Written May 5, 2013
Slovakia is Central Europe by many definitions. Those who say otherwise generally tend to be ignorant on the topic or joking around.
For example, I’ve been told in jest that the vychodňari (people of Eastern Slovakia) are of a different mind than the rest of the people of Slovakia and that Asia starts at Štrba (a village in central/eastern Slovakia, below the High Tatras, above the Low Tatras, situated along the European Continental Divide). Not only is it not the start of Asia, it’s not even the start of Eastern Europe.
East Moved West
After World War II, Eastern Europe came west, swallowing up much of Central Europe and blurring the borders. That extra blurring of the borders by the aggressively extraterritorial Russians made the borders so blurry that to many, Europe went from analogue to digital – where there was previously much gray began to be perceived as black and white. “The ability to capture the subtle nature of the real world is the advantage of analog techniques.” The analogue nature of life, and especially the analogue nature of the polyglot land called Central Europe was lost in the power struggle between the two world empires – the Eurasian USSR and the North American USA. In this more digital, this more binary model, you were either West or East. Many outsiders saw it as being either “for us” or “against us.” And it didn’t really matter who the “us” was, much of the world saw that clear digital division. When you’re talking about borders its important to remember how blurry borders can be.
Blurry Political Borders
The exception to that is on political maps where borders are very clearly drawn in all but the most extreme situations. Where’s the border between Sudan and Egypt? Nobody knows, but if you’re a westerner and get too close to it you’ll find out pretty quickly. There have been problems with Sudanese zooming across in jeeps and abducting tourists in that borderland. Interestingly, Bir Tawil, a slice of land along that same border, is “terra nullius” – land claimed by no government. Neither Khartoum nor Cairo want it.
How about the border between Algeria and Morocco – the Sahara desert moves around in big sand dunes so without GPS it can be hard to know where the border is when you’re on the ground. And for that matter, does it really matter anyway? When you are in the middle of the Sahara, in remote areas, does any government care which side of its border you are on today. Part of the border in fact is not even agreed upon by the two nations.
The UN recognizes several lines where Israel’s eastern border could possibly be drawn – for example, 1. there’s the 1948 borders, 2. the 1949 borders, 3. the 1967 border, 4. there’s the place the Israeli govt said they’d build the wall, 5. there’s the place the wall actually is being built. I once went through a very intensive “interview” in Israel for having a UN map with those last three borders with me. I honestly didn’t see the great importance of that map, because I understand that governments at the end of the day have limited relevance and the borders agreed to by those governments also have limited relevance.
Blurry Cultural Borders
There is an internationally recognized political border between Slovakia and Hungary. The cultural realities of that border are very different. Ethnic Hungarians comprise the majority of the population for many miles north of that border.
Many borderlands tend to have some level of permeability and over the years the political borders may also shift back and forth.The borderlands shared by the US and Mexico will look very different by the end of the century. The question in dispute is whether it will only be a shift in cultural borders or if it will also be a shift in political borders. The cultural borders will surely have moved, few can deny that.
George Friedman in his book The Next 100 Years (Amazon Link) goes so far as to argue that the political borders between the two countries may also be very different and hotly contested by the two nations in war. Morris and Linda Tannehill authors of the book The Market for Liberty would likely entertain the argument that there may not even be nation-states 100 years from now. Borders are a temporary thing often with multiple definitions.
One definition would put Slovakia in Central Europe because of its historical connection to the Church of Rome through Roman Catholicism and arguably through Protestantism, sort of a “Roman Catholicism 2.0” from the perspective of the early Protestant theologians. By some definitions Eastern Europe starts where the connection to the Byzantine church begins.
On the eastern boundary of Slovakia, there is a gradual cultural shift, like with any good borderland. The tribe of the ethnic Slovaks gradually meld into a tribe of the ethnic Lemkos who gradually meld into the tribe of the ethnic Ukrainians. While there may be a cultural border between the Slovaks and the Lemkos, there is no political border that walls off the Lemkos from the Slovaks or Ukrainians. The cultural border is very hard to define and very subjective. The political border is an issue that is internationally agreed upon.
The Breadbasket of Europe
To add confusion, the culture of eastern Ukraine differs from western Ukraine and many young Ukrainians aren’t really able to answer what one might think is a relatively simple cultural question like: “Do you feel Ukrainian or do you feel Russian?” Or even a simple question of language like “Is that a Ukrainian word you just used or a Russian word?” Russians have so thoroughly dominated Ukrainian culture and society for so long that these seemingly simple questions pose a problem for many young Ukrainian citizens to answer simply.
