Czechs and Rusyns: the ties that bind

National anthems are not just reserved for peoples with a state of their own. What you heard there is the national anthem of Subcarpathian Rusyns—or Ruthenians, as they are referred to by some. When Czechoslovakia was established in 1918, Rusyns were a founding people of the new central European state. After World War Two, the province of Subcarpathian Rus was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine and lost to Czechoslovakia, yet the relationship between Czechs and Rusyns was never emotionally severed and since 1990 there has been a growing Rusyn revival throughout central Europe. Although the numbers of Rusyns living in the Czech Republic is considerably less than that in neighbouring Slovakia, Hungary or Ukraine, Rusyns here represent a link to the past that's attracting new life.

One of the important legacies relevant to the contemporary era has its roots in the First Czechoslovak Republic—for that's when Czechs became fascinated with Rusyns and developed a sense of affection for the province of Subcarpathian Rus. In 1990, the Czech poet, editor and writer, Jaromir Horec, was one of the founders of the Society for the Friends of Subcarpathian Rus in Prague. He explains how his life-long connection to Subcarpathia came about:

"My relationship to Subcarpathian Rus is very simple: I was born there, in the city of Hust, and later we lived in Uzhorod. My father was a Russian legionary, and when he returned after the grand excursions of the First World War, he landed in Ceske Budejovice, in south Bohemia. There he signed-up for work in Subcarpathian Rus. My Dad loved forests, and in 1919-1920 the Czechoslovak government called on teachers, construction workers, forest rangers, and businessmen to help in the new eastern territory. For example, the father of our current president, Vaclav Klaus, built roads in Subcarpathian Rus—recently the President bragged about this fact! So I was born there, and my ties to the place have always been to that of my childhood home. When we moved away in 1932, back to the Czech lands, I always missed Subcarpathian Rus, its beauty and its people. During my adult life, I came to the realization that nostalgia is not enough, that I should do something practical, and so I began reading all I could about the former province. I decided that it would be a good idea to re-establish the Society for the Friends of Subcarpathian Rus, which was established in Bratislava in 1935 or 1936. This organization published a number of beautiful books, and stepped into the consciousness of Czechs, Moravians, and Slovaks—though not for long because in 1939 Subcarpathian Rus was occupied by Hungary, and of course the Society of Czech friends could no longer exist."

Following World War Two, the province of Subcarpathian Rus was assigned to Soviet Ukraine, and communist authorities declared Rusyns non-existent—all Rusyns living in communist states were officially referred to as Ukrainians. After the fall of communism in late 1989, Jaromir Horec met the journalist Agata Pilatova, and together they revived the Society for the Friends of Subcarpathian Rus. Unlike Horec, Agata Pilatova considers herself a Rusyn, and she spoke to me about the Society's various activities:

"Our organization had its 15th anniversary at the end of last year, so this is really the 16th year of its activities. One of the reasons we established the organization was that we wanted to expand an awareness of Rusyns—even back then. It's not a problem with the older generation which knows the history, but we wanted to distribute information to younger Czechs as well. Our activities have changed a little over the past 15 years. Originally, we wanted to spread information and give people interested in Subcarpathian Rus the chance to learn something about this area, to organize tours there, etc. As you probably know, there was a whole range of Czech writers and film-makers who were inspired by Subcarpathain Rus during the First Republic—this is also my personal theme, the cultural links to Subcarpathian Rus—and we tried to communicate this to Czechs today. Another part of our work has involved publishing books, and we have a magazine. We wanted to re-open the historical links to this land, and those between Rusyns and Czechs. Our historical ties actually go back to the Slavonic Congress of 1848, when a Rusyn delegation attended the congress in Prague. We've hosted debates, seminar series, and we struck an agreement with the National Museum where we established a Rusyn historical archive. This archive is part of the contemporary history division because we are dealing with events of the 20th century, and the archive houses both publications and documents."

But Czech connections to Rusyns are hardly purely historical. Sixteen years after the Velvet Revolution, the capital city of the Czech Republic, Prague, owes at least some of its beautifully restored building facades and manicured gardens to Rusyns. Since the collapse of communism, Prague has once again become a centre for Rusyn immigration—this new wave of Rusyn immigrants is primarily economic, seeking a better life than the one available in Ukraine. So, Agata Pilatova recognizes the evolving role of the Society for the Friends of Subcarpathian Rus:

"Gradually, practice showed that it is necessary to change the direction of our focus, to begin concentrating our efforts in the direction of new Rusyns who were arriving here. These people started to seek us out and they continue to do so. You see, for them it's very good if they can prove some sort of steps toward integration when they apply for work and residency permits. As a result, there are more and more Rusyns in our organization. But some of the Czechs—the elderly Czechs who belong to the group of Subcarpathian enthusiasts—are against this, and I don't quite understand why. Yet because we collaborate with various governmental organizations, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are some enlightened people who have absolutely no problem with the fact that this country is receiving a lot of Rusyn immigrants, and in some cases these officials have actually advised Rusyn newcomers to join the Society of Rusyns and Friends of Subcarpathian Rus. So in part our activities have shifted; we still publish books, but we're also engaged in the community. In the larger scheme of things, I think that the general knowledge that Czechs now have is greater than it was in, let's say, 1995."

However, the Rusyn community in the Czech Republic remains divided. Some say that the reason is a generational divide: that the older Rusyn immigrants, those who left the east for political reasons, do not want to associate with the new, young economic wave of the post-1989 era. The new working class immigrants just don't fit into the networks of the old, intellectual immigrants. Yet Agata Pilatova sees things differently:

"The problem rests with something else: with a lack of mutual information. I know many older Rusyns who live here and wouldn't have a problem becoming friends with a young family which has relocated here from Subcarpathian Rus. A bit of truth rests in the fact that it's very difficult to reach the newcomers. They work day and night, and how do you reach them when they don't watch television or read Czech newspapers? Some of the information actually travels via old, historically valuable methods—for example, by word of mouth at church. I don't think that the older Rusyns need to feel threatened by the newcomers. Don't forget that the new wave of Rusyn immigrants includes not just bricklayers who make more money here than nurses in Ukraine, but also people with post-secondary qualifications. These young Rusyns have other priorities besides communicating with elderly Rusyns, and even if they wanted to, how do they go about locating someone whose roots are in Subcarpathian Rus? So this conflict is not about ideas, or concrete prejudices, but the simple fact that different generations of Rusyn immigrants in the Czech Republic pass by one another without knowing. It's not about the elderly Rusyns fearing that the young will ruin their good image. In our magazine I had a column called 'Rusyns Among Us' where I introduced people with higher education working here in the Czech Republic. There are many Rusyns who have integrated into Czech society since 1990, and they bring value to this society."

In many ways, Rusyn life and culture in Prague is becoming more and more known, and the chances that Rusyns will form a more coherent community in the Czech Republic are also much higher now than they were some years ago. To start, Rusyns are an officially-recognized minority in the Czech Republic, and they have the backbone of a strong cultural organization that should ensure their roots are not forgotten.