hidden europe 43

The three pillars of Rusyn life

by Nicky Gardner


The fragile flame of Rusyn consciousness is flickering back to life. There is renewed interest in Rusyn art and literature. A group that endured "fifty years of Soviet silence" (Norman Davies' words) is reasserting its right to be heard. We look at a minority which has as its cultural heartland the hill country where the territories of Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland converge.

The twentieth century was often difficult for the Carpathian Rusyns — at least until 1990 when political changes in central and eastern Europe paved the way for new-found freedoms for the Rusyn people. The various governments which between 1920 and 1990 presided over the territory where Rusyns and their Lemko cultural cousins have their heartland generally ignored and often even actively undermined Rusyn life and culture.

During the second half of the nineteenth century there was a flowering of Rusyn national consciousness. This period of cultural revival was led in the main by poets, pedagogues and priests — three vocations which were often combined. Rusyn leader Alexander Vasilyevich Dukhnovych (1803–1865) most certainly worked in all three capacities. He came from the village of Topol’a — in Dukhnovych’s day part of the Habsburg Empire and now in the north-east corner of Slovakia (you’ll find a useful map on page 9). Insofar as the Rusyns have an anthem, and surely even stateless nations deserve an anthem, it is Dukhnovych’s 1851 poem Dedication (Vruchanie in Rusyn) with its bold declaration “I was, am and will be a Rusyn.”

In the final decades of the Habsburg Empire, the Rusyns of the Carpathian region very successfully asserted their national identity — an identity which was rooted in the rural landscapes of the region where Dukhnovych and other Rusyn leaders lived and worked. Rusyn life was interpreted as an essentially rural endeavour. It was intimately linked to the Greek-Catholic faith that found a great following among Rusyns, although this religion, which deftly bridges two branches of Christianity in Europe (namely, the Orthodox and Roman traditions), is not peculiar to the Rusyns. At a dayto- day level, it was this deeplytextured religion, a distinctive East Slavic language — seen by many linguists as a recension of Church Slavonic — and the valued status of wooden architecture which emerged as the trinity of virtues which underpinned Rusyn and Lemko self-awareness.

An iconography of rural suffering was embedded in the Rusyn mind, even though a dash of poetry helped alleviate the burden and that remained even more true in the post-Habsburg period. “We are shepherds, we sing our own liturgy,” wrote Rusyn poet Petr Prodan in 1941, alluding to the distinctive tradition of unaccompanied singing in Greek-Catholic churches.

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