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Rusyns – the forgotten minority of Ukraine

It has been over 70 years since the essential banning of the Rusyn identity, and to this day these people are still not fully recognised in all of their home countries.

October 8, 2020 - Starik Pollock - Articles and Commentary

Church in Habura, Slovakia. Photo: Maria Silvestri

Tucked away in the Northern Carpathians, there is an area historically known as Carpathian Ruthenia. This region mostly covers the southern slopes of the mountain chain, with a small area on the northern slopes called Lemkovyna. The Rusyns have lived in this ancestral homeland for over 1000 years, most of this time living under the Kingdom of Hungary or the Kingdom of Poland. We are an East Slavic people, not unlike Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians, although our history is much different from any of theirs. Shaped by the great Carpathians, Hungarian administration, mass Vlach migrations and Slovak influence overtime, Rusyns developed a unique culture, language and identity.

Many in the present day doubt the validity of such a presence. We can easily look to even the mid-1800s, with the great Rusyn activist and priest Alexander Dukhnoych and his poem “I was, I am, and will always be Rusyn,” published in 1851, to find proof of its existence. Though we have survived for so long, life has never been an easy thing for us as a people and in fact, one could call it a story of struggle. The land of the Rusyns has for much of its existence been considerably poorer than the areas around it, with many Rusyns working in shepherding or farming to get by.

The first attempt to really eliminate Rusyn identity came after the formation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. Rusyn language schools were forced to shut down; Magyarisation of names and many other actions put an enormous stress on the community. Hundreds of thousands, due to economics, assimilation policies or both, left historical Carpathian-Ruthenia for the new world between 1870-1920. Many of these people would eventually wish to return, but following WWI and WWII, with the iron curtain being established, these Rusyns were essentially cut off from communication with their homeland and relatives.

The majority of Lemko-Rusyns in 1918 in Poland formed the Lemko-Rusyn Republic, wishing to be united with their brothers and sisters to the south in newly-formed Czechoslovakia. Before this time, however, from 1914-1917, many Lemko-Rusyns and others were sent to the Talerhof concentration camp, run by the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Thousands died at this camp. The official reason of their murder was their sympathy to the Russian Empire, but this of course was more complicated than that, with many Rusyn activists being imprisoned. An airport now covers where the camp once stood.

Then in the interwar period, there was an influx of prominent Ukrainian immigrants from north of the mountains into the Rusyn-dominated Czechoslovak region of Podkarpatska Rus’, or Subcarpathian Rus’. These people brought with them an attempt to Ukrainianse the local population, the majority of which saw themselves as Rusyns at the time. This was done through political parties, newspapers and schools. There was also the Carpathian Sich militia, whose makeup was primarily Ukrainians from Eastern Galicia and Central Ukraine, who had traveled over the mountains.

This would all culminate, following the dissolvement of the Rusyn-orientated Subcarpathian Rus’, with the declaration of the short-lived Carpatho-Ukraine. While this government was in part made up of Subcarpathian natives, like president Avgustyn Voloshyn, the percentage of people that agreed with this Ukrainophile orientation is unknown. Following World War II, Subcarpathia was officially annexed by the Soviet Union and became part of Ukraine under the name of Zakarpattia Oblast. Subsequently, the Rusyn identity was essentially outlawed.

Then in 1947 the Lemko-Rusyns were mass deported from their homeland in Lemkovyna. These people were sent west into the newly-recovered territories from Germany. This would become known as Operation Vistula. In the late 1950s a few thousand Lemko families returned, but in comparison to before, the population was, and still is, minimal.

During the time of the USSR and Eastern Bloc, instead of being able to put down Rusyn as their identity in passports or official documentation, the majority of Rusyns were forced to identify as Ukrainian. This of course was not a natural process, as many in the modern day can tell you. Instead of learning in Rusyn schools, the native language of the people, many were forced to learn the Ukrainian language or identify as a different ethnic group and learn theirs.

Things were also not easy for Rusyns in the US in many ways. Due to the policy of many churches and organisations, much of which was foreign-backed, a good amount of the descendants of Rusyns, including my family, were pushed towards taking up different identities. Examples of this forced identity change included becoming Russian with the Orthodox Church, Ukrainian with the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, or Polish with the Roman-Catholic Church.

Nowadays many Rusyns are rediscovering their heritage and identity following the end of the USSR, but things will never be what they once were. Of the estimated 1.5 million people of ethnic Rusyn background, just 70,000 declared themselves Rusyns on the latest national census. This number is growing with every new report, however, so there is room for hope.

 Now, every country besides Ukraine recognises Rusyns as a distinct people. Documentaries by filmmakers such as Maria Silvestri and John Righetti and radio stations such as Rusyn.fm have attempted to regain this sense of national consciousness and tell the world our story and culture. We also now have Rusyn festivals, artists, TV shows and organisations, which were not allowed just 30 years ago. With all of this, however, the damage from the past still shows even gradually in more faint ways today. 

This brings up the topic of modern-day politics. Although almost all of us simply wish to be able to be who we are and our ancestors were, Ukraine still looks at us with suspicion, as if we were secret agents wishing to further destabilise the country. This is an irony that does not go unnoticed because of Ukraine’s current struggle with its own identity and wish to be acknowledged as different from Russia and Russians.

Even I, a young twenty-something from the Great Plains of the Midwest, whose ancestors traveled here a century ago, still receive emails and messages questioning my validity on a daily basis, as if anyone who takes this cause seriously is a “Russian troll”. This absolute denial of Rusyn identity comes from a mix of Chauvinistic politics, modern-day propaganda and the wish to not further complicate the story of the Ukrainian state. How can no one see the hypocrisy in the way that we are treated?

Though the light at the end of the tunnel is faint as of now- we were, are and forever will be Rusyns, no matter what government policy may be against us.

Starik Pollock is a Rusyn-American writer and video content creator primarily focused on Rusyn political issues and Eastern Europe. 

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