Slovakia's Rusyns - communism took its toll on Rusyn identity

The church in a Rusyn village

Rusyns, also reffered to as Ruthenians, Carpatho-Rusyns, or Rusnaks, are a modern Slavic ethnic group speaking the Rusyn language and descended from the minority of Ruthenians who did not adopt a Ukrainian national identity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The ethnic identity of Rusyns is highly controversial. Some researchers claim that they are distinct from Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, while others considers Rusyns to be a subgroup of the Ukrainian nation. Nowadays they live spread over six countries including Poland and Slovakia. Anca Dragu went to Northeastern Slovakia where Rusyns live to learn more about them. The Rusyns, or Ruthenians, are a modern Slavic ethnic group who speak the Rusyn language and are descended from Ruthenians who rejected Ukrainian identity around the time of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Today they are spread over six countries including Poland and Slovakia. To learn more about them Anca Dragu went to Northeastern Slovakia where Rusyns live.

The further East you go from the capital, Bratislava, the more people know about the Rusyns communities - found mainly around the towns of Svidnik, Bardejov and Presov. Some even say they have Ruthenian blood in their veins. Nobody, however, knows how many Rusyns live in Slovakia. Official statistics speak of about 24,000 people while linguists estimate there are about 50,000 speakers of the Rusyn language in Slovakia. Given the fact that the language is the main characteristic of an ethnic minority, one may conclude that some Rusyns have officially declared themselves as Slovaks or even Ukrainians in population censuses. Anna Holtmanova, an ethnographer with the Muzeum of the Sarris region in Bardejov says, however, that the Rusyn culture is very visible in many villages around Bardejov and Svidnik.

"When I walk around I can say, yes, this is a Rusyn village or this is a Rusyn house. When they came here they settled in areas on the Slovak-Polish border which had been already inhabited by other people so they got poorer plots of land and built modest houses. But they made sure they could build a nice church. They have always been either Greek-Catholic or Orthodox of the Old Rite. Of course their folk costume is different with blue and yellow aprons for women and very colourful shirts for men who also wear red large trousers, the language is of course different but maybe the most striking difference is the music. Their music is a bit more melancholic than ours".

Rusyns’ history in North Eastern Slovakia has not been an easy one. Often villages where they lived had been part of territorial disputes between countries. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire most of them were included in the state of Czecholsovakia. During WWII, some of the villages were taken by Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. Thus big Rusyn communities live nowadays across the border from Slovakia around the town of Uzhgorod.

"My name is Ondrej Demeter. I was born in the former Czechoslovakia, in the village of Bukovec near the Polish border but now I live in Ukraine in this region called Trans-Carpathia. My father and his entire family, were Rusyns born in today Slovakia, near the town of Hummene. He later moved his family to Uzhgorod. Then when Czecholsovakia was invaded by the nazi Germany our town ended up under Hungarian rule and after the war under the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed we ended up as part of Ukraine. We have always felt connected to the people living in the village across the border in Slovakia and after the fall of the communism we hoped we could get easier in touch with them. Unfortunatelly the travel restrictions imposed by the communists were replaced by those imposed by the European Union. Now we are not divided by an iron fence anymore but by the Schengen security system".

The Rusyns living in the communities left in Czechoslovakia did not have an easy life either. In the early 50s the communists banned the Greek-Catholic Church to whom most Rusyns belonged and many priests who used to form the intelelectual elite of this ethnic group were sent to prison. Seven Rusyn villages were covered by water when the Starina dam was built. People were displaced, old houses destroyed. At that time the authorities did not care about identity elements being destroyed. Officals had already decided that in fact all Rusyns are Ukrainians who had better integrate into the Slovak communities if they wanted a decent life. Their children had to attend Ukraine or Slovak schools. This measure had a huge negative impact on the future development of the Rusyn identity as Jan Lipinsky the president of the Association of Rusyin Intelectuals says...

"We are trying to help people cultivate their Rusyn identity via a newspaper but discovered that many young people do not know how to use Cyrilic letters which are used in our written language or many speak Rusyn but can’t write or read it. Fortunatelly the University in Presov has a course of Rusyn language and culture".

An interesting fact is that though Rusyns seem to be the third largest minority in Slovakia after Hungarians and Rroma, they seem to be the only one which does not have either political parties or strong lobby groups. Lipinsky admits that this might be a disadvantage.

"I know that we have at least 4 MPs of Rusyn origin in the Slovak Parliament. Even the former Finance Minister is Rusyn. But they say they can’t act on ethnic base thus the Rusyn minority as such does not benefit at all from having them there. We really have to fight hard for any single crown we get in grants for our cultural events".

Money might soon not be the main issue in organising cultural events. Once again time seems to be working against Rusyns.

"As an ethnographer I run out of respodents when I go to do some research on the field. Older people do not remember things anymore, they forgot the meaning of a particular custom in their village. I need to talk to people in their 70s and 80s because only they lived through those times before communists came and tried to uniformize everything", concludes Anna Holtmanova staring at an old wooden house brought to her museum from a Rusyn village near Bardejov.