Russian strategists have long understood that by blurring any cultural distinction between Russia and the Ukraine, that the Ukraine, “the breadbasket of Europe,” with its southern warm weather ports, vast fertile land, and bountiful natural resources would long be subject to Russian domination.
The Script of the East – ДЕ СКРИПТ АФ ДЕ ИСТ
As you move to the eastern portion of Slovakia, you begin to see the script of the east, what we call “Cyrillic” in English but which a Slovak might consider an incorrect word for the “azbuka” that is used. The script of the west is Latin. The Slovak language uses the letters of Rome. The Slovak language could just as easily use the letters of the East since the characters and sounds of the Slovak language correspond so perfectly.
Traveling into the Lemko lands you enter into a place that feels exotic, one reason it feels so is simply the shift in alphabet. Culturally, no great shift has taken place along your journey, but the different alphabet slaps you in the face and suddenly evokes the traveler within. One day in these pages I’ll post a tutorial on how you can learn Cyrillic in about 10 minutes. Doing so opens a whole new world for you as a traveler and as a human.
That’s for another day.
The Lemko People By Any Other Name
The Lemko people are a stateless people. I felt great pride that eastern Czechoslovakia was once a place with a very strong Lemko concentration. After WWII that changed as Russia gobbled up the land called “Sub-Carpathian Rus.” Outsiders didn’t really notice – “Russia gobbled up Rus. So what? Weren’t they the same place already?”
The two places could not feel more different to me. So many Russians I’ve encountered have a desire for a great leader to subjugate them and in doing so to make them believe they are subjugated by a powerful and glorious government. Being part of something powerful and glorious makes the subjugation worth it. They are proud and imperialistic. They are a land of conquerors.
The Lemkos tend to be the salt of the earth. Hard working people with strong values. They want to be left alone. They are not conquers. In fact they might not even be defenders. They honestly want to be left alone.
They call themselves a variety of names, some of which can be disputed as being the same thing or not being the same thing. For the purpose of this article, I will treat all these names as synonymous. Lemko, Rusyn, Boyko, Hutsul, Rusnak, Lyshaks, Ruthenians, Carpatho-Russians, Carpatho-Ukrainians, Rusyn, Ruthenes, Rusniak, Lemak, they might even call themselves Gurals sometimes.
I used Lemko up to this point in the essay to avoid confusion, since it is such a distinct word that is hard to confuse with any other European ethnic groups. Rusyn is my preferred term to use when I am speaking English, because I find it to be a very dignified and easy to pronounce term in English discussion, Rusňak is my preferred word to use in Slovak discussion for the same reasons and because it seems to be understood by Slovaks.
Between the wars, WWI and WWII, life was said to be more culturally liberal in Czechoslovakia than it was in – Ukraine, Poland, or Romania. This would arguably have allowed the Rusyns some room to breathe culturally. Surely, there are Rusyns reading this who will disagree (and I hope you would take a few moments to comment in the comments section if you are among them). After WWII that seems to be the case as well, as Slovakia remains the area with the largest officially recognized Lemko / Rusyn population of any place where this tribe of people have a traditional homeland.
Further dissolution of the Rusyn communities occurred after World War II, in some countries, when the Rusyn people were scrambled around in a series of forced population shifts. German (and other ethnic) colonists were chased from lands that had historically been home to their families, for hundreds of years in some cases. Rusyns, and others, were moved into some of the vacuums left by the Germans who were forced out of their homes.
These post WWII population shifts were such a sad time in the history of the region, partly because it proved that no lessons had been learned from the population shifts of earlier that decade that led to the Holocaust.
When fundamental civil liberties are violated there a slippery slope is formed. As far as much of Europe was concerned, Hitler simply wanted to resettle Jews into an area in Southern Poland. To some this may have even been an idyllic vision to have a strong “concentration” of an ethnic group in one location. In fact, there may have been Jews who once lauded an idea. However, the notion of taking a person out of his home forcibly or by threat of force is fundamentally wrong. It’s a violation of fundamental property rights and fundamental human rights. Small violations inevitably lead to greater violations.
Concentration camps were named concentration camps because they were publicly spoken of as a method of resettlement, a method of concentrating an ethnic population. When we begin down that course of violating fundamental human rights, it is not hard to watch a government commit even more horrific crimes. The Holocaust is one example of this, the 20th century sadly, was the century of mass crimes committed on people by governments.
Rusyn culture was easy to push around after World War II. They had no land, they had minimal political representation. Had individual Rusyns voluntarily been resettled I would feel better about what happened. That’s not how it happened though. Good people were forced from their homes and communities were torn apart. Concentration camps used by the German military during WWII were now being used internally by the Polish military for resettlement operations.
