Which is more important, culture or national borders?
WHERE CULTURAL AND NATIONAL BORDERS DIVERGE
~Efforts for the future of Rusyns~
By Bohdan Horbal (Rusyn) and Susyn Yvonne Mihalasky (Rusyn)
This article appeared originally in the February, l994 issue of JIDAIJIN, a monthly published in
Where cultural and national borders diverge, people and cultures are profoundly affected by the
forces of contact and conflict. This is especially true for ethnic minorities inhabiting the cultural
boundaries between larger nationalities and states. These "border minorities" are situated in
geographical crossroads of ideas, languages and cultural forms. They are often unusually
creative and rich in cultural and spiritual expression . A border minority's culture often consists
of a unique mixture of both indigenous and borrowed elements. Unfortunately, these minorities
are often viewed by their wealthier, more powerful neighbors as culturally inferior and/or
politically unreliable. Thus, a border minority's uncomfortable location between mismatched
cultural and national borders infuses its identity and culture with both
suffering and creative inspiration.
The Rusyns (or sometimes in English, "Carpatho - Rusyns" or "Ruthenians") are just such
people. The Rusyns number approximately 1,2 million people. Their homeland is located in the
Carpathian Mountain region at the geographical center of Europe. They have no state of their
own. Rusyns live in Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Romania. Diaspora communities
are also found in Serbia, Croatia, the United States and Canada.
The Rusyns' Carpathian homeland is a boundary region in every way. In this region the cultural,
political, military, linguistic and spiritual ambitions of larger empires, states and nationalities
have met and clashed for a thousand years. As a result of these historical processes of contact
and conflict, Rusyns
today consider themselves to be part of the eastern Slavic cultural and religious tradition.
Clearly, cultural and national borders have both played a large part in making the Rusyns who
they are today. But who, exactly, are they?
Most observers of the region and even some Rusyns themselves, do not consider them to be a
distinct nationality. They argue that Rusyns are an artificial political creation.
Some Rusyns, however, feel that they are distinct nationality with a unique cultural tradition
worthy of recognition and respect.
Thus, the theme of this issue of Jidaijin is very important subject for Rusyns. Bohdan is of
Rusyn heritage and a citizen of Poland. He regards his ethnic heritage as much more important
than his citizenship. He feels that his people have been treated unjustly in Poland, especially
since the Second World War. He argues that the limitations on cross-border travel and contact
imposed by communist states after 1945 hurt his people by artificially separating them from each
other and causing them to lose
contact. The communists even denied Rusyns the right to call themselves "Rusyn."
Susyn is a Rusyn and a citizen of the United States. She feels that Rusyns have had good fortune
in her country. Therefore, she regards her Rusyn heritage and American citizenship as equally
Today, however, the new, more democratic governments of East-Central Europe are more
tolerant of ethnic minorities. Rusyns are now recognized in Slovakia and Serbia as a national
minority with full rights and privileges.
In the future, Bohdan and Susyn see two possible ways for Rusyns to survive as a distinct
minority: they can continue to struggle to be recognized as a distinct nationality, or they can
associate closely with the larger, more powerful Ukrainian nationality. Associating with
Ukrainians will help Rusyns to preserve their culture, but they will at the same time lose their
independent identity. If Rusyns associate closely with Slovaks, Poles or Hungarians, they would
lose not only their independence, but even their
distinct identity. The best option would be for Rusyns to try to retain their own identify without
having to risk being absorbed by their neighbors.
·Bohdan Horbal is a masters degree candidate
in history at the University of Wroclaw,
·Susyn Yvonne Mihalasky is a doctoral
candidate in political science at the University
of Toronto, Canada. Both wish to pursue
careers researching their ethnic heritage.
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Originally Composed: May 30th, 1994
Date last modified: December 17th, 2009