Five picturesque river valleys served as routes for the settlers who eventually formed the population of the culturally distinct Ukrainian region known as Lemkivshchyna (Lemko region), located in the central part of the Carpathian Mountains.
The path of the colonizers of this territory extended northwestward from Semyhorod in the south. The earliest colonization of Lemkivshchyna began in the Nyz'kyi Beskyd (Low Beskyd) region of the Carpathians.
The first settlements in the western part of the Nyz'kyi Beskyd region of the Carpathians date back to the period of fortified settlements (horodyshcha) along the Dunayets and Wisloka rivers. The Wisloka River constituted the first border between the ancient Cracow-Sandomir lands and Galicia (Halychyna). A second line of fortified settlements ran from Sianok and Peremyshl to Lyubachiv, and on to the large group of fortified settlements known as the Cherven cities (Chervenski horodyshcha): Kholm, Belt, Cherven. The annexation of the Cherven cities in 981 by Volodymyr the Great of Kievan Rus established the boundary between Poland and Ukraine for four hundred years.
The first settlers of the eastern part of the Nyz'kyi Beskyd were the Wallachians, who began settling in this region in the 9th century. The colonization of the western part of this area began somewhat later -- in the 12th century. Documents from local villages make mention of two tribes living here: the Wallachians and the Rutheni.
There is no mention of the settlement of the higher reaches of the Eastern and Central Beskyd in 10th-11th century documents. The colonization of these regions began in the 14th-15th centuries.
The Wallachians, an agricultural people whose chief occupation was raising sheep, brought with them the Greek-Catholic rite and a strong patriarchal family order. The mixture of this people with ever new waves of settlers produced the population of Lemkivshchyna with its original cultural traits: rituals, dress, language, folklore, economic system and distinct building style.
Between the 12th and 14th centuries the western Carpathian region was dotted with large estates belonging to the nobility, the clergy and even royalty. Hence, historical documents describe the settlers of western Lemkivshchyna in the 16th century as, for the most part, the nobility.
The actual process of settlement of the wooded areas of Lemkivshchyna commenced between 1315 and 1320 with the founding of such villages as Podolynets and Hnizda and the town of Lyubovka, followed throughout the 14th century by a host of others. These and the settlements that emerged in following centuries were ruled by foreign landed aristocracy, and, as might be expected, the relationship between the settled population and the owners of the estates was frequently far from just.
Many of the early settlements of the Sub-Carpathian region were granted the privilege of municipal self-government (Magdeburg Law). In the 15th century, the settlements of Wallachian and Ruthenian (Ukrainian) inhabitants were ruled by Wallachian and Ruthenian laws. A third group of settlements, formed somewhat later, were ruled by Wallachian laws.
During the 17th century the inhabitants of the Sub-Carpathian region began developing a lumber industry. Agriculture, trade and industry, however, were not developed. As the population increased in the 18th and 19th centuries, poverty forced many of the region's inhabitants to emigrate. Emigration commenced in 1877, first from the southern part of Lemkivshchyna, and then from its northern regions. Prior to World War I, some 500,000 persons had emigrated to the United States and Canada.
The Lemkos are of medium height, with wavy hair, dark eyes and dark complexions. They are energetic and inclined towards emotionalism. These characteristics are readily discernible in the Lemkos' manner of speaking and in their general behavior. Lemkos are deeply religious.
Lemko literature is very interesting; however, it has yet to be studied in depth by specialists. The language of the Lemkos contains many archaic Ukrainian expressions, sounds and forms. There are also many local dialects.
The traditional attire of the Lemko male consisted of a linen shirt worn inside the trousers and a blue broadcloth sleeveless jacket (leybyk) decorated with rows of shining metal buttons. On cooler days, the Lemko man would don a straight-cut long coat of brown homespun woolen cloth called a hunia. A black felt hat, called "madziarskyi" or "uherskyi", completed the costume. Matrons wore a small kerchief covered by a large, highly starched headcloth, which framed the head and face. Skirts were of patterned, commercial fabric, finely pleated and worn two or three at a time. A similarly pleated apron was worn over the skirt. The sleeveless jacket resembled that worn by the men.
Village settlements in Lemkivshchyna assumed one of three forms. Of these, the more prevalent were the lantsyuhova form, in which the buildings stretched in a long chain along the central thoroughfare with the fields behind the houses, and the oval (ovalnytsya), in which the houses surrounded a market place. The third, more infrequent form, was that in the shape of a fork (vylyasti). Most villages extended along creeks or rivers.
In most Lemko villages, the fronts of houses face the road, but there are villages in which the houses stand to the road with their side walls. Lemko houses incorporate living quarters, animal sheds and storage facilities under
the same roof. The oldest houses are covered with straw roofs, while more re- cent structures are covered with wooden shingles.
Agriculture formed the basis of the Lemko economy. Woodworking and stone- cutting industries also prospered in certain areas.
While sharing the principal characteristic features of the church architecture of other parts of the Carpathians, Lemko churches have many distinct features of their own, most notably the bell-tower that is an integral part of the church. Unfortunately, much of this unique architectural heritage of the Lemkos is in danger of complete annihilation. Many Lemko churches were destroyed during the two world wars. Others have slowly disintegrated owing to the policy of neglect towards them on the part of the Polish communist government after the Second World War.
In 1945 and 1947 the governments of the USSR and communist Poland deported the majority of the Ukrainian Lemko population either to the USSR or into the northern and western territories of Poland. The official reason given for the deportation action was the activity of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the UPA, which came to this part of Ukraine towards the end of the Second World War to protect the local Ukrainian population. Eventually, the Polish and Soviet governments succeeded in transforming the trans-Curzon Ukrainian ethnographic territory, and especially the once beautiful Lemko region, into a state of wilderness not unlike that of the period of its initial colonization.
Jan Gerhard, the Polish author of "Luny w Bieszczadach" (1959) describes the Polish victory in this region in the following words:
"...vast areas were devastated, and the strong mountain vegetation began covering the burned down ruins of houses and farms, leaving only the occasional chimney to hint at the former existence of human life [in this region]. The sun dried the grass that no one cut, and the wind husked the grains from ripe wheat, while weeds covered fences. Almost the entire Beskyd region began to return to the state of its initial settlement in the 12th-14th centuries. The tragedy of the inhabitants of the Beskyd territory is great, but our country needs peace. We are aware that many thousands of people are leaving this region -- for concrete historical reasons."
Page prepared by Walter Maksimovich
© LV Productions, Ltd.
Originally Composed: April 8th, 1996
Date last modified: May 12th, 2006