Monday, December 31, 2007

Ukrainian? Rusyn? Slovak? What's the Frequencey Kenneth?

Since it's New Year's eve and the focus is on putting aside misgivings of the past and beginning fresh and hopefully more enlightened understandings, I am compelled to make an attempt to quell yet again, one of the most common fallacies of our ethnic identification.

In the mid-1990s, the popular band, REM, recorded a song with the title "What's the Frequency Kenneth." It's origins were in a broadcast from CBS, when then evening news anchor, Dan Rather could be heard reciting the phrase repeatedly. Evidently, Dan was having difficulty in the transmission and was appealing to a technician by the name of Kenneth. In some circles of Ukrainian origin there is a similar need to fine tune the frequency.

Now we all are familiar with the rapidly changing political borders which once characterized central and eastern Europe. This environment effected those Slavs coming to the United States during the so-called "first" and "second" immigrations. Among Ukrainians, it was not uncommon for one's paperwork to list the country of origin as Poland, Hungary, Russia, Austria-Hungary, etc., even Galicia or Ruthenia, as no independent Ukraine existed at the time. In fact, it is important to note that the word "Ukrainian" as a name for the descendants of ancient Kyivan-Rus, only came into use in the late 19th. and early 20th. centuries, through the efforts of cultural awakeners of the time.

Before this time, Ukrainians were called by a variety of names, the most popular being, Rusyns, Ruthenians (from the Latin Ruteni), and even the pejorative, Little Russians. Over the centuries, Ruthenians migrated westward, into what is today south-eastern Poland and eastern Slovakia. Even so, the people remained distinct from ethnic Poles and Slovaks, primarily by means of their language and religion. Ruthenians continued to speak their particular dialect of what is today referred to as the Ukrainian language. Depending on time and place, they belonged to either the Greek Catholic or Orthodox churches, both of which use the same Byzantine ritual tradition. They also maintained the cultural arts, styles and traditions of Rus'.

In the early 20th. century, it was common for people from the Carpathian mountain region and its environs, to refer to themselves by a variety of names. The Ukrainian national movement, which took a strong hold in northern Galicia, was stymied to a great extent south of the mountains, by the Hungarian government. This monarchy forbid the use of the Cyrillic alphabet, discouraged the use of the vernacular and perhaps most important of all, put a stop to plans of the Holy See in Rome, to unite the Greek Catholic eparchies of the Carpatho-Rusyns with the Metropolia of Lviv & Galicia. The latter would have been a strong bonding mechanism for the peoples who shared the same heritage. Certainly, Budapest knew this.

Needless to say, while their relatives abroad were going through periods of change, with the fall of the Hapsburg empire and the creation of a short-lived but independent "Carpatho-Ukraine," Carpatho-Rusyns in the US often became confused as to what to call themselves. Many whose family history was from Slovak territory, adopted the name for themselves, even mistakenly referring to the liturgical language heard in church (Church Slavonic), as "Slovak." Slavonic, now a purely literary language, has its roots in ancient Slavic idioms and, written in Cyrillic letters, bears more in common with contemporary Russian and little with modern day Slovak. As a spoken language, that of the Carpatho-Rusyns is considered by scholars, notably Paul Robert Magocsi, to be one of the dialects of Ukrainian.

Ecclesiastical authorities did not help the situation much when in 1924, they divided the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the US into two separate jurisdictions, one for those from Galicia and another for those from the territories Carpatho-Ukraine, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia. The division exists until today, and the United States is the only place in the world where two jurisdictions exist for Greek Catholics from the same tradition.

Why do I bring this up at this time? It's because I'm continually saddened to hear people of Rusyn descent in the USA, refer to themselves AND their ancestral language as Slovak, as they shrill at any mention of the word Ukrainian. One of the most telling examples occurred a couple of months ago, while attending a wake for a long time, pillar member of a nearby Greek Catholic parish (today sometimes called "Byzantine Catholic"). The saddest fact was that not one individual in the parlor still kept faithful to their spiritual heritage and belonged to Greek Catholic or even Orthodox church. Secondarily, some of the mid-aged people, who were most gracious and well-intentioned, thanked me for singing in Slovak, after I had intoned a "Vichnaya Pamyat'" (eternal memory), in Church Slavonic.

What's the frequency here? Well, since the term Ukrainian had not gained universal acceptance at the time of the first immigration, I don't expect some American descendants of Carpatho-Rusyns to suddenly adopt the current name of Ukrainian if they do not want to. However, let's at least give up the convoluted identity with Slovakism and be faithful to the ancient heritage to be found in the land, religion and culture of Rus'. It was in a struggle against this forced "Slovakization" that several bishops, including Pavlo Goijdich & Vasyl Hopko, suffered persecution, imprisonment and tortuous conditions, during the Communist regime in that country.

And for me? I continue to identify myself as I long have, as an American of Ukrainian descent, whose grandparents immigrated to America from the region that is today the Transcarpathian Oblast (Region) of an independent and united Ukraine. That's the frequency folks.
For further reading see: Pekar, Athanasius, OSBM, The History of the Church in Carpathian Rus', Columbia University Press, 1992

Article I wrote in 2001, "CARPATHO-UKRAINIAN BISHOP PAVLO PETRO GOJDICH, OSBM, BEATIFIED: Victim of Communist Persecution, Slovak Forced Ethnic Assimilation and Russian Orthodox Expansionism".

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Rod viquez said...

I respect your views, and I know thatmy mothers family in slovakia were all changed to ukranian by the communists. But we are rusyn, brothers to ukrainians, russians and belorussians. I don't advocate a separate nation, but we have a right to be recognized as the fourth eastern slavic group.

MS.Renaissance said...

I am so glad to have a particular identity, after years of referring to myself as Greek Catholic, Slovak, a little Ukranian, something in there, Byzantine catholic which is sort of Orthodox, but we're under the pope.