Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2008/31 posted by hidden europe on

Father Dymytrij Sydor is a determined man. No-one quite believed him when he asserted that he could raise the funds to build a massive new cathedral at Uzhgorod. This southwesternmost province of Ukraine is hill country, and it is home to the Rusyns - an ethnic and cultural minority who emphasise their distinct identity.

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Dear fellow travellers

Father Dymytrij Sydor is a determined man. No-one quite believed him when he asserted that he could raise the funds to build a massive new cathedral at Uzhgorod. But Dymytrij pulled every string he could, and sure enough Uzhgorod now has a gleaming new cathedral - one of the largest in eastern Europe.

So we might do well to take note of Dymytrij's latest pronouncement. Last week he proclaimed to the world that the province of Zakarpattya, of which Uzhgorod is the administrative centre, should secede from Ukraine. This southwesternmost province of Ukraine is hill country, and it is home to the Rusyns - an ethnic and cultural minority who emphasise their distinct identity. The Rusyns argue that they are very different from the Ukrainians, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians and Romanians who also live in the lands around the Carpathian mountains. We featured the Rusyn people in hidden europe 2 (May 2005), but at that time there was no serious talk of Rusyn independence.

Three years is a long time in the politics of central and eastern Europe, and during those years the self-confidence of Rusyns, particularly in Ukraine, has grown enormously. "If Ukraine can have an Orange Revolution," runs the argument, "and in so doing asserts its independence from neighbouring Russia, then we, the Rusyn people, demand a similar right to demonstrate our independence from Ukraine."

Rusyn politicians have quietly watched as the West has backed Kosovo's bid for independence. If Kosovo is allowed to defect from Serbia, why should the Rusyns not sever their link with Ukraine? Russia's recognition of South Ossetia as a breakaway region from Georgia has further fuelled the Rusyn spirit. But Father Sydor plays down parallels with other parts of Europe and the Black Sea region. Speaking at a meeting of the Carpathian-Rusyn congress in Mukaceve on 25 October, he argued that the Rusyns of Ukraine should look not to Transnistria or Abkhazia as a model for their own future, but rather to the Czech and Slovak Republics which peacefully sealed their velvet divorce in 1993. "We hope Ukrainians will give us a divorce in a peaceful way, just like the Czechs and Slovaks split," said Dymytrij as the congress proclaimed a new independent status for that part of the Rusyn homeland that lies within Ukrainian territory. The congress adopted the name Podkarpatská Rus for the would-be autonomous region, recalling one of Europe's more fleeting microstates, Carpatho-Ukraine, which briefly existed in the same area in early 1939.

All eyes are now on the assembly of Ukraine's Zakarpattya Oblast which meets in Uzhgorod on 1 December. The assembly is unlikely to back Father Sydor separatist aspirations. For not only does the region have a large number of Ukrainians, but it is also home to other minorities beyond the Rusyns, notably the Hutsuls. But Dymytrij Sydor is not a man to back down easily. If the oblast assembly does not support the Rusyns claim for independence, then Father Sodor says that the Rusyn minority will consider more forceful ways of securing their goals.

The hills around Uzhgorod are one of the most tranquil parts of Europe. That tranquillity might be on the brink of being shattered.

It is unlikely that the Rusyns in Ukraine will get their way. And, interestingly, Rusyns across the border in neighbouring Slovakia show no appetite for independence. But if Podkarpatská Rus ever comes to pass, it will join a legion of European microstates, the majority of which have quickly been regained by larger neighbours. We review some of those lost microstates, mere footnotes to history, in the November issue of hidden europe. You can see the full table of contents of that latest issue online.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.