2021 July Ukraine Uzhgorod Kushnytsia
In the hills and valleys of the Carpathian mountains in Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, and some other countries villagers speak a language different, though related, to other Slavic languages. So far this is nothing special. They do not have their nation but are not alone in this. There are Sorbs in Germany, Friesians in the Netherlands, Kachubi in Poland. The countries they live in generally view them as interesting. They are seen as a valued part of national culture.
The reality is grimmer for this Slavic group, however. Over a hundred years of organized agitation and disinformation, three letters in their name and an unconnected story of some centuries ago cast a spell or rather a curse. Some 2 million live spread out in around 5 different nation-states. In 4 of the countries, things are ok. In Ukraine, however, disinformation and agitation hijacked a peaceful and kind group consisting of most villagers. Here is their story.
I meet Myhal Lyzhechko, also known under his “writers name” Мигаль Кушницькый, or Myhal Kushnetskyi:
“I grew up in a little village in the Carpathians, Kushnytsia, Кушниця, on the rivers Borzhava and Lysychanka (Боржава, Лисичанка), and communicated with everyone in what I considered to be my language. Everyone used it. This changed when I went to school in Uzhgorod. My classmates frequently told me I was using funny words considered not proper Ukrainian. So I adjusted. Due to the economic situation my mother had to go and work in the Czech Republic. As I visited her during holidays and was shocked to find I had difficulty speaking with her in my own “mother tongue”. Czech people, however, recognized my accent and looks. They told me I was “Rusnak”. For them this was a clearly defined and acknowledged minority group, speaking an interesting Slavic language (or dialect, depending on your choice of definition).”
This map shows where Rusnak was spoken in 1934 in the areas under Hungarian rule (so excluding Polish territory):
Source: linguist Georgy Gerovsky
“I was ashamed and sad to have lost my language. I started to study the issue and now I have a Youtube channel where I highlight Rusyn (or Rusnak) language and customs.
Rusyn is just a Slavic language, like Czech, Slovak, Polish, Belarus, and Ukrainian. It just happens to have a name with an omen.”
Myhal explains Rusnak is classified in the East Slavic language group by some linguists based on just one vowel shift. In the word for cow: korova. Originally this was spelled with a now lost vowel, more or less sounding like a short o. In the “east” languages the o remained and turned a real o, so in Ukrainian корова in the “west” versions the o disappeared as in Polish crowa and Slovak krava.
This is the only distinguishing feature between east and west. Before this (minor) distinction became promoted there was no such categorization and one can academically dispute if it is a real distinction at all or other categorizations are more valid and appropriate.
“My objective is purely cultural, the language and culture are worth preserving. My work is non-political and I have no political claims or objectives whatsoever. I am sometimes approached by politicians and agitators, that would like to use my influence. Also, there is hate comment on my Channel.”
“I do a lot of street work, talking to people and learning from them. Also collect information about the region, e.g. the typical decoration of the houses. I have not yet found out their origin.” Mihal has a good job in IT and I ask him why he does not leave like many of his generation: “I could easily work elsewhere but I feel connected to the region and find a lot of joy in digging into all the special things it has to offer”.
The hijacking of three letters
The word “Rus”, designates those who adhere to the Orthodox rite of Christianity (in whatever form). In that sense, the majority of Slavic groups fall into this definition, apart from the Roman Catholics. Also, the language is mostly written in Cyrillic as opposed to Latin, probably a consequence of the difference in religion. So far things seem simple but during the centuries one group more or less appropriated the name: Russia. It is quite clear the Russians belong to the “Rus” Slavic but they are only one of many. Though propagandists will try to convince you otherwise.
Third-party interference and disinformation
The Rusyn/Rusnak identity has been highjacked already from Tsarist times by Russia (in whatever form), claiming their origins are Russian (not “Rus”). They are supposed to have a special connection with present-day Russia. This statement is not correct as apart from the three letters Rus in the name there is no direct connection at all, nor linguistically nor ethnically nor historically. Probably the White Croats, as the Rusyns also were called (white being North) migrated into the Carpathian mountains (source Wikipedia). They stayed there or migrated a bit south and mixed with other groups like the Vlachs. The whole story is very complicated (and there are many widely varying and conflicting versions) but well and in-depth described with a reference list from The Rusyn Literary Society
Who is the real “Rus”
Myhal: “The whole twisted story developed when the Mongols came and threatened Kiyv. One king escaped from Kyiv to Halych (nowadays a city near Lviv), and his younger brother escaped to Suzdal (northern principality, nowadays Russia). In the eyes of the European monarchy, Halych was a successor of Rus’, so that, a rightful owner of this name. The younger brother in Suzdal didn’t like this and had claims on a throne of the whole Rus’ as well. Long story short: thus began the endless war on ‘who is the rightful successor of Rus’. There are many, not just one.
The Carpathian Rusyns have nothing to do with this, they were already a part of the Hungarian kingdom for two centuries and were not connected to the older brother at all.”
“Pay the priest”
The fake story of the “lost” people was cleverly used to create confusion already in the 19th century by the Tzar and especially his Ambassador Orlov, who started paying Orthodox priests and thus buying their loyalty and support for the “Russian” connection.
During communist years the same happened on a wider scale where Uniat (Greek Orthodox) churches were forcibly connected to the Moscow patriarchate. This situation in some cases still exists. The Moscow patriarchate is well known to be an instrument of the KGB (now FSB).
