The Rusyn Issue in Zakarpattia (Transcarpathia)

Jun 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published on GeoCurrents in March 2014]

As mentioned in Martin Lewis’ GeoCurrents post, Zakarpattia Oblast in far western Ukraine is a perfect example of how ethno-linguistic tensions affect geopolitical outcomes. Even deciding on a neutral term for the region can be challenging. The Russian/Ukrainians toponym “Zakarpattia” translates into English as “Transcarpatia”, while from the Hungarian perspective it is called “sub‑Carpathian Ukraine”, the more neutral term being Carpathian Ruthenia. The latter term is related to the ethnonym and language name “Ruthenian”, which as we shall see below, is itself quite problematic. In the remainder of this post, the local toponym “Zakarpattia” will be used, for the lack of a more neutral term.

Zakarpat2001languagesLocated on the other side of the formidable Carpathian range from the rest of Ukraine, Zakarpattia was part of Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I and a part of Czechoslovakia between the world wars. Subsequently it passed to Hungarian control and then, in 1945, to the Soviet Union and hence to Ukraine. The population of Zakarpattia Oblast is ethnically mixed, although less so now than it used to be. The majority of the people are Ukrainians, a category which in the Ukrainian census includes a group known as “Ruthenians” or “Rusyn”, to which we return below. While the proportion of ethnic Ukrainians increased from 62% in 1921 to 80.5% in 2001, the region retains several significant ethnic minorities. The largest of these are Hungarians ethnic_map_Zakarpattia(12.1%), Romanians (2.6%), Russians (2.5%), Roma (1.1%), Slovaks (0.5%), and Germans (0.3%). The Jewish population, which constituted 13% of the total in 1921, was largely exterminated in the Holocaust and is no longer tabulated separately in the Ukrainian census. Unlike in southern and southwestern Ukrainian regions, where many ethnic Ukrainians declare Russian to be their mother tongue, in Zakarpattia 99.2% of ethnic Ukrainians call Ukrainian their native language. Ethnic and linguistic categories correlate very closely with respect to ethnic Hungarians, Romanians, and Russians in the region as well: an overwhelming majority of them declare the corresponding language as their mother tongue. The corresponding figures are significantly lower for the Germans, Slovaks, and the Roma, the majority of whom declare either Ukrainian or Russian as their mother tongue. As can be seen from the first map on the left, Hungarian speakers (shown in red) live primarily along the country’s western border, Romanians (shown in green) are concentrated in a small area along the southern border, while the Ukrainian language (shown in blue) predominates everywhere else. A more detailed second map shows a similar pattern, while highlighting the areas shared by Ukrainians and Russians.


Despite its large Ukrainian and small Russian populations, Zakarpattia presents a political challenge for Ukrainian nationalists, who get substantially fewer votes there than in other regions of western Ukraine. In the 2012 legislative election, the pro-Russian Party of Regions received a plurality (31%) of the votes, in contrast to less than 5% received in the Ukrainian-nationalist stronghold Lviv. In Zakarpattia, the moderate Ukrainian nationalist Fatherland Party received only 28% of the vote, while the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party received merely 8% (compared to the 38% that Svoboda received in Lviv). The relative unpopularity of Ukrainian nationalist parties in Zakarpattia is partly explained by the presence of a group called “Ruthenians” or “Rusyns”. (Most sources use the two terms interchangeably, while some sources draw a distinction between the two categories, as we shall see below). The Ukrainian government does not recognize the Rusyn people as a distinct nationality but rather as an Ukrainian sub-group, and most Rusyns object to such classification, aligning themselves as a result against Ukrainian nationalists.

