Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/12 posted by hidden europe on

From villages in the Ukrainian hills above Uzhhorod west through the Bieszczady Mountains to remote communities in south-east Poland, there is a Paschal theme this Sunday morning: "Christos voskrese," it runs in Church Slavonic. "Christ has risen." In the rural valleys on the south side of the Bieszczady Mountains, territory which is part of Slovakia, you might catch this Sunday's special greeting uttered in Rusyn.

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Dear fellow travellers

From villages in the Ukrainian hills above Uzhhorod west through the Bieszczady Mountains to remote communities in south-east Poland, there is a Paschal theme this Sunday morning: "Christos voskrese," it runs in Church Slavonic, although you'll hear it also in Polish, Ukrainian or any one of a number of other Slavic languages. "Christ has risen."

In the rural valleys on the south side of the Bieszczady Mountains, territory which is part of Slovakia, you might catch this Sunday's special greeting uttered in Rusyn. Priests and poets from the Carpathian region have preserved the gentle flame of Rusyn life and culture in the north-east corner of Slovakia. The language itself is interesting, a recension of Church Slavonic with its own grammar and orthography.

Rusyn, not Russian

"No, it is not just a version of Russian," said an elderly gentleman whom we met in Topol'a, a small village we visited while travelling in the region earlier this month. "We are like the Kurds of Europe," he added. "Over the years, successive dominant cultures have tried to do away with Rusyn," he explained. Most Rusyn tales, it seems, are stories of suffering and indignity. "The Hungarians tried to Magyarise us, in Czechoslovakia we were told that we were Ukrainians, and even now Rusyns have to counter the tide of Slovak ideas and idioms."

You will find Rusyn communities elsewhere in Europe, most conspicuously in the Vojvodina province of northern Serbia, but the Rusyn heartland lies in and around the Carpathian region where Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia intersect.

Faith and identity

The men who led the Rusyn national revival in the mid-nineteenth century came from this region. Many of them were priests in the Greek Catholic Church, which recognises the primacy of the Pope but uses Orthodox liturgies.

This Church is not peculiar to Rusyns. Greek Catholics are common in countries that lie on or close to the fracture line between Rome and the Orthodox Churches, testing loyalties on both sides and posing issues over quite when Easter should be celebrated. But, for the Rusyns, the Greek Catholic tradition is an important part of their identity.

Bridging divides

"That sort of sums us up," said the man in Topol'a. "We are a bridge between east and west." Europe surely needs people like that just now. Lots of them.

The Rusyns of north-east Slovakia speak a language much influenced by surrounding language groups. Most European cultures are to some extent hybrid and that applies particularly to the Rusyns, who have over the years picked from here and there, deftly managing to exploit the rivalry between Roman and Byzantine traditions to create their own confessional niche.

It is a happy coincidence that this year both the Western and Orthodox Churches in Europe celebrate Easter at the same time. It is the fifth occasion in the last ten years that Easter Sunday (in the Western or Latin Church) coincides with Pascha (the name given to Easter Sunday in the Eastern or Orthodox Churches). Savour the moment, for over the coming ten years it will happen just once more that there is such calendrical unity over Easter. That is in 2017.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

If you found this "Letter from Europe" of interest, you may like to know that hidden europe 43 (which will be published in July) will include a major feature on Rusyn communities in the Carpathians.

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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.