The lesson learned from World War II was not that it was wrong to treat humans in an inhumane way, but that it mattered only who you treated in an inhumane way. As some Rusyn communities were chipped away at, weakened, and even destroyed by the Polish and Soviet governments after WWII the world became a little more generic. As the Jews were murdered in World War II, as the political dissidents were shot in the street, as the Gypsies were killed in camps, the world became a little more generic.
The Rusyns were another example of government overstretching its limits and causing great suffering for many people. Operation Vistula, “Akcja Wisła” in Polish, is the name for one of these seldom mentioned story of human suffering after WWII. It’s one of the many examples of democide from the 20th century. Democide is “murder by government,” and is explained in depth at this University of Hawaii website on the topic. The 20th century was the era of grand governments and those governments brought death and human suffering on previously unknown scales.
To use the analogies of John Donne, “pieces” of the world were lost throughout the last century at the hands of government killers.
“…every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…”
– John Donne, Meditation 17
The Rusyn people were among those caught up in that suffering. Based on the estimated numbers of self-identified Rusyns alive in the world today, I speculate that the Rusyns are a tribe that will not see the end of this century. They have made it this far through human history, only to vanish, to blend into their surroundings, a group so successfully harmed by post World War II ethnic cleansing that their future seems stark. About that, I hope I am wrong. I like the Rusyn people who I have met and I appreciate a world filled with diversity of culture and perspective.
Today Slovakia continues to have a noticeable Rusyn population, arguably the largest in the world. The Ukraine after years of not identifying this ethnic group doesn’t really have an accurate count of who is Rusyn within the Ukrainian borders. The Soviets didn’t like ethnic identity (unless it momentarily benefited the government and the Party to play the ethnic identity card) and the Ukraine has in many ways continued that trend.
What’s Any of This Have to Do With Easter?
The Christian Church in general terms can be divided into Greek and Latin, which eliminates some other debates of theological significance and marginalizes some Christians who do not fall within that dichotomy. I hope the reader will forgive me for the momentary oversimplification of Christian religious beliefs. Rusyns tend to fall on the Greek/Eastern side of this divide. They tend to be some form of Orthodox Christian or Eastern rite or Byzantine rite Catholics, such as members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Slovak Greek Catholic Church, or Ruthenian Catholic Church. Some Rusyns are Roman Catholic too (afterall, some Rusyns live in Poland, and is there anyone in Poland who isn’t Roman Catholic?) in addition to other religions and denominations not mentioned here.
As a result of these Eastern and Western celebrations among these people who live on the boundary between East and West, Easter may fall on several days for Rusyns. It may be a Gregorian Easter, a Julian Easter, or both.
Today many of the Eastern churches celebrate Easter. They will read from Old Church Slavonic or other old languages and might even read in Greek, the original language of the New Testament.
It’s Easter because the Eastern church calculates Easter according to the older Julian calendar. Whereas the Western church uses the more modern (1582) Gregorian calendar. Separated by the Great Schism of 1054, Christian’s today have more than one Easter. Some years these dates vary widely. In 2013, for example, Easter was celebrated in March in the Western church and in May in the Eastern church. In 2014 the two celebrations of Easters will fall on the same day.
The process of calculating the date of Eater is called “computus” in the West and computus works as follows:
After the First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), the date for Easter was no longer based on Jewish methods of calculating the date of Passover. Eventually, it was determined that Easter would fall on the Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon on or after the spring equinox (March 21). 1583 was the first Easter that the Gregorian calendar was put to use by the Roman Catholic Church. Gradually, Western churches have come around to using the Gregorian calendar to calculate the spring equinox, while the Eastern church has continued to use the Julian calendar to calculate the spring equinox, and ultimately the date of Easter. The Julian calendar is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar so that May 5, 2013 Gregorian is April 22, 2013 Julian.
Numerous algorithms exist for calculating this date, but instead of worrying about the algorithms I just like to Google it. Here’s a chart of dates for comparison.
