Who are the Lemko-Ukrainians?

Borders have traditionally been seen as centres for national antagonisms, with there being countless disputes as to their ownership, owing to reasons such as historical possession or the will of the inhabitants of these areas. However, with the rise of capitalism in the past 150 years, there have been several changes concerning the problems of borderlands. The most important change has been that rather than the inhabitants of a borderland defining their identity in terms of one country or the other, many members of such groups have developed a feeling of distinctiveness and individuality, and no longer associate themselves with either, in some cases" even forming separatist movements.

This is the argument which is often presented in the case of the Lemko-Ukrainians and the recent increase in" a Lemko identity. The Lemkos inhabit the Northern area of the Carpathian mountains in what is now south-eastern Poland. Previously all writings on the Lemko came from a Polish or Ukrainian viewpoint, these being the two nations disputing possession of this area, but in recent years a Lemko point of view has also made itself heard both in the academic field and in the locality. There are a number of different areas which should be examined when discussing the identity of Lemko-Ukrainians, such as their history, language, religion and the importance of the intelligentsia in creating their identity.

There are three mutually exclusive views on the ethnogenesis of the so-called Lemkos. The Ukrainians claim they are the descendants of the Kievan-Rus who were forced into the inhospitable mountain area owing to the Tartar invasions of the thirteenth century and to Polish colonisation. For those who believe this , it is then quite simple to argue that the Lemko are really a Ukrainian people and as such should form a part of the Ukraine. It is also argued that the other name for the Lemko, 'Rusyn', is in fact an old name for Ukrainian and that therefore the two are one and the same. The Polish claim that they developed from a "Vlach- Rusyn" migration in which Romanians and Ruthenians moved North, imposing themselves on Polish settlers who had been living in the area since the thirteenth century. If this is to be believed then the Lemko can be seen as the descendants of a mixture of Polish, Romanian and Ruthenian" peoples who inhabited the region in the past. The Third viewpoint is a Lemko perspective, claiming they are the descendants of the White Croats, a highly developed tribe in the fifth century Carpathians who were" subjugated by the Kievan Rus. Claims" that the Lemko are culturally independent are often substantiated through this historical argument and it must be noted that if it is considered an important factor in defining identity by the Lemko themselves then it must surely have value as a form of identification. The fact that three different perspectives on history have been outlined is important not so much" as a truth but as an intellectual construction of history which has a profound effect on Lemko claims of identity.

Within the past hundred and fifty years, the Ruthenians(encompassing the Lemko, the Bojko, the" transcarpathians and the Hutsul) have always been part of another country with the exception of six months in 1938-39 when the area received considerable autonomy and followed a ukrainophile path, which ended with its annexation by Hungary in 1939." Since then, the Lemko population of Ruthenia suffered mass deportation at the hands of the communists, with approximately 60% of them being sent to soviet Ukraine, and the remainder being forced to occupy empty farms in the north and west of Poland." This mass deportation succeeded in severely weakening any claims for independence the Lemkos might have as they were effectively divided by distance and Polish settlers were moved into the area making the Lemko a minority in their own land.

According to Reinfuss, after the war people lacked a feeling of national identity, preferring to define themselves in terms of far wider Slavs identity, religious identity, or local level village identity." Despite this, he went to severe trouble to demarcate the ethnographic group now known as Lemko, probably in an attempt to lessen the Ukrainian tendency and remove strength behind a Ukrainian claim to the territory." It is interesting that, although the idea of the Lemko was politically formed, many of the Ruthenes in the area really began to feel Lemko rather than Ukrainian or Ruthene.

Lemko identity remained effectively dormant throughout the socialist period, during which they were subject to strong pressures to assimilate and give up their identities as Lemko in favour of that of being Polish." The very fact that pressure was extolled may well have strengthened the resolve of many Lemko to fight for their identity and indeed a relatively large number did attempt to move back to the mountains at a high personal cost." It was only with the collapse of the eastern block in 1989 that the Lemko movement resurfaced in a large way, with the establishment of a number of associations such as the Lemko Association (LA) or the "Hospodar" Citizens Circle of Lemkos (CCL)" ." The CCL has some 10,000 supporters, many living in the north and west of Poland owing to the deportations, but still retaining their Lemko identity." However, this movement stresses civil rights rather than ethnicity and asserts loyalty to the Polish state rather than separatism or Ukrainian tendencies. As such it is a very low key association which promotes Lemko culture only as a regional culture of Poland." In contrast, the LA only has 400 members but is far more extreme in its views." It promotes the claim that Lemko form part of a Carpathian/Ruthene nation and not a sub-division of the Ukraine or of Poland." Owing to the fact that so few Lemkos are members of the LA, it would appear that most Lemkos identify themselves as Lemko on a regional basis but feel part of a larger Polish nation."

One of the differences between the Lemko and their Polish country-men lies in their religion." The Lemko are east-Slavs that are mainly Greek-Orthodox as opposed to the Roman-Catholic Poles." This difference is often made to appear far greater than it actually is, in an effort to promote the cultural difference of the Lemko from the Poles." However, it must be remembered that not only are both Christian, they are also Catholic following the same pope and worshipping the same God." The differences between the two have been used as a source of Lemko identity, but in reality their similarities far outnumber them.

