What is a Rusyn, anyway?

by Richard D. Custer, Washington, DC

From time to time we see in Slovak-American publications reference to Rusyns and Rusyn villages in the Slovak Republic, or that so-and-so has Rusyn heritage. Rusyns (sometimes spelled Rusins, or called Carpatho-Rusyns signifying their villages being in the Carpathian Mountains) are one of the many nationalities/ethnic groups of Slovakia, along with Slovaks, Hungarians, and Romanies (Gypsies). Rusyns are eastern Slavs, which means that their history, culture, and language are rooted in the medieval Kievan Rus’ kingdom (Slovaks, by contrast, are western Slavs), although Slovaks and Rusyns have lived together on the same territory for nearly 1000 years (and share many cultural traits).

Traditionally, almost all Rusyns belong to the Byzantine/Greek Catholic or Orthodox Christian churches. Rusyns have never had their own country, but their homeland today lies in 3 countries: Slovakia, Ukraine (the Transcarpathian district, former Ruthenia), and Poland (the Lemko Region, formerly part of Galicia). There are approximately 1.5 million Rusyns in Europe today, and about 120,000 of them are in Slovakia.

Most Rusyns in Slovakia live in the east, mainly in the districts of Stará Ľubovňa, Spišská Nová Ves, Bardejov, Svidník, Humenné, and Snina, and in the city of Prešov. The large towns of Svidník, Medzilaborce, and Stakčin are mostly Rusyn-inhabited, and in all there are over 300 mostly-Rusyn villages in Slovakia.

Some of the better-known are:

in the old Spiš County: Osturňa, Veľký Lipník, Stráňany (formerly Fol’vark), Litmanová, Jarabina (in Rusyn, Orjabyna or Jarembina), Jakubany, Kamienka, Ihľany (formerly Hodermark), Torysky, Oľšavica, Nižné Repaše, Poráč, Zavadka, Slovinky, Helcmanovce, Kojšov;

in the old Šariš County: Malý Lipník, Matysová, Sulín, Ľutina (in Rusyn, Ljucina), Malcov, Šambron, Blažov (no longer existing), Tichý Potok (formerly Štel’bach), Čirč, Bajerovce, Lukov, Becherov, Ladomirová, Vyšný/Nižný Komárnik, Krajné Čierno;

in the old Zemplin County: Habura, Čertižné, Miková, Oľka, Čabiny, Krásny Brod, Výrava, Svetlice (formerly Vylagŷ), Pčoliné, Nová Sedlica, Klenová, Kalná Roztoka, Vaľaškovce (no longer existing);

in the old Už County: Klokočov, Beňatina, and Podhoroď.

Also, most villages with “Rus” in their name are Rusyn, e.g., Ruská Voľa, Ruská Poruba, Ruský Potok, Ruská Bystrá, Ruská Kajňa, Ruská Volová, Ruská Nová Ves.

Rusyns speak a language also called Rusyn (which like all languages has a number of different dialects). The language spoken by Eastern Slovaks and Rusyns is similar, but for example, verb infinitives in Rusyn end in -ty, e.g., hovoryty, hvaryty, or bisidovaty (all three meaning “to speak”), whereas the East Slovak “to speak” is hutoric and literary Slovak is hovoriť. Rusyn is written in the Cyrillic (“Russian”) alphabet, but the Latin (“English”) alphabet has also been used, especially in Slovakia.

Rusyns have common Slavic first names like Michael (Michal or Michajlo), John (Jan or Ivan), Maria, Helena/Olena, and Anna or Anastasia. But several first names are peculiar to Rusyns (and extremely rare among Slovaks): for males, Vasil (Wasil, Vasko, Wash), Dimitri (Mitro, Metro), and Demjan (i.e., Damian); for females, Paraskeva (Paraska, Pajza, usually anglicized to Pearl), Hafia, and Tekla (sometimes anglicized to Tessie).

