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THE CARPATHO-RUSSIANS: A BRIEF HISTORY
"Who are we? Which nationality? We are Subcarpathian Russians or Rusyns, but not Great Russians." -Maria, Transcarpathian great-niece of Aleksander Simkovich
'Carpatho-Russia' region today
The general usage of 'Rusyn' by all Eastern Slavs dates back to over 11 centuries, its origin signifying the ethnic tie to the political entity of Kievan Rus, which existed from the late ninth to the early 13th century. Russians (Great Russians), Carpatho-Russians (Carpatho-Rusyns), Ukrainians (Malo Russians or Little Russians), and Belarusians (Belarussians or White Russians) are descendants of the Russichi, the people of Rus, that is Eastern Slavs who mixed with other peoples over centuries: in the south with Iranian and later with Germanic peoples, in the west with Baltic peoples, in the east with Finnish and Turkic peoples.1
Over the centuries the Rusyns developed different political and economic centers as well as new names. The inhabitants of northern Rus were known as Great Russians by the 17th century. The people in the west called themselves White Russians (or Belarusians). And the people in southern Rus were known as Little Russians. Then, in what began as a political movement in the late 19th century, many Little Russians began calling themselves Ukrainians to distinguish themselves from the Great Russians in northern Rus. By the 20th century the original name Rus or Rusyn was retained only in the Carpathian mountains.2 In America, Rusyns refer to themselves as Carpatho-Russians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Ruthenians (Latinized form), or simply Russians. The Carpatho-Russian Crest, as seen on this website masthead, is the national symbol the Rusyns. The red bear represents the Carpathian Mountains and the three gold bars the region’s three major rivers: Uzh, Tysa and Latorytsia. Dark blue and gold are the region’s traditional heraldic colors.
Carpatho-Russians (Carpatho-Rusyns) settled in the Carpathian Mountain region in various waves of immigration from the north between the eighth and 17th centuries. Weapons and skeletons found in tombs in Bereg County from the 10th century era suggest that Norman Vikings (who played a role in the founding of Kiev Rus) were here as well.3 During this time Carpatho-Russians were primarily shepherds, farmers, loggers and hunters. The harsh mountain winters and foreign economic and political controls were unfavorable conditions that had to be endured. The cumulative effect of this adversity tempered the Carpatho-Russian society toward being introspective and stoic. In 1241, the Carpathians fell to Mongol-Tatar invasions lead by Genghis Khan's son, Batu Khan, with populations exterminated and villages torched.4 The Mongols entered the region via the Veretski Pass, just east of the Simkovich home village of Mokra.
In 1395, Orthodox Rus' Prince Feodor Koriatovich, son of the Duke of Novgorod, brought from the north Novgorod soldiers and their families with him to settle unpopulated Carpathian lands. The arrival of Koriatovich and his retinue was a milestone for the Carpatho-Russians, substantially improving the region’s administrative, ecclesiastical and cultural aspects.5 This included building and fortifying Mukachevo/Mukacheve Castle with cannons, a moat, workers and artisans, and the founding of an Orthodox monastery on the Latorytsia river.6
Prince Feodor Koriatovich
The Austro-Hungarian monarchy controlled the Carpathians from 1772 to 1918. In the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire became a favored destination for educated and intellectual Carpatho-Russians.7 The nineteenth century also saw the spread of pan Slavism in Europe, and a pro-Moscow view became popular. The Russian military campaign of Tsar Nicholas I through the Carpathians in 1849 had significance for the local Carpatho-Russian population, who came into close contact with an almost 200,000 man Russian army. This interaction had an impact on the rising national consciousness of that time.8 Aleksander Dukhnovich (1803-1865), who wrote the unofficial Rusyn National Anthem (“I was, am, and will be a Rusyn”), and who is considered to be the 'George Washington' of the Rusyns, reminisced that when he saw the Russian Cossacks on the streets, he “danced and cried with joy”.
A few decades later, when economic conditions and repression worsened in the late 19th century, massive emigration to America took place, beginning in the early 1870s. Between 1899 and 1931, Ellis Island listed 268,669 Rusyn immigrants, Aleksander Simkovich (to whom this website is dedicated) being one of them.9 Most settled in the northeastern states, but Rusyn settlements also appeared in more far flung states such as Minnesota, Colorado, Alabama, Washington and Montana. Their descendants in the USA today number about 700,000. Smaller numbers also emigrated to Canada, Brazil and Argentina.