Alex Brut, a journalist in Mukacheve: “The activists, who made a lot of publicity around a possible “independence” for the Rusyn are remarkably small and held a “conference” in Mukachevo on Rusyn or Zakapatian independence some years back understandably scared many in Ukraine, after the events in Donbas and Crimea. Rusyn is a recognized regional language in Zakarpatia In Ukraine in 2014 revoked this status for fear of similar developments as in Donbas. They seem to be quite silent at the moment but there still are paid agitators on social media. There are some Cultural Karpatian Associations but they too seem not very active nor popular with the villagers speaking the Rusyn language. For them, sadly, they are hijacked by a cause they have nothing to do with”
“ The villagers just speak Rusnak and have no time for nor any interest in politics”
Nashy (from with us)
Myhal is very down to earth on any political Rusyn movement: “The people concerned, the Rusnaks in the villages, who speak my language is far too busy surviving and making a living and are uninterested in any manifestation of their identity. They are just who they are and speak the language they consider to be theirs, often even unaware it is called Rusyn. They would say they speak Ukrainian but at home in my village Kushnytsia they say “we speak Kushnytsu”.
This is in contrast to a village down the road where they speak the language of that village, which is in effect the same apart from a few typical words. They may call it Carpatian when you ask them. But not Rusyn, though that is in fact what it is. Sometimes they refer to themselves as Nashy (from with us) meaning: from here, without further reference to whatever group or label. In Ukrainian, the word Tuteyshy is used with the same meaning.
Myhal agrees that a lot of problems would be solved when the name would be changed to something else. But then it would also mean a loss of identity. “
“Andy Warhol (Rusyn by birth) said that he came from nowhere.”
In the meantime, Rusyns cling to their identity, sometimes consciously or sometimes unaware. As with all minority languages and dialects, this is difficult. Globalization evens out cultural differences and everywhere dialects have a hard time surviving. Sometimes even those who identify themselves with the Rusyn group have migrated towards other cultures. There is a lot of dispute as to who is actually Rusyn, are other groups like Lemko, Boyk, Hutsul, or Goral also Rusnak? ln Rumania, where Ucraenean, Rusyn, and Hutsul are used rather indiscriminately, and the languages used are mixed and migrated away from the originals. As happens with a “live” language.
There is a very wide Rusyn diaspora in a.o. North America. Andy Warhol was one of them. Probably more Rusyns live abroad as compared to the original villages. As with all emigrants, some of them cling to their roots. Weddings and other festivities are celebrated honoring the traditional costumes, food, music, and dance.
All in all, it is unlikely much will change in Ukraine as long as the disinformation war keeps on raging parallel to the daily fights and deaths in Donbas.
The Rusyns in the villages will continue to take their cows out and herd their sheep and goats, unaware of the controversy. They just make a living.
The picture below shows Ivanka herding her family’s cows just outside Kushnytsia. The cow in the picture is Lisja, a very common Rusyn name. On my question about what language she speaks, she tells me: “Ukrainian of course”. But what do you speak at home? “Ah, we speak Carpathian, that is different”.
Additional note by Myhal
Are Hutsuls, Lemko’s and Boyks Rusnaks?
Linguistically speaking, Hutsul dialects are on their own. They are as far from Rusyn, as they are far from Ukrainian standard. They still have a strong connection to the dialects of Galicia and Podolia. Those are the historical places of their origin. They came to the southern side of Carpathians from there only in the 17th century, so relatively recently.
Mentally speaking Hutsuls were always either neuter or pro-Ukrainian and never tried to bound with Rusnaks of the lower lands.
Some maps/historians consider them Rusyns and base this classification on historical events, as they were living in Subcarpathian Rus during the Czechoslovakian period, but I find this claim not correct.
Lemko is a quite recent term that became an autonym only at the beginning of the 20th century. Lemak means “a person who says the word lem, (only)”, and was used as rather an insult or a joke.
The word ‘Lemko’ became an autonym as opposition to the pro-Ukrainian movement that was happening in western parts of Galicia before WW1. It is clearly visible by events of WW1 too: two different Lemko republics sprung up. One was pro-Ukrainian, the other one was pro-Rusyn.
In my view, Lemko is an ethnicity from Carpathian highlands located in Poland (only). This, later on, became a part of both the Ukrainian and Rusyn areas. Remember operation Vistula when Lemkos were deported to Ukraine by Poland.
Ukrainian dialectology also likes to claim that Lemkos are living in Southern Slovakia as well, based on the fact that their dialects are similar. However, I’m quite familiar with the Rusnak movement in Slovakia, and I know that no one calls themselves Lemko there. This term originated on the Polish side. Some deported families still call themselves Lemko.
Zapovidnyk Tustanʹ Заповідник Tустаньin in the Skolivski Bechydy nature reserve: Are you Hustul or Rusyn I asked this couple: The answer was, “no we are Lemko, Hutsuls live more east”
For me the least interesting among these 3.
This old term is on a map from the 13th century showing Boykos were living somewhere in Germany. Simply saying: those were quite different people from those that are to be called Boyko today.
Linguistically speaking dialects that are to be referred to as Boyk are located in Carpathian Highlands on the edge between Poland and Ukraine. Those are real highlanders.
As for today: little to no people use it as an autonym. There were no attempts to raise political movements. If you want to insult or joke to your neighbors you may call them so, but no one calls themselves a Boyko.
You go to a highland village and ask where Boykos are, people reply: “they live in the next village. We are not Boyk”. When you go to the next village and ask the same question, people give you the same answer. In the end, you can never find a village where people will claim they are Boyko.
Gorals in Slovakia, Poland, and Czech are really a very separate group, by the way, very different.