Lemko-Rusyns The Kurds of Central Europe

The following article, authored by Petro Trochanovskij, first appeared in Carpatho-Rusyn American, Volume 25 #2, 1992
Copyright © 1992 and is used here with permission

The following paper was presented at a meeting of the European Congress of National Minorities in Budapest, May 9-10 1991--Editor

The letter " " [ja, meaning "I"] is the last letter in all East and South Slavic Cyrillic alphabets, as well as in my native Lemko-Rusyn language. It is the last letter, but it is with this letter that I will begin my presentation at this international forum.

I am not a politician. I am not a diplomat. I am not a scholar Some say that I am a humanist, a poet. About myself I will say that above all else I am a Homo Sapiens. History has made me a member of a particular people-a small people for whom no one has had the slightest concern, an exiled people, a people wasting away in the very center of civilized Europe.

At first I thought I would give a short chronological history of my people-about its heroes and scholars who for centuries tried to pass on their own native name while preserving an unchanging love toward it. I thought about this, and then changed my mind.

All of you know very well Shakespeare, Mickiewicz, Pushkin, and Petofi, but the surname Rusenko means nothing to you. You know Guiseppe Garibaldi, but the names Vasyl' Bajus and Andrej Savka mean nothing to you. Winston Churchill is a familiar name, but the name Jaroslav Kachmarchik is completely exotic. It is unspeakably difficult for members of a small, nationless people to be giants in a big world. But the Lemko Rusyns named above nevertheless are giants, although unknown to you. Why is this so?

It has not been so difficult for the peoples of the Amazon of Guinea, or the Yakuts in the Siberian taiga (even during Soviet times) to preserve their distinctiveness. But for a small people in the very center of civilized Europe, as I have said, preserving individuality to this day has been entirely impossible in the absence of great local personages. And insofar as this was possible even in Europe of the late middle ages, later, in order to live, in order to preserve one's former national culture, in order to avoid assimilation into neighboring peoples, a group had to have its scribes, writers, in general its cultural activists and even its national avengers.

Polish scholarship almost unanimously considers Lemko Rusyns late arrivals, as mountain shepherds. I, of course, will not argue with that proposition here I hope, however, that in the future we will begin to state the truth about the ethnogenesis of my people and will assure the world that we are the indigenous population of our land.

But not even that is my subject today. Whatever our ethnogenesis may be, we want the world to understand that we consider ourselves a distinct people, and not as the Ukrainians want, when others insist for them that we are a branch of the Ukrainian people.

We began the struggle for national independence almost at the same time as those very Ukrainians and alongside the Slovaks. We had no less a chance of becoming a completely independent people than the Slovaks. In his time, our great awakener, Aleksander Duchnovyc, even worked with the Slovak L'udovit Shtur. A little while later, our northern Carpathian Rusyns (those who adopted the name Lemko) began, after their pan-Slavic-Russophile meanderings, to return to their native language gradually and to raise it to artistic and even scholarly levels, as in the case of Mychail Astrjab.

In order to complete this process, a degree of historical luck was necessary. But for the Rusyns there was absolutely no such luck. For our people, the twentieth century literally has been apocalyptic. In the concentration camp at Talerhof in Austria, between 1914 and 1917, almost all of the northern Lemko-Rusyn intelligentsia perished or had their health ruined. It is sufficient to say that while the Lemkos constituted only 2 percent of the larger surrounding population, much of which was indifferent to the politics of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, in Talerhof they comprised 30 percent of all the inmates. Every fiftieth resident of the Lemko Region was a prisoner in Talerhof.

The twenty-year period of Polish rule between the two wars was inadequate for educating a new intelligentsia upon the ruins of a national culture. Nevertheless, such an intelligentsia did arise, and more importantly, set out along its own distinct path. Truly, had it not been for the misfortunes and even cataclysms about to overtake them, the Lemko language would already have been fully codified and the Lemkos themselves would have been a group with a completely formed national vision.

For Lemkos, World War II was tragic not primarily because of war's natural tendency to destroy a people in both a biological and economic sense. From a national point of view, the greatest misfortune that the war brought was that. just as during World War I, the fiercest opponents of Lemko national autonomy, the Ukrainians, with the full acceptance of the German Nazi aggressor, became the actual ideological rulers of the Lemko Region. It was a mockery of fate that the Ukrainians chose precisely the town of Krynica as the center of their "enlightened" political activity, the very place that previously had been the center of Lemko national life.

The horribly sad fact is that when World War II finally ended, those who had not long ago been beaten down, but were not in a position of strength, acknowledged the Lemkos against their will as Ukrainians and then drove them off their native land. They tore out an entire people, roots and all, and drove them piece by piece into distant foreign lands, from the Oder to the Don rivers.

I do not hesitate to call this forced resettlement of the Lemkos from their native land the greatest crime of the past centuries. I will not compare individual misfortunes, for every crime is after all a crime Some crimes can at least be explained if they happened in time of war or if they took place in some wilderness or tundra well beyond the normal sphere of civilization. But this crime was perpetrated under peaceful conditions and not far from centers of highly developed cultures.

