Dec 22, 2005

Rusyn: A Minority in Waiting

In the altered political landscape in Ukraine, local Rusyns see new life for their long struggle to be recognized as a separate nationality
In the altered political landscape in Ukraine, local Rusyns see new life for their long struggle to be recognized as a separate nationality.
Don’t bother looking for the Hutsul Republic or the Lemko Republic of Florynka on a map of contemporary Europe. This pair of tiny, unrecognized Rusyn "republics," born in the wake of World War I, survived just a few months. Nor does Subcarpathian Rus appear on modern maps. It endured as an independent state but a single day in 1939.

It is this that largely explains why the Rusyns of East Central Europe lack a secure, distinct ethnic identity: they have never had a sovereign state of their own. Rusyns have often been the political pawns of their larger, stronger neighbors and, due to their ethnic marginality, have often assimilated themselves into stronger, larger ethnic groups. That countless Rusyn emigrants around the world call themselves Russians, Hungarians, or Slovaks reflects both their own and the world’s fuzzy understanding of Rusyn identity.

Still, though few in number, Rusyns have won recognition – and varying degrees of protection – as a minority in Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. They enjoy parliamentary representation as a national minority in Romania and Croatia and, in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, the Rusyn language is one of six official tongues.

Paradoxically, it is in Ukraine, home to nearly half the world’s estimated 1.6 million Rusyns, that they have made the fewest gains. And so most Rusyns were overjoyed when a man promising a new, more open and democratic system won the Ukrainian presidency in 2004 against tremendous odds. In the past year those hopes have been dulled.


The root of the problem is that Ukraine does not recognize the Rusyns as a minority; in lawyers’ eyes, they are just members of the Ukrainian nation and therefore cannot claim the rights that official minorities enjoy.

That legal definition of the Rusyns dates back to Stalin and the Soviet annexation of Subcarpathian Rus. That was, though, the first time that the heartland of the Rusyns – in Transcarpathia – had belonged to a state based to the east of the Carpathians. For centuries, the region was ruled by the Hungarians. For 20 years after World War I, the territory was a nominally autonomous province of Czechoslovakia, Subcarpathian Rus. In March 1939, the territory declared independence; it was invaded the next day by Hungary and remained under Hungarian rule until the end of the war.

This long, tangled history as a remote place governed from a distant capital has left its mark on all who live in Transcarpathia, not only the Rusyns. In practice, it has encouraged assimilation. Now, after decades of being told their ethnic group did not exist, many Rusyns in Ukraine are heavily assimilated. Many legitimately consider themselves Ukrainian.

The process of reclaiming Rusyn ethnic identity has been hard. Nevertheless, a wide range of Rusyn cultural organizations are active across Transcarpathia, most of them coordinated by an umbrella organization, the Carpatho-Rusyn Sojm, or parliament.

There are also newspapers and magazines in the Rusyn language, though they have low budgets and small circulations. Rusyn publishing has nonetheless produced one of the rare examples of a very successful Rusyn business in Eastern and Central Europe, the Padjak publishing house, which releases 20 to 25 volumes every year on Transcarpathian themes, some of them in Rusyn.

But Ukraine’s continued choice not to recognize its Rusyn minority is hampering efforts to promote Rusyn culture. Officially merely a dialect of Ukrainian, Rusyn is not taught in Ukrainian schools. In the absence of regular schooling, efforts to teach the Rusyn language are small and scattered, though there are some successes. In the town of Svaljava, for instance, a Sunday-school program teaching Rusyn language and culture swelled from nine classes in the 2003-2004 academic year to 16 classes (with more than 400 students) the next year. A brainchild of Vasylij Sarkanych, head of the local branch of the Organization of Subcarpathian Rusyns, it has relied on the diaspora and the gratitude of Stephan Moldovan, a Transcarpathian Jew who survived the Holocaust thanks to local Rusyns.


Hopes that such examples of support from abroad would be less important rose with the Orange Revolution. Rusyns in Ukraine had grounds to be optimistic that the new administration in Kyiv would give them more of a chance than its predecessors. Rusyn leaders were active during the 2004 presidential election campaign and the crisis that erupted as millions of people took to the streets in the Orange Revolution. Three leading Rusyn organizations publicly supported the campaign of Viktor Yushchenko campaign and joined the groundswell of popular condemnation of electoral fraud.

After Yushchenko's victory, Rusyn leaders wasted no time before aiming their lobbying effort at the new authorities. They were soon disappointed. Yulia Tymoshenko, the co-leader of the revolution and subsequently prime minister, sent a handwritten reply to their letter, but its contents merely restated Kyiv's old view that Rusyns are Ukrainians and that they could expect no help from the authorities.

In such circumstances, the diaspora plays a key role not just in promoting Rusyn culture and identity, but in trying to convince Ukraine to recognize its Rusyn minority. Numerically and financially, the diaspora is a significant force in the community: after Ukraine, the second-largest Rusyn community lives in the United States.

Achieving that goal may prove slow. Still, it may now at least be nudging forward. When they met this summer in the Polish spa town of Krynica, members of the largest Rusyn organization, the World Council of Rusyns (WCR), could take heart from the news that the respected U.S. senator and potential presidential candidate John McCain had, albeit gingerly, raised the question of granting legal status to the Rusyns in Ukraine in a letter to Yushchenko.

McCain so admires the leader of the Orange Revolution that he and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York nominated Yushchenko for the Nobel Peace Prize.

His constituents had made him aware, McCain wrote, "that there is substantial scholarly support for the distinctiveness of the Rusyn people and language" and that "various bodies dealing with human and minority rights have taken note of their aspirations to self-identity." McCain largely followed Washington's official tack: to note the strength of Rusyn aspirations in Ukraine without explicitly endorsing their demand for national minority status. Hardly a ringing call for Rusyn rights, but nonetheless it freshened the Carpathian mountain air breathed in by WCR delegates.

What activists have so far not accomplished, bureaucrats just might. Many Rusyn activists see Yushchenko's goal of European Union membership for Ukraine as their best hope. Although membership remains a distant prospect, many Ukrainians see a real chance of closer integration.

If Kyiv is to have a real shot at becoming an EU candidate country, it will have to satisfy Brussels that it takes minority rights seriously. The hope is that the carrot of EU membership will be sufficient incentive to the Ukrainian government to take recognize the Rusyns as a minority. Ever-hopeful, members of the World Council of Rusyns like to think it may happen before the congress next meets in 2007 – just over the border from Ukraine, in Romania.