The Rusyns have lived on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains since the Slavic migrations of the sixth century AD. Until the First World War, their territory was primarily within the Hungarian half of the Hapsburg Empire, with only a small part on the Austrian side.
With the 1919 Treaty of St Germain-en-Laye, Ruthenia was carved out of Hungary and joined to Czechoslovakia ostensibly as an autonomous province, though Prague never sufficiently fulfilled this treaty obligation. Compounding the problem, the political territory of Ruthenia did not match the ethnographic territory of the Rusyn nation, and so substantial Rusyn minorities were left outside of Ruthenia, in Slovakia and Poland.
After a single day of independence on 14 March 1939, Ruthenia was occupied by Hungary which de facto held it until 1945, when Stalin annexed it into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Rusyn national identity was likewise annexed into the Ukrainian.
Only in the late 1980s, with the decline and fall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe, did the Rusyn identity resurface. Today, Rusyns live in eight countries: Ukraine (estimated population 650,000), Poland (estimated population 150,000), Slovakia (official population 17,000, estimated 120,000), Yugoslavia (official population 18,000, estimated 35,000), Hungary (official population 674, official estimate 1000, unofficial estimate 3000), the Czech Republic (official population 2,000, estimated 12,000), Croatia (estimated population 3000) and Romania (official population 350, estimated 40,000).
The situation of Rusyn communities in five of the eight countries where they live has been described in detail elsewhere in Central Europe Review. What follows is a short summary of the situation of the small Rusyn communities in the remaining three countries: the Czech Republic, Croatia and Romania.
The Czech Republic: Early successes falter
After the Velvet Divorce on 1 January 1993, the Czech Republic became virtually homogenous, with only about five per cent of the total population not ethnically Czech. Rusyns have been a recognised minority in the Czech lands since the creation of the first Czechoslovakia at the end of the First World War.
According to the 1991 Czechoslovak census, about 2000 Rusyns live in the Czech Republic, though about 500 more claimed Rusyn as their mother tongue. This number does not include those Rusyns who identified themselves for census purposes as Czech, Ukrainian, Russian or otherwise, and so unofficial estimates put the actual total at about 12,000.
The Czech Republic's Rusyns are dispersed throughout the country and have no compact settlement. Due to the small population and scattered nature of their settlement, they do not have any particular privileges in the Czech Republic other than the rights enjoyed by all citizens of the country.
When the Rusyn movement gained momentum in 1989, the Rusyns of the Czech Republic and their sympathisers were
not left behind. The Society of Friends of Subcarpathian Rus', founded in 1990 and modelled on the 1930's organisation of the same name, is the primary organisation of Rusyns in the country. The Society is based in Prague and includes in its membership not only Rusyns but also supporters of all nationalities.
Initially, the Society called for the re-incorporation of Ruthenia into Czechoslovakia, but with the dissolution of that state, the goal was no longer tenable. Two other Rusyn organisations are also registered with the government, and all three work to promote Rusyn culture and identity in the Czech lands.
Croatia: Attack of the Rusyn-Ukrainians
About 3000 Rusyns live in Croatia, historically in the eastern regions around the cities of Vukovar and Osijek. The area of settlement adjoins the major Rusyn settlement in Vojvodina (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia).
In the early 1990s, during the Serbo-Croat conflict, the Rusyn community was particularly hard hit. Aside from the fact that the region where the Rusyns live was one of the primary battlefields, Rusyns were also drafted into both the Yugoslav and Croat armies and were forced to fight against each other in a war that was against their national interests.
Rusyns have been a national minority in Croatia since the founding of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War. However, current government practice lumps both groups together (as Rusyn-Ukrainians or Ukrainian-Rusyns) in the fashion favoured by Ukraine but foreign to former Yugoslav practices.
The central organs of the Rusyn minority, including the Nova Dumka publishing house, national radio programming, cultural societies throughout the country, government-sponsored educational programs, a central library and ethnographic collection virtually all serve Rusyns and Ukrainians as a single unit.
The same practice is maintained for Rusyn representation in the Sabor's Chamber of Counties. The Chamber is composed of seven members. The Serb minority has three seats, while the others, including the Italian, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak, German, Austrian, Rusyn and Ukrainian minorities, each have one.
However, the non-governmental Council of National Minorities, which is an official watch-dog organisation for minority rights, is composed of 14 members, and allows for both Rusyn and Ukrainian representation.
Romania: Slow to organise, but excellent progress since
The 1992 census counted only 350 Rusyns, but unofficial estimates put the total Rusyn population of Romania as high as 40,000. Rusyns live as indigenous inhabitants in the north-eastern Maramureş and Bukovina regions, and a wave of immigration beginning in 1907 created a second Rusyn community in the south-western Banat region.
As of 1998, a Rusyn organisation was in the process of forming. The group intended to publish a newspaper called Pradid (Ancestor).
Last November, the Uniunea Culturala a Rutenilor din România (the Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural Union of Romania) received one of the 19 seats allotted to national minorities in the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, the Lower House of the Romanian Parliament. This means that one of the smallest Rusyn communities has received one of the highest levels of political representation of any Rusyn community in Europe.
Brian J Požun, 7 May 2001