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No Friends But The Mountains: An Interview With Academic Paul Robert Magocsi

On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the World Congress of Rusyns, Boris Varga, director of the Ruske Slovo Publishing House in Novi Sad, Serbia, asked Professor Paul Robert Magocsi for his views about the World Congress and about the past, present, and future of the Carpatho-Rusyn movement. The following is the text of the interview with Professor Magocsi.


You were a participant at the creation of the World Congress of Rusyns that happened 25 years ago. As a scholar, what do think is the over all importance of the congress?

The first World Congress of Rusyns that met in Medzilaborce (then Czechoslovakia) in March 1991 was of crucial importance. It not only symbolized the rebirth of our people, in a real sense it created, or rather re-created Carpatho-Rusyns. What do I mean by creation or recreation?

Ever since the end of World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland was divided among several different states. A quarter of century later, at the close of World War II, some of our people (the Lemkos) were forcibly deported from the Carpathians. While most of our people were allowed to remain in their homeland, the new Communist regimes in Soviet Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary banned the Carpatho-Rusyn nationality and language.

What was the result? Most Carpatho-Rusyns, especially among the younger postwar generation, lost their national identity. They had little or no sense that they belonged to a distinct people whose historic homeland, Carpathian Rus’, was divided between different countries. For example, while many Carpatho-Rusyns did know they had relatives or friends who long ago had emigrated to the United States or Canada, hardly any in the Carpathian homeland knew about fellow Rusnaks living in the former Yugoslavia (the Vojvodina and Srem). For that matter most Carpatho-Rusyns in Transcarpathia did not know about the terrible fate of our Lemko-Rusyn brethren in Poland.

All that changed as a result of the First World Congress of Rusyns in 1991. From then on Carpatho-Rusyns gradually came to realize that they belonged to one people, who form a distinct nationality united by a common identity and language, even if they lived in different states. This enormous psychological change in the mindset of our people was the most significant achievement brought about by the first and subsequent World Congresses of Rusyns.

One other aspect of the first World Congress in Medzilaborce was of special importance for me. On one of the evenings during the congress I invited a small group of writers (Olena Duts’-Faifer, Volodymyr Fedynyshynets, Ivan Petrovtsi, and Petro Trokhanovskii) to meet at the home of Father Frantishek Krainiak who was at the time serving in the Greek Catholic parish in Medzilaborce. The specific goal of the meeting was to discuss the need to create a standard Rusyn language and to identify some of the problems we would face in carrying out that process. In a sense, the meeting at Father Krainiak’s home was the first international gathering to discuss the Rusyn language. I came away with the idea that we needed a larger gathering in order to undertake serious work on codification, and that eventually led to the First International Congress of the Rusyn Language which took place just over one year later, in November 1992, in Bardejovské Kúpele, Slovakia.


You were for a time the chairman of the World Council of Rusyns and are still today its honorary chairman. What were the achievements of the congress during your chairmanship?

Since Carpatho-Rusyns are like many other groups in Europe, a stateless people, I always felt that they need a body to represent their interests to the larger world community. That body became, in effect, the World Congress of Rusyns. Therefore, during my mandate as chairman of the World Council, from 2005 to 2009, I did my best to help initiate meetings with government officials of all countries where Carpatho-Rusyns live as well as with representatives of multinational bodies, such as the European Union and the Vatican.

Those encounters took various forms, such as personal visits to the embassies of Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, the Vatican, and to the European Union mission in Washington, D.C. We also met on more than one occasion in Kyiv with the United States ambassador and the European Union’s commissioner to Ukraine.

As important, we issued memoranda and letters to government leaders about specific problems. For example, we communicated with the ministers of education and of culture in Slovakia regarding the status of the Rusyn language, with the president of Hungary regarding the former university chair of Rusyn philology at Nyíregyháza, and with the government of Serbia regarding clarification about whether Vojvodinian Rusyns need a so-called mother country—and, if so, why Ukraine and not Slovakia—in order that they qualify for the status of a nationality. These are only some of the many issues we raised with governments concerning Carpatho-Rusyn interests.

It is important to note that in all our encounters with various governmental officials during the first decade of the twenty-first century, our hosts agreed to meet with myself and other representatives of the World Congress with the understanding that we represented a distinct nationality, Carpatho-Rusyns.