Although Transcarpathia was not a major WWII battlefield, it saw its share of destruction. In September 1944, while retreating from a Soviet Red Army offensive, the Nazis blew up all the bridges in Uzhgorod, including one built in the 14th century. The Soviets occupied the Carpathians, and in 1945 it became part of the Soviet Union and was officially named Transcarpathia.10 This act was protested for years, but to no avail. In the USA, the Greek Catholic Union’s 1964 convention even adopted a resolution calling on the United Nations to act “so that Carpatho-Russia be recognized and accepted into the free nations of the world as an autonomous state”.11
Transcarpathia mountain view
"Our people voted 'Yes' for Autonomy, but it’s only our wish since the government in Kiev refuses to approve our vote". -Oksana, Uzhgorod, great-niece of Aleksander Simkovich
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Rusyns in the Transcarpathian oblast (territory) were able to vote in December 1991 for self rule within the Ukraine. With an 89% voter turnout, 78% voted Yes to autonomy.12 But with the Russian majority in the Odessa region casting a similar vote, the Ukrainian government, fearing secession, has refused to honor this referendum.
There is today in Transcarpathia, population 1.3 million, a strong pro-Rusyn movement, which to others means anti-Ukrainian. For example, some Ukrainian nationalists have argued that the modern 'Rusyn movement' in Transcarpathia is in reality "acting to defend the interests of the Russian Empire the Carpathian Mountains".13 Most Rusyns, however, simply want their own identity. In any event, the Rusyns/Carpatho-Russians as a distinct people has reached a watershed moment. Including neighboring countries, there are approximately 1.5 millions Rusyns in Europe today.14 They are now recognized as a nationality in Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. In Ukraine, they are third in population after Ukrainians and Russians, and their future as a distinct minority appears more secure than ever.
"Here in our motherland, Zakarpatia (Transcarpathia), we have today many nationalities - Russiny (us), Russians, Ukrainians, Gypsies, Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Armenians. In the countryside, around the family village of Mokra there is forest with beech, spruce, birch and hornbeam trees. Animals in our forest include wolves, bear, foxes, lynx, eagles, wild boar, hares and wild goats." -Anna, Transcarpathian niece of Aleksander Simkovich
Today there are an estimated 50,000 Russians living in Transcarpathia, along with a host of other minorities. Mountains make up the majority of the Transcarpathia, and there’s a typically Alpine combination of the dramatic and the intimate: forests and mountains and waterfalls and fast flowing rivers contrasting with friendly looking meadows and pretty villages of wooden houses and churches. In 2006 the United Nation’s Carpathian Convention went into effect here, aimed at conserving the area's rich wildlife, landscapes and cultural heritage while promoting forestry, mining and tourism without spoiling the environment. Transcarpathia possesses immense natural resources, including timber, mineral water (more than 500 springs), salt, gold, mercury and marble. Tourism includes skiing, game hunting, spas and resorts. Wine-making is a significant industry in Transcarpathia (a few Simkovichs here make their own homemade vodka).
The nearby border has become a popular place for illegal immigrants attempting to reach Western Europe, and border guards regularly catch Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese and African illegals. Meanwhile, a number of Rusyns go abroad for work, with the largest number now residing in Russia and in Portugal.
Border Guard in Chop, Transcarpathia
Companies from countries such as Germany, Britain, Austria and USA now operate here. Sweden’s IKEA operates a saw mill and a furniture plant. An American electronics manufacturer has invested almost $75 million into two new plants in Uzhgorod, while their Singapore competitor has built their own plant in nearby Mukachevo. These plants, employing about 4,500 workers, are producing components for companies such as Siemens, Philips and Nokia. Russia maintains interests in the region: the Ukrainian government is renting a free trade zone in the border city of Chop for 50 years to Russia. In Mukachevo, many Moscow based businesses have set up offices for trade to the west. One of the largest Soviet built early-warning radar facilities and missile tracking systems is located in Mukachevo and is now used by both Russia and Ukraine. Communications which unite east and west Europe - three railroads and four highways, electric lines, gas and oil pipelines - go right through Transcarpathia. Under pending construction is the Novopskov (Russia) - Uzhgorod (Ukraine) gas pipeline - which will be controlled by both Russia and Ukraine. It will transport natural gas from Siberia to Western Europe. Already, 80% of Russia’s gas to Europe travels through Ukraine, and two-third’s of that rushes through a major pipeline that exits at Uzhgorod.15
The Simkovich ancestral village of Mokra is in the mountains, with a road going south to the regional city of Uzhgorod running through the valleys. Mokra currently has 125 houses and one main road running along a stream, the Borshinci, which flows into the Turja River, which in turn flows into the Uzh River, on which further downstream sits Uzhgorod. Even today, family members in this remote region report occasionally having their dogs and horses killed by wolves. While some family members still live in Mokra, others have moved off to the big city of Uzhgorod.