Dates for Easter
In Gregorian dates
Year Western Eastern
1982 April 11 April 18
1983 April 3 May 8
1984 — April 22 —-
1985 April 7 April 14
1986 March 30 May 4
1987 — April 19 —
1988 April 3 April 10
1989 March 26 April 30
1990 — April 15 —
1991 March 31 April 7
1992 April 19 April 26
1993 April 11 April 18
1994 April 3 May 1
1995 April 16 April 23
1996 April 7 April 14
1997 March 30 April 27
1998 April 12 April 19
1999 April 4 April 11
2000 April 23 April 30
2001 — April 15 —
2002 March 31 May 5
2003 April 20 April 27
2004 — April 11 —
2005 March 27 May 1
2006 April 16 April 23
2007 — April 8 —
2008 March 23 April 27
2009 April 12 April 19
2010 — April 4 —
2011 — April 24 —
2012 April 8 April 15
2013 March 31 May 5
2014 — April 20 —
2015 April 5 April 12
2016 March 27 May 1
2017 — April 16 —
2018 April 1 April 8
2019 April 21 April 28
2020 April 12 April 19
2021 April 4 May 2
Today is Easter Sunday for some in Eastern Slovakia. The East is where hrudka is made and where baskets are blessed. It is where Warhol is from, it has the best ice cream in Slovakia, it contains my favorite hiking place bar none, a spot of unparalleled beauty, and it hosts an exotic borderland, which currently doubles as the Eastern border of the European Union as well.
In Slovakia, a land that provides me with endless joy and surprise, the eastern part of the country provides me with a little more adventure when it is adventure I seek. The land of the Rusyns in Slovakia is a pleasure to travel through – the devout lands of the East, the borderland with Eastern Europe.
The religious aspect is only grazing the surface of the Rusyn people. Without a state, it’s easy to pretend that the Rusyns, the Lemkos are a people with no history. It’s made easier by the fact that they have no single unifying name in the international language of English, only a series of names. The importance of a name in this part of the world has been dealt with before in the pages of 52 Weeks in Slovakia.
Why After 2 Generations in the US, The Definition of Rusyn is Often Lost
Honestly, for how many generations can a discussion like this take place before it’s abbreviated and eventually forgotten?
Person 1: “Where do your ancestors come from?”
Person 2: “Near the borders of present-day Poland, Ukraine, and Slovakia, just below the Carpathian mountains in a land that has switched hands about 15 times over the last 200 years.”
Person 1: “What language did they speak?”
Person 2: “They were in a border land so really they each spoke 4 or 5 languages pretty fluently from the time they were children. The language they spoke at home is considered by some to be uncodified and has many names. Others would consider the codification to have taken place officially on January 27, 1995 in Slovakia as the Lemko/Rusyn language”
Person 1: “Oh, so they are Slovaks?”
Person 2: “No.”
Person 1: “Serbs?”
Person 2: “No.”
Person 1: “Slovenians?”
Person 2: “No.”
Person 1: “Czechs?”
Person 2: “No.”
Person 1: “So why did they codify the language in Czechoslovakia?”
Person 2: “Because many of them live in present-day Slovakia.”
Person 1: “So they are Slovaks?”
Person 2: “Ethnically, no they aren’t Slovaks. But many of them do have Slovak citizenship. Just like ethnically you are half Japanese, one quarter Swedish, and one quarter Columbian, but you have US citizenship.”
Person 1: “So they are a mix?”
Person 2: “No, that’s not what I mean. My whole family is 100%.”
Person 1: “So, what kind of people are they? What are they called?
Person 2: “My grandma calls us Lemkos, my grandpa calls us Rusyns.”
Person 1: “Oh Russian. Ok.”
Person 2: “No, not Russian. Rusyn. It’s a totally different group of people.”
A generation of two and that answer of where are you from gets shortened to “Vienna, Austria,” because one great grandfather listed that as a city he had been in on his travel declaration through Ellis Island since he assumed (correctly) that Medzilaborce would not be a familiar city name. Vienna is a city that sounds familiar enough that most Americans in the 21st century can at least pretend to have heard of it.
To further add confusion, if someone says “Russian,” to a Rusyn, the person can legitimately say “Yes, we are Carpathian Russians.” Such a distinction can easily be lost over the years, to the great pleasure of the often imperialistic Russians.
This is part of the complex plight of the people of the Lemko nation, the Rusyn nation, the nameless fantastic nation that lives along the Slovak, Ukrainian, Polish borderlands. Happy Easter to that nation.
With 11 years of studying Slovakia, this essay is a collection of information on the Rusyns. I am by no means an expert on the topic, but I know more than a huge percentage of people out there, enough to present myself as an expert by attempting a piece like this. Now, I hope that the real experts will speak up and help to fill in some of the the blanks, and perhaps help me correct some of my errors or oversights. The real experts are the people who live among Rusyns, are Rusyns living in their native land or some form of Rusyn immigrant, perhaps Rusyn-American or Rusyn-Canadian. You have the floor, please make use of the comments section!
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.