Before long, a half century will have passed since those days, yet still, in these supposedly new and more open times it is hard to find anyone who has the desire to correct this ''mistake.'' The word ''mistake'' sounds ironic here, but this crime is called precisely that: "a mistake due to difficult times." It is as if there were no guilty parties, for the communist regime has fallen and this alone is considered its sufficient punishment. New offices and officials reluctantly plan to revive that which at one time was intentionally intended for destruction.

My native land cries out with its vacant and desolate lands. The wonderful Carpathian forests are being decimated. For over forty years powerful bulldozers annually have been carrying away hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of wood products. This includes the production of paper, although it was not destined as books printed for my people! Why should my people have books in their native language when this language is not even considered a language, and when they were commanded by the decree of some general or other to be numbered as members of another people, a big people with whom they are compelled to identify?

In the 1950s, already several years after their exile, when my people were regaining consciousness from the horror, attempts again were made to reestablish Lemko culture. An educational organization was founded but failed. So the government created the Ukrainian Social-Cultural Organization (USKT) with a division called the "Lemko section." This was a parody of cultural autonomy, and after two years it was liquidated. Only in the weekly Ukrainian-language newspaper, Nashe slovo [Our Word], was one page set aside for Lemkos. This page was intended to fulfill a "humanitarian'' role: to inform the Lemkos about who they actually were. After thirty five years, some of them understood something about their identity, but the overwhelming majority did not understand and remained ''without a [national] consciousness.'' Some observers might think that, indeed, these Lemkos must be slow witted, for already one hundred and twenty years ago the Ukrainian Prosvita Society [Enlightenment] had in mind the same goal, yet it, too, failed.

In 1989, on the fiftieth anniversary of their "non-existence,'' Lemkos were allowed to create their own association, the Lemko Society (Stovaryshynja Lemkiv), which was a direct result of the new democracy. But there were no means provided for them to live or to develop. Everything had to start from scratch. Our people did not even have a primitive publishing press, but only something resembling a journal produced by typewriter. In the epoch of computers, this is both amusing and shameful. I will not say for whom it is shameful.

Nevertheless, we have almost ready for publication the following: a Basic Lemko Grammar (so far, phonetics and morphology), and An Anthology of Lemko Literature. Work is underway on dictionaries: Lemko/Polish and Polish/Lemko. Of course, people have been working on these for a long time, and slowly, for it is impossible to publish books for free. Where can we find the funds for these projects?

You might ask: where are your people consolidated? It is easy to ask this question, but much harder to answer it. They are scattered here and there throughout the entire country. How can we find them, how can we reach them without any means of mass communication? How can we awaken their national feeling after more than forty years among other peoples and foreign cultures? Speaking of foreign cultures which have been imposed on Lemko Rusyns, I have in mind Polish culture-understandable considering where the Lemkos live-and Ukrainian culture, which does not fit organically into this picture. Contrary to common opinion, the bigger threat, especially for the contemporary young intelligentsia, is the influence of Ukrainian culture, because with it, as with any close fellow minority culture, comes a natural but not always conscious solidarity. This is especially true in big university towns. Lemkos and Ukrainians go to the same churches and meet in the same clubs--Ukrainian clubs, because there have been no Lemko clubs and at present only one city has one. We are told that it is impossible to organize Lemko clubs because of the housing problem. The Ukrainians have clearly flourished for a long time according to the tenets of the "good" socialist times. Coming into Poland more often than before are professional Ukrainian song ensembles and theaters. Among our youth more and more Ukrainian music and video recordings circulate. And young people cannot live without these.

Alongside these natural processes, there is a strong, intentional propaganda campaign being carried out by the Ukrainian weekly, Nashe slovo. Normally, every organization ought to have the ability to propagate its own beliefs. But when this propaganda, as the major means of ''enlightenment'' of the lesser brother, consists of tendentious information and even lies, then clearly it is no longer propaganda, but insolence. Such "cultural" activities, as a historical rule, have always been carried on by military force. And while these propagandizing "hordes" consist of only ten people, they have obvious success, because they are not fighting with honesty on an open playing field. That is the first point. The second point is that behind them stands a strong army, the name of which is professional politics.

I cannot help bringing up the example of the Kuwaitis and the Kurds. The first need to be protected, although this is not a question of preserving a particular distinct culture, for the Kuwaitis do not have one. Nor is the question here the preservation of people, or people in general. For the big powers, both people and culture translate into oil and then money. Protecting the Kurds has been a kind of empty promise on the part of the great powers, and it has been attempted solely in order to avoid shame before the entire world. It has taken place only in a physical sense, like the preservation of elephants in Africa or the aurochs in the Belovezh virgin forests, although the Kurds definitely have their own ancient and rich culture.

Rusyns are the Kurds of central Europe. The Transcarpathian Region is the Ukrainian "Rusynistan," the Presov Region is the Slovak "Rusynistan " and the Lemko Region is the Polish "Rusynistan.'' In this last Rusynistan, that is. In our native Lemko Region, an empty and desolate land awaits us. Will we need American tents? Probably so! But first of all we must be considered, not like aurochs or elephants, but as a people with its own culture, language, literature, national pride, and identity!

Petro Trochanovskij
Krynica, Poland

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