What may seem a minor terminological issue is rather a divisive matter in Zakarpattia, and the rhetoric on both sides can get heated. A good example of such tension is an op-ed piece published by Radio Svoboda (no connection to the Svoboda Party!) a few days ago. In it, author Ivan Hvat expresses the Ukrainian nationalist position in such an extreme manner that the editorial board felt the need to distance itself from it, appending with the usual “does not necessarily reflect the views of …” formulation at the end of the article. For Hvat, “Rusyn separatism” is not a reasonable desire of a recognized ethnic group for autonomy, but something that is fomented by Russian pundits and the Russian secret services in order to “subvert the entire system of self-justification of the Ukrainian identity model”. Moreover, Rusyns as a group do not exist for Hvat: this “so-called fourth East Slavic people” was “created” or “discovered” (both terms Hvat uses) “when the Soviet Union was in its last agony”. The culprit is identified as the Institute for Slavic and Balkan Studies in Moscow (known since the end of the Soviet Union as the Institute for Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences). This institute—an arm of the omnipresent KGB, in Hvat’s view—allegedly sent specialists to Uzhgorod, the capital of Zakarpattia, “with a task to inflate newfound ‘Rusynism’ among regional leaders of the Communist Party”. Russia’s recognition of Rusyn as a separate nationality in 2004, in the wake of the 2002 Russian census, is perceived as an instance of “imperial chauvinism”, as is the call on the part of Consul General of Russia in Ukraine Yevhen Guzeev in September 2010 to provide financial support for Rusyn separatists in Zakarpattia. Hvat goes on to call the Rusyn group “the fifth column” used by Moscow “to destabilize Ukraine” and “to put it under the control of the Kremlin”, the tried-and-true “divide-and-rule policy”. Even Ukrainian parliamentarians who “root for the Rusyn language” are denounced as “willingly or unwittingly act[ing] as the fifth column” as well.

Although his rhetoric rises at times to the level of fascist paranoia, Hvat does make some valid points. First, Russia has shown its “imperial chauvinism” by taking over Crimea on a slim pretext, and fomenting, directly or indirectly, anti-Ukrainian attitudes in other parts of Ukraine, particularly in the east. Moreover, whether Rusyns themselves are pro-Russian or not, their rejection of Ukrainian nationalist parties serves to support the pro-Russian forces, as we have seen above in connection with the 2012 legislative election. Paradoxically, since the Rusyns’ anti-Ukrainian sentiment is in large part a result of Ukrainian nationalists’ denial of Rusyn identity, Ukrainian nationalists themselves help Russia and pro-Russian forces in Zakarpattia to destabilize rather than strengthen Ukraine. It seems likely that if Ukrainian nationalists recognized Rusyn as a separate ethnic group and afforded it some cultural and linguistic autonomy, the Rusyns would be more inclined to side with Ukrainian rather than Russian nationalists.

Second, even Hvat’s sarcastic comment that the Russians “discover” Rusyn identity when it suits their agenda is based to some extent in fact: in the early Soviet years, Moscow’s view was the opposite of its current position. In 1924, the Fifth Congress of the Comintern addressed the identity question in western Ukraine and declared the Rusyns to be a branch of the Ukrainian nationality. The Fifth Comintern’s decision was reiterated the next year by the Communist Party of Ukraine and accepted by the Zakarpattia Communist party in 1926 with a resolution that stated: “It is obvious that we are part of the Ukrainian people”. When Zakarpattia became part of the Soviet Union nearly two decades later, the “Rusyn as a kind of Ukrainian” view was officially implemented. Paul Magocsi (1999: 101) writes,

“the very name Rusyn was associated with the ‘unenlightened’ pre-Soviet past and was linked in Soviet propaganda with the bourgeois Czechoslovak and fascist Hungarian regimes that had occupied the province, as well as with the ‘reactionary’ Greek Catholic Church which in 1949 was abolished entirely. From 1945 until nearly the very end of Soviet rule in 1991, nor a single publication in Rusyn vernacular appeared in Trascarpathia. Even the language of published local folk songs and takes was ukrainianized as were the few reprints of pre-Soviet Transcarpathian literature.”

Only after the fall of the Soviet Union could the Rusyn identity re-emerge. At that time, cultural organization were established, as were newspapers and magazines in Rusyn; grammars of the language were also published. This rebirth of a Rusyn ethnic and linguistic identity “came as a surprise to the Ukrainian cultural, educational, and publishing institutions” who responded by “pok[ing] fun at the initial efforts of the pro-Rusyn activists and their amateur-like proclamations that large-scale dictionaries and a codified Rusyn literary standard were about to appear imminently” (Magocsi 1999: 106). When it became clear that the Rusyn nationalism was not about to disappear, Ukrainian officials argued that it was, as Magocsi puts it, “little more than a politically-inspired ‘anti-historical’ and ‘anti-scholarly’ aberration provoked by elements who wished to undermine Ukraine”—the sort of attitude exemplified perfectly by Hvat’s article discussed above.