In response to requests from many Carpatho-Rusyns, it was while I was as chairman of the World Council that we adopted an official flag and national anthem. Each Carpatho-Rusyn community may have its own national songs, perhaps its own national colors and symbols, but through the instrument of the World Congress we all now recognize one common flag (with the beautiful bear symbol) and one common national anthem that begins with the words of our nineteenth-century national awakener Aleksander Dukhnovych, “Ia Rusyn bŷl, iesm i budu.”

It was also during my tenure as chairman of the World Council that efforts were made to make the World Congress more democratic, representative, and inclusive. I was always skeptical about the principle that each country where Carpatho-Rusyns live should be represented at the Congress by only one organization. Rather, each country should be represented by a group of organizations. For example, the official member of the World Congress from North America has, since the very beginning in 1991, been the Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center, which is a legal non-profit cultural organization registered in the State of New York. Nevertheless, at every congress the North American delegation has always been comprised of representatives from six or seven of the most active Carpatho-Rusyn organizations in the United States and Canada.

Even before I became chairman I suggested at the Sixth World Congress held in Prague 2001 that we encourage young people (no older than 30) to organize a World Forum of Rusyn Youth. Happily, at the next congress held two years later in 2003 in Prešov the first International Forum of Rusyn Youth did take place. This, to my mind, is one of the most important developments in the Carpatho-Rusyn movement. Since 2003, there is a youth forum held every two years in conjunction with the World Congress, and several of its past and present participants already play important roles in the countries where they live.


You have been both an activist in the Rusyn movement and an academic historian. Is there any friction/clash between your views as a historian of Rusyns and of Ukrainians?

Being a scholar is life-long learning process. If one is serious and continues to read about and research the past, it is inevitable that one’s views will evolve and change. Although I have been studying Carpatho-Rusyns since the mid-1960s, it was in 1990s that I became convinced that our people must be considered what they are and have always been—a distinct nationality.

Since at least the 1970s I have been a historian not only of central Europe as a whole, but of Ukraine in particular. I see no contradiction between these two roles. Ukraine is a typical European country in the sense that it is a state within which live several peoples, or nationalities: Russians, Poles, Jews, Germans, Romanians, Bulgarians, Crimean Tatars, Hungarians, and Carpatho-Rusyns, among others. Unlike traditional Ukrainian historiography, I do not consider Carpatho-Rusyns a branch of Ukrainians, but rather a distinct nationality.

In a legal sense, all the above-mentioned peoples are Ukrainians because they are citizens of Ukraine. Hence, among the citizens of Ukraine there are Ukrainians of Russian heritage, Ukrainians of Polish, Jewish, Crimean Tatar and other heritages, and, analogously, Ukrainians of Carpatho-Rusyn heritage.

By the way, you will notice that I use term Carpatho-Rusyn to describe our people, and not simply the term Rusyn. The reason for this is quite simple, but very important. Rusyn is a vague term originally used to describe all East Slavs living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later the Habsburg Empire. In other words, it was the ethnonym used by peoples who today call themselves Belarusans and Ukrainians. So, does that make our people Ukrainians, or perhaps Belarusans?

This may all sound very confusing, but hopefully it can be easily explained by the title of one of my recent books: Every Carpatho-Rusyn is a Rusyn, but not every Rusyn is a Carpatho-Rusyn. In other words, Carpatho-Rusyns have their own historic homeland Carpathian Rus’ (today within the borders of four countries), and they are a distinct East Slavic people equal to, but different from, the three other East Slavic peoples: Russians, Belarusans, and Ukrainians.

This is the conceptual approach I use in my writings about Ukraine, including my large 900-page History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples, which has been published in two Ukrainian-language editions (Kyїv: Krytyka, 2007 and Uzhhorod: V. Padiak, 2012) and is now about to appear in a third edition.

To be sure, there are some scholars who cannot understand how the same person can be an impartial historian writing about two allegedly contradictory concepts: Ukrainian nationhood and Carpatho-Rusyn distinctiveness. Perhaps the best explanation of this seeming paradox comes from the pen of the respected American political scientist and unapologetic Ukrainian patriot, Alexander Motyl. At a seminar which took place in 2010 that was devoted to my career as a scholar, historian, and public advocate, he wrote the following: “Ukrainians must logically exist for Magocsi. They are, as it were, a necessary condition of his Carpatho-Rusyn nation-building efforts. To make the case for a distinct Ukrainian nationality and a distinct Ukraine . . . is to make the case for a distinct Carpatho-Rusyn nationality and a distinct Carpathian Rus’ homeland.

