What's in a Name?

Adapted from: "Our People - Carpatho-Rusyns and Their Descendants In North America" © 1995 by Dr. Paul Robert Magocsi
and used here with permission. Any other use is a violation of international copyright law.

The terms Rusyn/Rusnak have come to be a source of controversy, not only in the European homeland (especially along the Rusyn/Slovak/Magyar ethnolinguistic border area south of the Carpathians) but also among immigrants and their descendants from those areas in the United States. Originally, the terms Rusyn/Rusnak were used simply to designate an adherent of Eastern Christianity, whether of Orthodox or later, as we shall see, of Greek Catholic persuasion. Beginning in the last decades of the nineteenth century, however, the inhabitants were called upon to identify themselves not simply according to religious affiliation, but also according to their language and/or nationality.

During this procedure (often related to decennial censuses), some leaders argued that all Greek Catholics-notwithstanding what Rusyn or transitional Rusyn/East Slovak dialects they may have spoken-were originally called Rusyns/Rusnaks and therefore should be considered of Carpatho-Rusyn nationality. The Greek Catholic-equals-Rusyn viewpoint was also applied to Slovak-speaking and Magyar-speaking Rusyns/Rusnaks who were considered slovakized or magyarized Rusyns. Not surprisingly, Slovak and Hungarian publicists rejected such an interpretation. arguing instead that East Slovak or Magyar-speaking Greek Catholics should be considered respectively as either Slovak or Magyar Greek Catholics. Later, some of these spokesmen went so far as to conclude that Rusyns or Rusnaks did not form a distinct ethnolinguistic or national group at all; rather, they were simply Slovaks or Magyars of the Greek Catholic faith.

While still in Europe, the peasant masses before World War I remained essentially immune to what seemed to them to be "politicking" among their intellectual and clerical leaders. Therefore, the vast majority came to America simply as Rusyns or Rusnaks, that is, Slavs and in a few cases Magyars of the Greek Catholic faith. After their arrival in America, however, they often were called on to identify with some ethnolinguistic or national group and, besides the Rusyn, Slovak or Hungarian options, the Russian or Ukrainian options were now added.

The identity problem has been especially acute among those Americans whose ancestors came from the ethnolinguistic border area of eastern Slovakia-that is, villages around Prešov, Bardejov, Košice, Humenné, Trebišov, and even as far east as Uzhorod. As a result, it is not surprising to find some people who will adamantly argue that they are Slovak, while others from the same village, even the same family, will state they are Carpatho-Rusyn or sometimes its derivative, Carpatho-Russian. It is also interesting to note that the Slovak self-identifier will often deny that Carpatho-Rusyns do not exist as a distinct group.

As problematic is the nomenclature and identity problem among those Americans whose ancestors came from Galicia, where the term Rusyn as a self-identifier was also widespread until as late as the third decade of the twentieth century. In the United States, these Galician-Rusyn immigrants and their descendants, often from the same village or even same family, have identified themselves either as Carpatho-Russians, Russians, or Ukrainians. These varied identities are also found among Galicians and their descendants from villages in the Lemko Region, who have interacted particularly closely in America with Rusyns from south of the Carpathians. Therefore, one can encounter in the immigration Rusyn Lemkos, Russian Lemkos, Ukrainian Lemkos, or those who simply identify as Lemkos.

How to resolve these problems? In one sense, each person has the right to claim whatever ethnic identity he or she wishes, regardless if the claim has any relationship to objective ethnolinguistic criteria, such as geographical origin, spoken language, and customs. Moreover, identity is always a problem in border areas. The Rusyn/Slovak/Magyar ethnolinguistic boundary south of the Carpathians has, in particular, changed often during the last century with the Rusyn area generally receding northward in the face of Slovak and Magyar assimilatory trends.

Yet the situation is not entirely fluid. There are observable linguistic and ethnographic characteristics which differentiate Rusyn from Slovak and Magyar villages in the European homeland. These characteristics have been mapped in linguistic atlases and ethnographic maps more than once during the past century, thereby making it possible to define the ethnolinguistic make-up of these borderland villages at different points in time. The root-seeker simply has to know what village his or her parents or grandparents came from. With such information, ethnic background can consequently be determined. For a list of all Rusyn villages in the European homeland, see the Root Seekers Guide To The Homeland .

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