    The Rusyns never created any separate political entity in their country. Their territory first formed part of the sparsely inhabited region on the northeastern frontier of Hungary, where military operations were held; later, they entered into the Hungarian system of counties (Moudry 4).

    About fifty percent of the land on which the Rusyns lived was covered by forests. As a result, only about 46 percent of the land could be devoted to agriculture, including 15 percent which was utilized for pasture (mostly for sheep). The soil in the long, narrow valleys was poor for agriculture. As a result, the status of the Rusyn settlers was that of poor peasants, herdsmen, or lumbermen. At this time, they were serfs bound to Hungarian landlords, on a low economic and cultural level. Only the clergy and cantors attained a higher social status because of their access to an education. 

    The Union of Uzhorod in 1646 resulted in the Orthodox Church switching jurisdictional allegiance from the patriarch in Constantinople to the pope in Rome and becoming known as the Uniate or Greek Catholic Church. It was officially made equivalent to the Roman Rite. The presence of the church and the early permission by the government to maintain the Old Slavonic language in the church liturgy, the continuance of the Cyrillic alphabet, married clergy, etc., helped for a time to preserve the ethnicity of the people. Living in isolated groups, the Rusyns had little contact even among themselves—thus the development of local dialects which resulted in the inability to have any form of solidarity among the people.
    It wasn’t until 1849 that a Rusyn presence was felt in imperial Vienna. A Rusyn national revival was due largely to the work of two individuals — Aleksander Duchnovyc and Adol’f Dobrjans’kyj. Duchnovyc founded the first Rusyn cultural society in Presov and published the first literary almanacs and primary books (called Bukvars). He wrote articles for newspapers and the poem now considered the Rusyn national anthem —” I was, I am, and will always remain a Rusyn,” and the then national anthem:



Podkarpatskie rusyny,
Ostavte hlubokyj son,
Narodnyj holos zovet vas,
Ne zabud’te o svojim!

Subcarpathian Rusyns,
Awake from your deep slumber.
The people's voice is calling you.
Do not forget your own!


Subcarpathian Rus’
coat of arm


    Duchnovyc labored for the benefit of many Rusyn people in the Carpathians. He envisioned a united Subcarpathian nation, which he was trying to uplift — even the lowest levels of culture. He has come to be hailed as the “national awakener” of the Carpatho-Rusyn people.
    Dobrjans’kyj was a member of the Hungarian parliament and Austrian government who between 1849 and 1865 attempted to create a distinct Rusyn territorial entity within the Hapsburg Empire. He formulated a political program calling for the unity of Rusyns in Hungary with their brethren north of the mountains in Galicia. He authored several petitions and led a delegation of Rusyns from Hungary who met with Emperor Franz Joseph in April 1849.
    An imperial decree from Vienna in 1848-49 introduced the principle of the equality of nationalities. Rusyn was introduced as an official language besides German and Hungarian in the five counties where they were the predominant minority.




    These changes were shortlived. In September 1850, all civil districts were abolished. Rusyns were replaced by Magyars and all reforms were eventually nullified. The Hungarians wanted its citizens to form a single nation—the Magyar nation. In the late 1860’s the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy came into being. This meant that the Hungarian Kingdom would be governed by its own laws, which came out of the parliament in Budapest. Magyar rulers would now be able to dictate relationships with national minorities, with no interference from Vienna. Carpatho-Rusyn national revival was stopped dead in its tracks. Hungary’s primary goal was to maintain as much independence as possible from the government in Vienna and to consolidate its strength by increasing the number of Magyars through assimilation of the national minorities. Law XLIV of 1868—the so called “equality of rights of the nationalities —was put into practice.
    No organization representing a national minority could legally exist, because this law recognized only one nation, the Magyar nation. Magyar replaced Rusyn in the schools, which were then expected to produce patriotic Hungarians steeped in Magyar culture. Even the churches were affected. Church records which heretofore had been written in Rusyn by the priest now had to be written in Hungarian. The Rusyn populace for the most part came to despise its Hungarian masters.
    The Rusyns were losing not only their language but their livelihood as well. Since agriculture was considered one of the only honorable professions among the Rusyns, land was passed on to each child who in turn passed it on to their children. This resulted in smaller and smaller plots of land, which eventually were too small to sustain the family.



