Yeah, we’re Rusyns, and so what?

Maria Silvestri
7 min readMar 2, 2017

Originally published 25 February 2017, 00:00 by Stanislava Harkotová

The young generation seeks to return to the Rusyn language.

As a young soldier, Juraj Koco served in Pardubice. Shortly before Christmas, he went to his commander and asked him if he could work on the public holiday — 24 December. “You see how he’s sucking up? He wants to serve on holidays to show off,” laughed his colleagues. So the commander asked, why?

The soldier Koco explained to the commander: “I want to take service on Christmas, so that I could be home for Christmas.”

“What are you talking about!?” asked his boss. So he was a soldier in front of a crowd of about 150 people explaining that he was from Eastern Slovakia and is part of the Rusyns, who celebrate the Christmas holidays according to the Julian calendar.

“Since then everyone respects it. They already know that Lieutenant Koco wants to go home for Rusyn Christmas. And he gave me three days off in addition,” he laughs after years of being a professional soldier, a native of the border village Ruské.

Similar funny anecdotes were heard again, when counterintelligence summoned him as a provocateur. In his documents, he had registered Rusyn nationality — an idea that strict Czech socialists had never heard of.

“Only good people, who served for many years and did not disclose that they are Rusyns, saved me. Then we met to sing Rusyn songs together — only after Pardubice and Hradec Králové hummed.”

One percent

At the last census, the Rusyn nationality registered more than 33 thousand people, 55 thousand people reported Rusyn as their mother tongue. One percent makes the Rusyns — after Hungarians and Roma — the third largest minority population in Slovakia.

But their villages are disappearing, young Rusyns move away from regions where development is absent, the language struggles, and there isn’t a lot of interest in the old traditions. At least at first glance.

Here and there, there are people who live their national identity in spite of it — like in Koco’s travels — sort of a hidden minority.

Rusyn saved their school

We are in the Snina district where the Rusyn language is officially heard in only one school in Slovakia — in the village Kalná Roztoka. It is here, 13 km from the Ukrainian border, that it protected the small elementary school from closing.

Nineteen primary school children in Kalná Roztoka learn Rusyn not only as a separate language, but they speak their native language in other subjects like natural science or history, when they discuss traditions and monuments in the region with their teacher. It’s easier for the children to understand in Rusyn; the language is also heard during math class.

The initiative to return the school to Rusyn was from the principal Marcela Ruňaninová. She says that she would be sad to hear the news that a new generation of Rusyns had lost the knowledge of who they are. But they initially had to persuade the parents. Their greatest fear was — what if the children do not learn Slovak well? They themselves grew up in an environment where it is customary for many years to “switch” between languages ​​as required and Slovak in the Rusyn region is close to their first language.

“I feel that the Rusyn language is experiencing a revival,” observes Ruňaninová. I’m particularly interested in seeing the generation at the age when they start their own families. Among older people, I saw indifference before, today’s young parents are much much interested in questions of identity and tradition.”

“Our parents’ village was made up of few people who know the Cyrillic alphabet. When their child can write it, they look at it with pride,” she said.

The paradox is that the Ruňaninová and her son are the only ones in the school who have officially reported Rusyn nationality: “It is not the slightest problem for me. I am proud that I am Rusyn. But it is interesting that even in Snina, where I live, people tend to turn around, when my son and I are speaking Rusyn.”

I was Rusyn … Я Русин быв …

“I have the feeling that Rusyns still have some kind of complex when it comes to speaking to each other in Rusyn in public. It’s nothing new. It was the same for Duchnovič (Rusyn national awakener, Editor’s note). He also had to encourage them, so that they were not ashamed to speak Rusyn,” longtime, now former dramaturg, and director of the Rusyn program on Slovak Radio Jana Truščinská shrugs.

We sit one hundred kilometers of the north east — in Prešov, the cultural center of Rusyns, in one of the local literary cafés, whose owners schedule events including Rusyn programs.

Right now, the caricaturist Fedor Vico is displaying his work. His joke in which the two gentlemen exchanged two simple sentences — “Я Русин быв …” (I was Rusyn … ) “Don’t do anything about that, old man. I was too” — indicates that not much has changed since the time of the Duchnovič..

“The lady came to buy a ticket to a Rusyn evening. I ask her:

- And are you Rusyn?

- Ah, I am not. My grandmother and mother were, but I am not.

Ha! Where she became a Slovak, I do not know,” says Tručšinská.

The culture fades

On the radio Tručšinská comes alive. She knows not only the language of her native village near Medzilaborce, but also the nuances from Snina and Svidník regions. In the Snina dialect, you’ll find “pujďakiv”. Pujdú hori puťú, navarjú perohú. [I’ll go up, I’ll cook pirohy.] People from Svidnik “šjakajú” [say the reflexive pronoun šja]. So we smile at them. Around Stará Ľubovňa, Rusyn is colored by the Goral dialect and Polish.