ethno-linguistic_map_ukraineConsidering the serious ideological and geopolitical implications of Rusyn identity, it is difficult to address even the factual questions of Rusyn demographics and language. Since the Ukrainian government does not recognize Rusyn as a separate ethno-linguistic group, the Ukrainian census does not tabulate them separately. The abovementioned figure of 80.5% of the total population in the Zakarpattia Oblast being “Ukrainians” includes both people who declare themselves as Ukrainians and those who call themselves “Rusyn”. The map on the left, originally published by The Washington Post, maps the entire region as “Rusyns (Carpathian Ukrainians)”. Yet, according to the 2001 Ukrainian census, only a tiny fraction of those tabulated as “Ukrainians” (about 10,100 people, or 0.8% of the total population) identify themselves as Rusyns in the census. The Ethnologue, however, provides the much greater number of 560,000 Rusyn speakers in “Transcarpathian Oblast” of Ukraine. The Ethnologue also lists approximately 5,000 Rusyn speakers in Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary; an additional 30,000 Rusyns live in the town of Ruski Krstur in Vojvodina, Serbia, and some 24,200 reside in Slovakia. Wikipedia figures differ from those in the Ethnologue: besides the roughly 10,000 Rusyns in Ukraine, the English-language Wikipedia page cites approximately 33,000 in Slovakia, 16,000 in Serbia, 10,000 in Hungary, 2,900 in Croatia, 1,110 in Czech Republic, nearly 9,000 in the United states, and some 600 in Poland. The Russian-language Wikipedia page on Rusyn, however, claims that the total number of speakers is 1.5 million. Its Ukrainian-language counterpart calls Rusyn a “group of dialects”, asserting that only 6,724 Rusyn speakers live in Ukraine (with 24,000 in Slovakia, 16,000 in Serbia, and 5,800 in Poland, 2,300 in Croatia, and 1,100 each in the Czech Republic and Hungary). The Belarusian-language Wiki page lists the total number of Rusyn speakers as “between 50,000 and 600,000”. While the differing numbers for the Rusyn community in neighboring countries and in diaspora, where they constitute a small minority, may be explained by reference to different census sources and the like, the deeply conflicting numbers for Rusyns in Ukraine are disconcerting.

As for the language itself, the situation is not any clearer. As mentioned above, the Ukrainian government considers Rusyn to be a dialect of Ukrainian, a position adopted by many Ukrainian linguists as well. Some other sources, however, recognize it as a separate language. This controversy about the status of Rusyn began as early as the beginning of the twentieth century. Vsevolod Hantsov (1923) classified Rusyn as part of the southwestern Ukrainian dialectal group, a view that was also adopted by Volodymyr Hnatiuk (1900), Ivan Verkhrats’kyi (1902), Ivan Zilyns’kyi (1933), and Ivan Pan’kevych (1938). Yet, the Moscow Dialectological Commission in 1915 favored the opposing view; the eminent Russian linguist Nikolai Durnovo, a member of the Commission, supported its decision, but also emphasized the close relationship of Rusyn to western Ukrainian dialects.


The debate continues to the present day. The Ethnologue, which generally tends to split rather than lump linguistic varieties, often based on geopolitical considerations, treats Rusyn as a separate language, and maps it as coexisting alongside Ukrainian in most of the Zakarpattia Oblast, with the exception of the western areas that are mapped as “Hungarian”. (Oddly enough, the small areas in the south of Zakarpattia, which other sources map as Romanian-speaking, are mapped in the Ethnologue as “Carpathian Romani” alongside Ukrainian). Comrie in an overview of Slavic languages (cf. Comrie 1992) treats Rusyn as a separate language. The same approach is taken by Juraj Vaňko (2000) and Julian Ramač (2002).

In contrast, Sussex and Cubberley’s authoritative tome on the Slavic languages distinguishes two terms: “Ruthenian”, which in the past was used interchangeably with “Ukrainian”, but now is “used mainly for immigrants from [the area around Prešov in Slovakia] in the USA and in the Vojvodina area of former Yugoslavia”, and “Rusyn” (or “Rusnak”) for an East Slavic variety in “East Slovakia, the west of Ukraine and south-east Poland around Lemko”. Their main source on Rusyn is Shevelov (1993), who treats it as a dialect of Ukrainian. They also refer to an article by Paul Magocsi (1992), which claims a total of 800,000-1,000,000 Rusyn speakers, a figure that is not supported even by the higher numbers cited in the Ethnologue. Although the table on page 7 of Sussex and Cubberley’s book, listing the numbers of speakers of various Slavic languages, including nearly extinct Kashubian and Sorbian, is based on the Ethnologue, no figure for Rusyn is provided.