“In this sense, as in so many others, Magocsi is acting in accordance with traditional nationalist beliefs. . . . The logic of his thought and activity is also identical to that of Ukrainian nation-builders who have needed, and continue to need, a distinctly Russian Russia in order to make the case for a distinctly Ukrainian Ukraine. The paradoxes of Paul Robert Magocsi therefore dissolve, only to reveal what may be a true paradox—that all nation-builders are always builders of at least two nations, their own and the other’s.”


Do there exist external forces that have an influence on the World Congress of Rusyns, whether they are individuals, politicians, states where Rusyns live, the West, or Russia?

This is a complex issue that would require so much time to address that it could easily be the subject of an entire interview. At the risk perhaps of oversimplification, let me say the following. Yes, throughout the entire 25-year history of the World Congress of Rusyns there have been external forces that have tried to influence our organization, but for the most part those efforts have not succeeded.

Why, one might ask, is this so? It is true that Carpatho-Rusyns as a group do not have practical experience in formal political life. But Carpatho-Rusyns as individuals are by nature skeptics and, therefore, politically savvy (wise). While it is true that at some World Congresses a particular individual or country delegation might have acted in such a way to suggest external influence, there have always been enough other individuals and country delegations whose voices have been able to neutralize and negate such external influences.


Have Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and the subsequent annexation of Crimea had any impact on the evolution of the Rusyn movement? What has been the position of Carpatho-Rusyns in this matter?

The views of Carpatho-Rusyns on contemporary events are inevitably varied. I think that most would be opposed to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, especially since such an act raises the possibility of a larger war, something that no one wants.

Certainly, many residents of Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region, including Carpatho-Rusyns, welcomed and even participated in the 2014 Euromaidan, which is now known as Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. As for Carpatho-Rusyns in other countries, I have no way of knowing their views on the Euromaidan, although I suspect those views range from skepticism to sympathy for Ukraine.

As for the World Congress, it quite rightly expressed support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, implying that Russia’s annexation was illegal and a violation of international norms.


What is the likely impact of the frozen conflict in the Donbas on the Rusyn movement in Ukraine? To what degree can that tense situation in eastern Ukraine negatively influence the Rusyn movement?

The conflict in the Donbas since 2014 has had a very negative impact on the Carpatho-Rusyn movement, most especially in Ukraine. On the one hand, any reasonable person can support the right of Ukraine to exist as a sovereign state and oppose the actions of separatists in eastern Ukraine who, with the support of Russia, threaten the territorial integrity of the country. On the other hand, one cannot be sympathetic to a government and media in Ukraine, which uses the conflict in the Donbas to denounce Carpatho-Rusyns. After all, young men from Transcarpathia are fighting in the ranks of the army defending Ukraine, and many return home as casualties or worse—to be buried.

Because of the conflict in the Donbas, in present-day Ukraine “separatism” has become a dirty word that is equated with treasonous anti-state activity. Whereas before 2014 “political Rusynism” was the term used to denounce anyone who felt that Carpatho-Rusyns are a distinct people, today one encounters a more damning epithet, “Rusyn separatism.”

In a time of war—and Ukraine is at war—it is not uncommon to use simplistic concepts to describe all real and imagined enemies. Most unfortunately, the public in Ukraine is becoming used to a new equation: Carpatho-Rusyn equals “Rusyn separatist.” And we all know what that means: a separatist is a traitor!

Labels can have serious consequences. Most recently, during the present 2016-2017 academic year, a professor and dean of the Faculty of History at Uzhhorod National University was denounced for promoting Carpatho-Rusyn “separatist” views in his publications and teaching. The result? He was forced to resign and History Faculty was abolished.

Whatever progress may have been made in advancing the idea that Carpatho-Rusyns form a distinct nationality while remaining loyal citizens has come to an end. Alas, Ukraine has become an enemy of Carpatho-Rusyns.