Drying hay in the Carpathians




The lack of land, low productivity, and poor methods of cultivation resulted in poverty and semi starvation of the population. All the great estates were in Magyar hands. The diet of an average Rusyn consisted mostly of corn or oats, potatoes, mushrooms, and cabbage. Fat and meat were rarities. (My father has told me of conversations as a young boy with parishioners who immigrated from Austro-Hungary and said that the only meat they saw or ate during the year was on the great feast of Easter.) As a result, health was poor. Tuberculosis, typhus, cholera, smallpox, throat infections, and other types of common infections were rampant. One has only to look at the death records from the villages in which my ancestors lived. Page after page is filled with the names of people who were wiped out by cholera — it took the young and old. Too many of my relatives died in infancy or childhood. This was the norm. A family typically lived in a one room house, or two families lived in the same house in adjoining rooms. If they had animals, these lived in the family house in an adjoining room as well.



(Here and next photo:) Inside a typical Rusyn house, Presov region



    The situation seemed hopeless — the only escape was emigration. From 1880 until World War I, approximately 500,000 Rusyns (my grandparents and other relatives included) left the country to escape both the poverty and Magyarization, although a few thousand had started moving to the Backa region (Vojvodina in present-day Yugoslavia) in the southern part of the Hungarian kingdom, where Rusyn colonists had arrived as free individuals as early as 1745. Most left for the industrial regions of the northeastern United States or Canada. At the beginning of World War I, Rusyns lacked an educated upper or middle class and thus were not politically active.
    In their new homes, an aboutface occurred. World War I prevented a further exodus of Rusyns, many of whom were forced to serve in the Imperial Austro-Hungarian army where they died or were wounded on the eastern front against Russia or in northeastern Italy. In the Lemko region during 1914-15, Austrian officials suspected Lemko Rusyns of treason and deported nearly 6,000 to concentration camps, especially to the one at Talerhof (Magocsi, “Carpatho-Rusyns: 4”).
    At the end of 1918, a group of American Rusyns under their leader Gregory Zatkovych, a Rusyn-born Pittsburgh lawyer, met with Tomas Masaryk, the future president of Czechoslovakia, to discuss the possibility of including an autonomous Ruthenia in the future Czechoslovakia. In talks, autonomy was guaranteed to the Ruthenian leaders. Boundaries satisfactory to both were finalized. An agreement was signed in which the autonomous Ruthenia would include all Hungarian counties or the parts which were inhabited by Ruthenians. This territory would have its own governor and administration.





    In Hungary, the Ruthenians and Magyars were also attempting to solve the problem. On December 21, 1918, Law X, “Rus’ka Krajina” (Rusyn State), recognized them as a separate nationality and gave them the right of self-government in administrative, judicial, educational, and religious affairs in their territory. Ruthenia would also have its own national assembly as well as adequate representation in the Hungarian government.
    During the ensuing months of 1918 and 1919, various Rusyn leaders, including Rev. Emiljan Nevyc’kyj, Dr. Anton’j Beskyd, and their delegates, met throughout Galicia and the Presov Region (present-day northeastern Slovakia). They wanted Lemko Rusyn lands in Galicia and those south of the Carpathians to be united with Czechoslovakia. On May 8,1919, two hundred Rusyn delegates met in Uzhorod to form the Central Rusyn National Council. They endorsed the decree of the American Rusyn Council to unite with Czechoslovakia on the basis of full autonomy. The results of subsequent sessions undermined the position of Rusyns in the Presov Region. In the end, the Galician Lemkos were left to be annexed by Poland. The Uzhorod Council declared that the borders of the new Rusyn state would be resolved in negotiations with the Czechoslovak government, and Rusyn leaders in America and Europe declared that Rusyns in the Presov Regions (northern Spis, Saris, and Zemplyn counties) be part of an autonomous Rusyn state; but the fact is that they were placed under Slovak administration. On September 10, 1919, the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye was recognized. Ruthenia was given an official name Subcarpathian Ruthenia (Podkarpatska Rus’). It would become an inseparable part of the republic and was promised the fullest autonomy compatible with the unity of the Czechoslovak state (Magocsi, Rusyns of Slovakia 67—69).