Shades that aren’t heard much in the air. After nearly 70 years of Rusyn broadcasting, not much is left of the program. In the past two-three years, literary creation has also faded. Allegedly, there is no money.

“I remember times when I still worked as a young actress in the theater — every week there was a dramatized story, a play every month. It is in creation that culture can be expressed. It also reflects the nature of the nation. Now it’s getting lost. To me, it’s reprehensible,” says Truščinská.

Rusyns are, it would seem, all kinds of non-assertive. Although they have always been used to working hard, or so their own artists see them, they have suffered from their own fragmentation and lack of leadership. Their notorious godfather disappeared (the radio show Besedy kmotrov, Editor’s note). Well that, and we noticed that the longer we don’t hear it, the more families tend to shrug their shoulders.On the other hand, we increasingly hear with sympathy: Yeah, we’re Rusyns, and so what?

Actively speaking Rusyn in Bratislava

“I have actively started to speak Rusyn even in Bratislava. It is a paradox — I had to leave home, so that I discovered that I had lost the Rusyn language,” says Peter Štefaňák. Now we’re in Petržalke, Bratislava, where his association molodŷ.Rusynŷ has its headquarters. There is also a dance studio for the Ruthenia folk ensemble, practice space for musicians, a library, and the Rusyn internet radio rusyn.fm.

Štefaňák represents the generation of Rusyns in their thirties. He has lived in the capital city for 14 years, he studied here and today he works here. As a young man, he addressed identity questions, preparing a monograph about his native village Malý Lipník, in Stará Ľubovňa district. When he was still in high school, he was led to the historical sources that started him on the project.

What does the post-revolutionary generation of Rusyn activists pick up on and try to encourage young Rusyns?

In Bratislava, 750 people reported themselves as Rusyns in the last census. However, according to Štefaňák, the number should be in the thousands. Many study, work, and live for many years in the city, but without a permanent residence, so the statistics may not reflect reality.

They were already “like Ukrainians”

“In the east there is awareness of who they are, ‘Rusyns’ or ‘Šarišanci.’ But the awareness of who Rusyns are is worse. People think that it is a kind of dialect. Many of them have no idea that the Rusyn language is codified. Yet it is a language which is being properly taught at the University of Prešov,” says Štefaňák.

Since the 1950s, forced Ukrainianization continued in Slovakia. What was previously considered Rusyn, was expressed as Ukrainian. Many Rusyns therefore called for the establishment of Slovak schools. Somewhere here, their assimilation began.

Back then, it was said that the government’s idea was that those who lived near the Ukrainian border were “like Ukrainians.”

“Against the will of the people, they made Rusyn schools into Ukrainian. On the other hand, Ukrainian education and the Ukrainian movement conserved many things, such as writing, folklore, and created professional institutions. After research has been done, Rusyn traditions are clearly something independent, not Slovak,” Štefaňák explains.

The situation today is in some cases complicated, because some people do not realize that the Rusyn language — belonging to the westernmost branch of East Slavic languages — is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. That contributes to the rejection of the written language, because people tend to associate it with Ukrainian. This topic is sensitive in some villages to this day.

Dobriansky rather than Warhol

Today, unless someone draws Rusyns into a debate, the only name that tends to come to mind is the American painter Andy Warhol, the son of Rusyn immigrants from the village Miková. For Rusyns themselves, however, Warhol is a quite controversial figure and they say that his greatest contribution to the Rusyns was that he was born to a Rusyn mother. Otherwise, he did nothing for Rusyns.

Štefaňák also previously mentioned the names Alexander Duchnovič, Alexander Pavloviča and Adolf Dobriansky, the latter was the only Rusyn representative in the Hungarian diet.

There are more famous Rusyn names — Michail Baluďanský founded the university in Saint Petersburg, the soldier Michael Strenk raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.

Štefaňák does not believe that Rusyns were non-assertive.

Authentic People

“How are the people? I would say — more temperamental. That’s why In the east sometimes you hear: Šalenyj Rusnak [silly Rusyn],” frowns Tručšinská. In her view, the word “silly” does not do the Rusyn soul justice.

“Rusyns have never been wealthy people. Therefore, I would say that they are rather modest and simpler people who do not need to play to what they are not, “says the director. Many Rusyns who have achieved success, still leave something authentic in themselves, according to her.

“In Bratislava there are two brothers, doctors, leaders in orthopedics and neurosurgery, and they have no problem explaining to the patient in Rusyn, with the knowledge that they are also Rusyn.”

Translated by Maria Silvestri.

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Maria Silvestri

IT>EN and SK>EN translator, President of the John and Helen Timo Foundation. Based in Pittsburgh.