At the same time, one must be aware of false friends. I refer here to Russia, from which some Carpatho-Rusyns expect help. Let me repeat here what I have said to audiences in Toronto, L’viv, Mukachevo, New York, and Pittsburgh. Russian intellectual circles, whether in tsarist or Soviet times, never accepted the view that Carpatho-Rusyns are a distinct nationality. In that sense, they are no different from Ukrainian intellectual circles. And one should never forget what the East brought to our people. When, in the guise of the Soviet Union, “real Russians” (as opposed to local Russophiles) took control of Subcarpathian Rus’ in 1945, within a few years they brutally undermined traditional Carpatho-Rusyn cultural values by destroying the Greek Catholic Church, taking away individual farmland, and banning the Rusyn language and national identity. Carpatho-Rusyns have never gotten—nor do they need—help from Russia, whether tsarist, Soviet, or Putinesque.

In the end, Carpatho-Rusyns can expect no help from either the enemy or the false friend. They must depend upon themselves alone. In that sense, to quote the title of a book about Kurds, Carpatho-Rusyns have no friends but the mountains.


During your chairmanship, what was the attitude of the World Council of Rusyns toward certain Rusyn organizations and individuals who expressed separatist views regarding Subcarpathian Rus’/Transcarpathia?

While I was chairman of the World Council in the years 2005-2009, one of our major goals was to have Carpatho-Rusyns recognized in Ukraine as a distinct nationality. This was part of a long process that had begun from the time the congress was created in 1991. That process included several meetings with Ukrainian officials. For example, already in the mid-1990s I was invited by Ukraine’s Ministry of Nationality Affairs to give three lectures on the “Rusyn Question” to policy makers in Kyiv.

Also at that time minority rights organizations in Germany and Denmark helped us in negotiations with the office of Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma. We also met on two occasions with the Ombudsman of Ukraine, who issued public statements calling for the recognition of Carpatho-Rusyns as a distinct nationality. In the United States we were successful in gaining the support of the influential head of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John McCain, who in 2006 wrote a personal letter to President Yushchenko, urging him to encourage Ukraine to recognize Rusyns as a distinct nationality.

Finally, in early 2007, together with fellow Carpatho-Rusyn activists from Transcarpathia (Dr. Ievhenii Zhupan, Mykhailo Almashii among others), I met with the chairman of the Oblasna Rada and the region’s gubernator to discuss the question of the Rusyn nationality. Soon after, on March 7, 2007, Transcarpathia’s Oblasna Rada issued a decree that recognized Rusyns as a distinct nationality on the territory of Transcarpathia and called on the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv to do the same for the rest of Ukraine. It seemed that our many years work on behalf of official recognition of Rusyns in Ukraine had reached a significant first level of success.

But before the end of that very same year, one of the World Council’s members, the Soim podkarpatskykh rusynov headed by the Orthodox priest Dymytrii Sydor, unilaterally declared autonomy for the region and called on the European Union and the Russian Federation to guarantee that status. From that moment all further negotiations with Ukraine’s authorities about Carpatho-Rusyns became difficult if not impossible.

Many of us in the World Council considered the Soim’s declaration a provocation that undermined the Rusyn cause. Consequently, Father Sydor and his organization were suspended from the World Council and eventually World Congress.

In the end, the Soim’s December 2007 and the subsequent declarations of the so-called European Congress of Subcarpathian Rusyns did not bring autonomy to Carpatho-Rusyns. It did, however, certainly weaken the position of the World Council in its further negotiations with Ukraine. The fact that Father Sydor is a priest under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, that Russia was mentioned as a possible guarantor of Subcarpathian autonomy, and that Russia’s print and broadcast media continued to speak about the “suffering” of Carpatho-Rusyns in Transcarpathia were all factors that brought nothing positive for our people in Ukraine.

Politics requires realistic goals and patience to achieve them, not the publication of unrealistic proclamations and demands.


What is the official position of Kyiv toward the Rusyn question in central Europe and Ukraine?

In late 1996, just a few months after Ukraine adopted its new constitution, the government in Kyiv issued an internal document titled “Proposed Measures for Resolving the Problem of Ukrainian-Rusyns.” The document contained ten proposals addressed to various ministries, the office of the general prosecutor, the state administration in Transcarpathia, the National Academy of Sciences, the State Commission for Television and Radio, and Ukraine’s embassies abroad. All these bodies were given instructions on how to combat demands for political autonomy and the view that Carpatho-Rusyns are a distinct nationality. In short, to quote the document: Transcarpathia “is an age-old Ukrainian land, and local Ukrainians [that is, Carpatho-Rusyns] are an indelible part of the Ukrainian nation.”