Lemko house, Poland

    What transpired was that for the first time the Presov Region Rusyns were separated administratively from their brethren further east. After 1919, Rusyns in Czechoslovakia did have a province of their own—Subcarpathian Rus’—but the Presov Region was left under Slovak administration. The Rusyns in the new province had their own governor and elected representatives in both houses of the national parliament in Prague; they were considered one of the three state peoples of Czechoslovakia. They did not, however, receive the political autonomy they were promised. One hundred thousand Rusyns in the Presov area were given only the status of a national minority within Slovakia.





    In time, the League of Nations started receiving petitions that the Czech government was not living up to its treaty provisions and in many cases the Rusyn population was being Czechized or Slovakized. Subcarpathian Rus’ functioned from 1919 to 1938 with a Rusyn governor and a limited degree of autonomy. When Czechoslovakia was betrayed by its allies at the Munich Pact and transferred into a federal state in October of 1938, Subcarpathian Rus’ received full governing status. Autonomy, however, lasted a mere six months until March 15, 1939, when Germany destroyed what remained of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The Lemko Rusyns found themselves under Nazi occupation after Poland was destroyed in September 1939 and the Lemko Region was annexed to Hitler’s Third Reich. In the spring of 1941, Vojvodina, with its Carpatho-Rusyns, was annexed to Hungary. Thus, during World War II, Carpatho-Rusyn lands were ruled either by Nazi Germany or its allies, Hungary and Slovakia.
    During the course of the war, the Allied Powers agreed that Subcarpathian Rus’ should again be a part of a restored Czech state. The Presov Region would remain with Czechoslovakia, the Lemko Region would be part of a restored Poland, and the Vojvodina would be a Serbian republic within Yugoslavia. However, the Soviets prepared for the annexation of Subcarpathian Ruthenia. In June of 1945, a provisional Czech parliament (without Carpatho-Rusyn representation) ceded Subcarpathian Rus’ to the Soviet Union, where it became another oblast of the Soviet Ukraine. This situation lasted until the fall of Communism and Soviet rule in 1989-91. As people in this part of Europe tell it, they have lived in at least five different countries but have never left their homes.


                Government official
(in Slovak):

We are interested in Rusyns and we are willing to support you. But you must finally decide if you are Ukrainians or Slovaks.


Satirical work of Fedor Vico,
cartoonist and woodcutter




    During 1945-46 there were approximately 180,000 Lemko Rusyns in Poland. Two thirds were encouraged to immigrate “voluntarily” to Soviet Ukraine. In the spring and summer of 1947 those who remained were driven from their homes by Polish security troops in what was known as Akcja Visla— The Vistula Operation. They were forcibly deported by the Polish government to live in the former German lands of western and northern postwar Poland because they had been accused of aiding the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (“Nation Building,” 197—209). In the border regions, many Rusyn villages were destroyed — plowed under — while others were taken over by Polish settlers. By late l950, Rusyns began to return illegally to their native mountain villages, and by the 1980’s approximately 10,000 did succeed in reestablishing new households or in buying back their old houses, although some were blocked by the Polish government. The Rusyns in Slovakia fared no better, undergoing intense Ukrainization and Slovakization brainwashing by the Communist-controlled government.
    With the fall of Communism, a reawakening of the Rusyn community throughout its former ancestral lands has been occurring. Carpatho-Rusyns in Transcarpathia (former Subcarpathian Rus’) have called for a return to their historic status as an autonomous land.
    Rusyn societies have been established to promote Rusyn culture in Slovakia, Germany, Yugoslavia, Transcarpathia, Poland, the United States, and Canada. The Rusyn language in Slovakia has been codified since 1995, while it has always been recognized in Yugoslavia. There is now an active Rusyn press in those countries that have a substantial Rusyn population (the Rusyn press in Yugoslavia has been active since the 1920’s); Rusyn festivals of culture, including poetry and literary festivals, are now widely held throughout eastern Europe. The Chepa prize (donated by a Toronto Rusyn businessman) is given yearly for the best example of Rusyn literature. People in the West can now purchase Rusyn wood carvings, pottery, embroidery, and paintings.



The World Congress of Rusyns met for the first time on Rusyn soil in 1999 in Uzhorod. The Ukrainian government has been the only one which refuses to recognize the Rusyn people, yet the largest minority population in Transcarpathia is the Rusyns. Many groups are working towards the goal of having the Rusyns recognized as a minority, including the United Nations and the Unrecognized Nations and Peoples Organization.