"Our city Uzhgorod, located on the bank of the river Uzh with a population of 130,000, is the capital of Transcarpathia. Uzhgorod is more than 1,000 years old and has many historical palaces. Among them is Uzhgorod Castle dating back to the 10th century, and a cathedral built in the 17th century." –Svetlana, Uzhgorod, great-niece of Aleksander Simkovich
The Transcarpathia capital of Uzhgorod/Uzhhorod has a unique central European east meets west feel to it. Russian is spoken freely in this culturally mixed town as a practical way of communicating between Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Gypsies, Germans, Poles, Tatars, other minorities and the dominant local Carpatho-Russians. The city gets its name from the Uzh River, which divides the city into two halves (the old and new sections). Uzh is the name of the river (it means eel) and horod is Rusyn for city (in Russian gorod), coming from Old Slavonic grad. Since new regulations for entry into Ukraine were enacted in 2005 - permitting American, Canadian, Japanese and European Union citizens to visit for 90 days without a visa - Uzhgorod has experienced an influx of foreign tourists.
The period of Czechoslovak control between the First and Second World Wars has left the city with streets lined with trees in a west European fashion, and with small blocks of modernist influenced apartments. The town hall built during this period would not look out of place in Italy, and the red tile roofs of many of the houses give a southern European feel. This contrasts sharply with later Soviet style architecture that also appears in the city. Another unusual contrast is the western baroque style Greek Catholic Cathedral in comparison to the eastern style Russian style Orthodox Cathedral. Uzhgorod has flown 37 different flags, from the banners of Hungarian princes, to that of Genghis Khan, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Czechoslovak First Republic, a Nazi protectorate, and the Soviet Union.16 While Uzhgorod can be considered to be the capital of the Carpatho-Russians, it also reflects what it is: an international city at a crossroads of Europe.
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1 News from Ukraine (Kiev: Dec. 1989), p. 2
2 Carpatho-Rusyns - Byzantine-Ruthenian Diocese of Parma (Parma: Aug. 1981)
3 Andras Benedek, Gens fidelissima: The Rusyns (2001), p. 12
4 A. Bonkalo, The Rusyns (New York: 1990), pp. 12-13
5 Manifesto Of The Carpatho-Rusyns in Czechoslovakia (Presov: 1990), pp. 3-4
6 Ihor Tymofeiev, The Day - Ukrainian Daily Newspaper (Mukacheve: Ukraine, 1998)
7 Carpatho-Rusyn American (Pittsburgh: Spring 1993), p. 3
8 Carpatho-Rus’ / Karpatska-Rus’ (Yonkers: March 19, 1993)
9 The New Rusyn Times - Carpatho-Rusyn Society (Pittsburgh: May/June 1995), p. 11
10 Orest Subtelny, Ukraine - A History (Toronto: 1988), p. 487
11 John Masich, Highlights in the Glorious History of the Greek Catholic Union of the USA, in Jubilee Almanac of the Greek Catholic Union of the USA, (Munhall, PA 1967) pg 263
12 Byzantine Catholic World (Pittsburgh: Feb. 16, 1992), p. 8
13 Oleksa Myshanych, Political Ruthenianism - A Ukrainian Problem, The Ukrainian Quarterly (New York: Fall, 1997)
14 Richard D. Custer, Rusyns (Washington, D.C.)
15 Steve Gutterman, Soviet-era pipeline grid means Russian gas exports still moves through Ukraine, Associated Press (Jan. 3, 2006)
16 Arie Farnam, Harmony Reigns in an Unexpected Place, The Christian Science Monitor (March 29, 2002)