Rusyn surnames vary widely, many ending in “skyj”, but some other common endings are “čak”, “čik”, “jak”, “njak” or “ak”, “ko” or especially “nko” and “sko”, “išin” and “ovič”. Examples of these are Brudnjak, Rybovič, Herko, Krupinjak, Hricko, Hrinko, Hvozdovič, Jasenčak, Korčak, Kaščak, Kovalčik, Krajnjak, Vislockyj, Zavackyj, Rusinko, Rusinjak, Šutjak, Timko, Lipčak, Vovčko, Hopko.

Some contain forms of first names: Fedorčak, Michališin, Mihalko, Mihalič, Pavelčak, Petrisko, Petrik, Danjo, Demčak, Vasilenko, Vasilko, Mitro, Mitrenko, Miterko, Demko, Demjan, Havriljak, Ivanco, Ivančo, Jankura (from Janko - John), Jurčišin (from Jurko - George), Kuzmjak (from “Kuzma”), Lukač, Lukačik, Lukacko, Onufrjak (from Onufrij), Semančik (from Simeon), Štefanisko.

Others might signify coming from a certain Rusyn village: Jarabinec, Jakubjanskyj, Čukalovcak (from Čukalovce), Haburčak, Krynickyj (from Krynica in the Lemko Region of Poland), Zavačan (from Zavadka).

Other examples of common Rusyn last names are Benjo, Holovač, Kapral, Kundrat, and Uram.

In Slovakia, Rusyns are best known for their wooden Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches (some of which are in outdoor museums - skanzens - in Stará Ľubovňa, Svidník, and Humenné) and their icons (especially those in the Šariš Museum in Bardejov), their Easter eggs (pysankŷ or krašankŷ), and their folk dancing and singing. Folk festivals of Rusyn folksong & dance ensembles are held annually in Svidník, Medzilaborce, Kamienka, and elsewhere. One of the most popular Rusyn folksongs is “Červena ruža trojaka” – “Red rose”, but Rusyns also share many songs with their Eastern Slovak neighbors, like “Rozmarija”, “Ja parobek z Kapušan”, and “Od Ungvara.” In recent times the song "Krjačok ljalijovŷj" has been popularized in Slovakia by Rusyn singer Anna Servicka.

Today Rusyns in Slovakia are undergoing a revival after the fall of Communism in 1989. (Under Communism, Rusyns were declared to be Ukrainians and could not have their own cultural institutions nor officially use their own language; most chose to identify as Slovaks rather than Ukrainians.) Today they have their own newspaper (Narodnŷ novynkŷ), magazines (Rusyn and InfoRusyn), radio programs (from Košice), art museum (the Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce), dramatic theatre (the Alexander Duchnovič Theatre in Prešov, which performs classic and new plays in the Rusyn language).  A number of primary schools in Rusyn-inhabited villages and towns include Rusyn language courses in their curriculum, and Prešov University has a department of Rusyn studies.

Most Rusyn immigrants to America came between 1880 and 1914, to places like New York City, Passaic, NJ, Bridgeport, CT, the eastern PA hard coal regions, western PA (esp. Pittsburgh and Johnstown), Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Detroit. Today smaller numbers of Rusyns are coming from Slovakia, especially from villages like Litmanová and Jarabina, mostly to metro New York/New Jersey. Over 750,000 Americans have at least one Rusyn immigrant ancestor. Some famous Rusyn Americans: actresses Sandra Dee and Lizabeth Scott, actors Robert Urich and John Spencer, artist Andy Warhol, boxer Pete Latzo, U.S. Marine Michael Strank of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, composer Peter Wilhousky, jazz pianist Bill Evans, and NHL hockey star Peter Bondra.


If you're interested further in this topic, or think you may have Rusyn heritage, the Carpatho-Rusyn Society, 125 Westland Drive, Pittsburgh PA 15217, can help you out. Or visit the Society on the Web at www.c-rs.org .

Books about Rusyns in Europe and America (and a map of villages in Carpatho-Rusyn areas of Slovakia, Hungary, and Ukraine) are available from the Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center, 7380 SW 86 Lane, Ocala, FL 34476-70060.

Back To Carpatho-Rusyn Society Home Page

Last modified on August 27, 2006
Greg Gressa [ggressa@carpatho-rusyn.org]
The Carpatho-Rusyn Knowledge Base