    As Petrov so eloquently states:

The Carpatho-Rusyns have managed during centuries of oppressions and suffering to preserve their Rus’ soul, Rus’ customs, Rus’ language, and Rus’ name right down to the twentieth century. A truly just reward for these heroes should not only be an ardent and enthusiastic concern for them and their welfare, but also an effort to study these heroes past and to proclaim it to the whole world. (Petrov 9)

    The Rusyns still face an uphill battle. Many have had to leave their villages in search of work. One finds only old people in many of them. The church conflict created by the Soviets between the Orthodox and Greek Catholics may not heal for years, if ever. The Soviets confiscated the Greek Catholic churches and designated them as Russian Orthodox. After the fall of Communism, the Greek Catholics requested that their property be returned. This has not always happened. As a minority people, they are still persecuted by much of the populace for who they are — it doesn't matter in which country they now live. They are still called “shalenij Rusnaci ”— the mad Rusyns — in reference to their lack of an education during the 19th century. Racism in Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine towards Rusyns is still present. It doesn't bode well for these nations that Rusyns from America and Canada are now returning to find out about their ancestors and to connect with the homeland. In most cases, they are better off financially than the local populace. They debunk the stereotype of the dumb Rusyn.



Carpatho-Rusyn  homeland


    During the summer of 1999, I had the opportunity to go on a Rusyn Heritage tour to Poland, Slovakia, and the Transcarpathian region. We saw firsthand examples of oppression with visits to a monument commemorating what happened at Talerhof as well as examples of the Akcja Visla operation throughout Lemko territory. We learned how hard it is to be a Rusyn in Transcarpathia. However, we also saw examples of Rusyn revitalization such as the opportunity to sing Rusyn folk songs with the Lemko Rusyn poet Petro Trokhanovskyi and his children, to see performances by such outstanding Rusyn groups as Zakarpatskyj Narodnyj Choir in Uzhorod, and to attend the Rusyn Festival of Culture and Sport in Medzilaborce.


Andy Warhol Museum in the city Medzilaborce


Medzilaborce is home to the Andy Warhol Museum. Andy Warhol, nee Varhola, was a Rusyn whose parents came from the village of Mykova. The museum was established as a memorial to him and his family. Mykova doesn't look as if it has changed since Warhol’s parents immigrated to the United States. We saw and were able to purchase examples of Rusyn craftsmanship. I had not been aware of the Rusyns’ outstanding artistic talents in woodcarving, pysanky (dyed eggs covered with beeswax designs), and embroidery. I felt at home on the tour; in a sense I was at home. I was very proud of my people for their courage and strength in enduring so much oppression throughout the centuries, proud that so many had had the presence of mind to leave the “old country” for a better life. As Karen van Kumes stated so succinctly in an editorial in the August 12-24,1999, edition of The Prague Post, “A government may strip you of your citizenship but never of your nationality.”



Ja Rusyn byl,
Jesm'y budu,
Ja rodylsja Rusynom,
Cestnyj moj rod ne zabudu
Ostanus’ jeho synom!



Typical house in Carpathian Mountains





Beskyd, Nykolaj. “Who Was Aleksander Duchnovyc?” Narodny Novynky. Presov, Slovakia. No. 17. April 28, 1993. Translated by John E. Timo.

Magocsi, Paul Robert. “The Carpatho-Rusyns: Part 2.” Carpatho-Rusyn American. Volume XVIII. #3. Fall 1995.

________“The Carpatho-Rusyns: Part 3.” Carpatho-Rusyn American. Volume XVIII #4. Winter 1995.

_______“The Carpatho-Rusyns: Part 4.” Carpatho-Rusyn American. Volume XIX #6. Spring 1996.

________The Rusyns of Slovakia. New York. 1993.

Moudry, Vladimir, and Frantisek Neme. The Soviet Seizure of Subcarpathian Ruthenia. Toronto. 1955.

“Nation Building or Nation Destroying? Lemkos, Poles and Ukrainians in Contemporary Poland.” Polish Review. XXXV 3/4. New York 1990.

Panjkevic, Ivan. Óêðà¿íñüêi Ãîâîðè Ïiäêàðïàòñüêî¿ Ðóñè i Ñóìeæíèõ  Îáëàñòeé, Prague. 1938.

Petrov, Aleksej L. Medieval Carpathian Rus. New York. 1998.

Slivka, John. The History of the Greek Rite Gatholics in Pannonia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Podkarpatska Rus 863-1949. 1974.




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