Tellingly, the index in the Sussex and Cubberley’s book has separate entries for “Ruthenian” and “Rusyn”. The former refers the reader to several historical uses of the term: once as synonymous with Ukrainian, once as synonymous with Belarusian, and once explained as “a written and administrative language based on the Belarusian dialect of Vilno under Lithuanian rule” whose functions in the Ukrainian lands were progressively taken over by Polish after the Union of Lublin in 1569. The entry for “Rusyn” refers the reader to the abovementioned discussion of Magocsi (1992) and Shevelov (1993), as well as a relatively uncontroversial classification of “Rusyn, which overlaps between the West and East Slavic areas” as an East Slavic variety. The “Rusyn” entry is complete with a note that subtly expresses the position that Sussex and Cubberley take on Rusyn: “see also: Ukrainian: dialects”. That entry, however, takes us to a four-page section that divides Ukrainian dialects into three geographically based categories—northern, southwestern, and southeastern—and describes their phonological and morphological peculiarities. As can be seen from the map on the left, the southwestern dialectal area includes a far larger territory than Zakarpattia; as a result, those dialects cannot be identified with Rusyn. To add to the confusion, Rusyn itself is sometimes subdivided into a number of local “dialects” (see Dulichenko 2006).

While some linguists—and numerous activists—continue to spill ink over Rusyn’s status as a separate language or a dialect, the majority of linguists are more interested in describing its linguistic peculiarities—sounds, morphemes, words, and sentence. Ultimately, all linguists agree that Rusyns speak a series of dialects that belong to the East Slavic family and that “Rusyn dialects are distinguishable from other East Slavic dialects by the high number of loanwords and other borrowings from neighboring Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, and to a lesser extent Romanian” (Magocsi 1999: 88). Because of the linguistic contact between Rusyn and its western neighbors, mutual intelligibility between Rusyn and Ukrainian, particularly its southwestern dialects, is in the grey area between clear-cut dialects and unmistakably separate languages. As Magocsi (1999) puts it, the issue is thus that of dignitas: does Rusyn have what it takes to be afforded the label of a separate language? But ultimately, this question—and the fact that it matters so much to some people—is more a reflection of geopolitics than of linguistics.



Comrie, Bernard (1992) “Slavic Languages”. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Oxford, Vol 3. Pp. 452–456.

Dulichenko, Aleksandr D. (2006) “The Language of Carpathian Rus’: Genetic Aspects.” In: Bogdan Horbal, Patricia A. Krafcik, and Elaine Rusinko (eds.) Carpatho-Rusyns and Their Neighbors: Essays in Honor of Paul Robert Magocsi. Fairfax, VA: Eastern Christian Publications. Pp. 107-121.

Hantsov, Vsevolod (1923) Diialektolohichna klasyfikatsiia ukraïns’kykh hovoriv. Kyïv: Ukraïns’ka akademiia nauk.

Hnatiuk, Volodymyr (1900) “Rusyny Priashivs’koï eparkhiï i ïkh hovory”. Zapysky Naukovoho tovarystva im. Shevchenka  35: 1-70.

Magocsi, Paul Robert (1992) “The birth of a new nation, or the return of an old problem? The Rusyns of East Central Europe”. Canadian Slavonic Papers 34(3): 199-233.

Magocsi, Paul Robert (1999) “The Rusyn Language Question Revisited (1995).” In: Paul Robert Magocsi (ed.) Of the Making of Nationalities There Is No End. Vol. I. New York: Columbia University Press/East European Monographs. Pp. 86-111.

Pan’kevych, Ivan (1938) Ukraïns’ki hovory Pidkarpats’koï Rusy i sumezhnykh oblastei. Prague: Nakl. Sboru pro vyzkum Slovenska a Podkarpatske Rusi.

Ramač, Julian (2002) Grammatika ruskoho jazika. Belgrade: Zavod za učbenike i nastavna sredstva.

Shevelov, George Y. (1993) “Ukrainian”. In: Bernard Comrie and Greville Corbett (eds.) The Slavonic Languages. London: Routledge. Pp. 947-998.

Sussex, Roland and Paul Cubberley (2006) The Slavic Languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Vaňko, Juraj (2000) The Language of Slovakia’s Rusyns/Jazyk slovenskych Rusinov. East European Monographs. New York: Columbia University Press.

Verkhrats’kyi, Ivan (1902) Pro hovor halytskykh lemkiv. Zbirnyk Fil’ol’ogichnoï sektsyï Naukovoho tovarystva im. Shevchenka. Vol. 5. Lviv.

Zilyns’kyi, Ivan (1933) Karta ukraïns’kykh hovoriv z poiasnenniamy. Warszawa.


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