It is true that since 1996 the Carpatho-Rusyn movement continued to exist in Ukraine and certainly in neighboring countries, that in 2007 Transcarpathia’s Oblasna Rada formerly recognized the Rusyn nationality, and that in 2013 Ukraine adopted a language law in which Rusyn was listed as an officially recognized regional language.

Nevertheless, the government’s position, backed up by Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences (especially scholars in the Institute of the Ukrainian Language, the Institute of Art, Folklore, and Ethnology, and the Institute of Political and Ethnonational Studies) is that Rusyn is a dialect of Ukrainian and that Rusyns are a regional branch of the Ukrainian people. In other words, Carpatho-Rusyn are Ukrainians.


What is your view of the future work of the World Congress of Rusyns and the Rusyn movement in general throughout the world?

There is no question that the World Congress of Rusyns has played an enormously positive role during its 25 years of existence. It has convinced Carpatho-Rusyns that even though they live in different countries, whether in Europe or North America, they together form a single people with a common cultural heritage. The congress has also been recognized by the authorities in countries where Carpatho-Rusyns live as the legitimate representative body for a distinct people.

By its very nature the World Congress is a diverse body made up of citizens of at least ten countries, whose delegates meet only once every two years. There is an executive body, the World Council, made up of nine members representing each member country, but it, too, meets only periodically and not always with all its members present. I mention this not as a criticism but as a reality which sometimes makes effective work difficult. The fact the World Congress has very limited funding does not help the situation. Very often individual members of the World Council have to use their own funds in order to participate in World Congress events. We should all be grateful to them for doing this.

Of course, the World Congress is not the only organization promoting Carpatho-Rusyns. Each country has several Carpatho-Rusyn organizations (not all of which are members of the World Congress) that do enormously important work in promoting Carpatho-Rusyn culture and identity through schools, publications, the media, the theater, and museums. There are also a few priests, especially in the Greek Catholic Church, who do very important work on behalf of Carpatho-Rusyn secular and religious culture. It is true that Carpatho-Rusyns in some countries may, at certain times, be doing better than in other countries. And it is true that there are still serious challenges, such as out-migration of young people from Carpatho-Rusyn villages or emigration abroad, language assimilation, reluctance of the Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches to accept the reality of a literary Rusyn language, and the antagonistic policies of at least one country (Ukraine) toward Carpatho-Rusyns. But these kinds of challenges are nothing new. What is new is that Carpatho-Rusyns are here to stay. And so, overall, one cannot help but feel optimistic about the future of the Carpatho-Rusyn movement.


You have written numerous works about Rusyns in various countries. How have they been accepted in those countries where Rusyns live?

The best way to answer this question is to consult the numerous reviews in professional journals about the 35 books and hundreds of articles I have published over the past four decades. Another way to gauge the positive reception is the sales records of each book. None have sold less than 1000 copies, and some have sold over 10,000 and even over 20,000 copies. Most of my books have gone into two, three, even four editions, and certain tittles have been translated into Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Romanian, Croatian, Hungarian, Chinese, and Turkish and published by major publishers in those countries.

I should also note that I do not publish only about Carpatho-Rusyns. In fact, most people learn about Carpatho-Rusyns through discussion about them in my 900-page History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples and the lavish full-color Historical Atlas of Central Europe.

Even more important than my own books is the fact that we now have a professional discipline called Carpatho-Rusyn Studies. There is a research institute in the United States, the Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center (established in 1978); there is the Carpato-Ruthenica Library at the University of Toronto (established in1995), which is the world’s most comprehensive library and archive on Carpatho-Rusyns; and there is the Studium Carpato-Ruthenorum international summer school, which in its seven years since 2010 has attracted to the University of Prešov 134 participants from no less than twelve countries throughout Europe, North America, and as far as away as Argentina and China. We have also held four international congresses of the Rusyn Language, and in 2004 we were invited to publish a 500-page volume on the Rusyn language as part of the 14-volume Modern History of the Slavonic Languages under the auspices of the University of Opole in Poland. Each year there are several panels on Carpatho-Rusyn studies held at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies in the United States. These are only some of the many achievements in the scholarly world.

Twenty-five years ago not many people ever heard of Carpatho-Rusyns. Today, not only are Carpatho-Rusyns recognized in the scholarly world, there is an actual discipline of Carpatho-Rusyn Studies which continues to attract senior scholars, teachers, and students of all backgrounds to study, learn, and teach about all aspects of our people past and present.

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