Language is often seen as the foolproof test to nationalism an the Rusyns do have their own kind of language." This was actually introduced in schools in Ruthenia in1933, but it must be noted that in the Carpathians there are many dialects of Ruthenian, of which Lemko is only one." The impact of introducing a Ruthenian language was mixed." It was seen as inferior by the nations it was introduced in and this made many Ruthenians assimilate under the pressure of being humiliated by this language (Chlebowczyk 1980)." However, it also had the opposite effect on some Ruthenians, strengthening their feelings of ethnic individuality and increasing their consciousness.

The introduction of Ruthenian in schools did not last long due to the moving of borders during and at the end of World War II, which put different areas of Ruthenia under different nations control." When looking at who the Lemko Ukrainians are, it must be remembered that if they do exist as a separate people from the Polish and the Ukrainians, it is only within the context of Ruthenia, of which they are only a part of" the other Ruthenians should not be ignored." In language, Lemko appears to be a combination of Ruthenian with certain Polish words, and is probably better termed a dialect than an actual language. It must also be noted that the creation of a written Lemko is a modern day occurrence, largely related to the efforts of P. R. Magosci who has been instrumental in the creation of a Lemko dictionary and inspiring a great deal of writing in Lemko by the intelligentsia.

Gellner considers intellectuals to be the "inventors of nations" referring to the fact that they are one of the few social groupings that are able to construct or reconstruct the past based on the present as well as being able to mobilise people in favour or against a particular issue through their powers of persuasion." Magosci identifies the importance of intellectuals in the creation of a Lemko identity in which they play both an ideological and an organisational role and owing to this it is worth examining who exactly they are." It is very hard to define what is meant by the word intellectual but they can be seen as people who "make knowledge/value claims, gain social recognition for them, and participate in social relations on the basis of this exchange of claims and recognition" (Verdery 1991)." As such, they are likely to pertain to the wealthier middle and upper classes of society, where the furthering of intellectual notions can be carried out without endangering the well being of the family." This puts Lemko intellectuals in a very small minority, owing to the fact that the Carpathian lands are poor, so families of cultivators spend most of their time worrying about everyday survival and have little use for the discussion of politics and identity.

Ruthenian identity was greatly influenced by the work of intellectuals in the 1830s, who wrote many theatrical movements related to their cause." By attending a performance, one made a passive statement about identity but also went home with ideas of identity inspired by the play which increased both dignity and consciousness in being Ruthenian." It is interesting to note, however, that the Ruthenian theatrical movement had a permanent stage in Lwow, Ukraine and was in fact never based in Ruthenia." At present, it is based in eastern Slovakia where it is able to attract a far wider audience than on the Carpathian mountainside."

The geographical boundary of the Carpathian mountains is seen as the bounding of identities between Ruthenes and other Slavs." However, boundaries between the Ruthenes themselves are far more controversial and harder to identify, owing to similarities in culture." The Carpathians, as a boundary, have remained constant throughout time, despite the many border changes that have occurred." However, despite this, the true boundary between non-Ruthenes and Ruthenes is not so clear owing to, as mentioned earlier, the Ruthenians becoming a minority group in their own home-land through deportation.

When trying to understand who the Lemko Ukrainians are, it is easiest to see them as a sub-group of the Ruthenian people of the Carpathian mountains." Ruthenians have their own distinct language, religion and culture with sizeable differences from both Polish and Ukrainian." Within the Ruthene context are the Lemko." They have a culture which differs from other Ruthenian peoples cultures but also has a number of similarities." Language is also very similar to that of other Ruthenian peoples but it must be noted that as yet no standardised Lemko language has been established, although in the light of recent years it appears that this will just be a matter of time." However, until this occurs, there are variations in Lemko from village to village and person to person, meaning it is hard to identify a true collective identity through language." Owing to the deportations in the 1940's, it would be wrong to see the Lemkos solely as the inhabitants of the Carpathians as, although many of them were the previous inhabitants of this area, they are now scattered throughout Poland, the Ukraine and the United States." The Lemko are not a totally bounded group, nor are peoples identities fixed." In some cases, Lemko have been assimilated into Polish/Ukrainian society through intermarriage where, given a few generations, all recollection of a separate culture may have been forgotten." Nevertheless, there appears to be a far greater number of people who, having descended from possible Lemkos, are reclaiming their Lemko identity and returning to their roots." It is extremely difficult to identify who falls under a certain identity in most cases, but this is particularly so about the Lemkos, due to them never having constituted an independent nation and having become routinised to other cultures and states for centuries." The Lemko are a regional people of Poland at present and, although some would argue that they should be a region of Ruthenia, it appears that the majority can not conceive a future outside the Polish state.


  • Bugajski, Ethnic Politics in Eastern Europe, 1995
  • Crampton, Eastern Europe in the 20th Century, 1994
  • Chlebowczyk, On small and young nations in Europe, 1980
  • Hann, ed. S. Periwal, Notions of Nationalism, 19
  • Hroch, Social preconditions of national revival in Europe, 1985
  • Magocsi, The persistence of regional cultures, 1993
  • Pearson, National minorities in eastern Europe, 1983
  • Rothschild, Return to diversity, 1988
  • Verdery, National ideology under socialism, 1991

  • Originally appeared at http://www.purpleco.demon.co.uk/adam/html/lemko.html
    Efforts to contact the author were unsuccessful.

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    Originally Composed: February 25th, 2003
    Date last modified: February 19th, 2008