RUSYNS. Cleveland's Rusyns trace their heritage to the Carpathian Mountains, a large mountain chain extending from central to eastern Europe and across modern-day Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and Romania. Although Rusyns have been a prominent element in the ethnic mosaic of Cleveland in particular and the United States in general during much of the twentieth century, their distinct ethnic identity has been largely misunderstood, if not overlooked, by most. Since their early settlement in the Carpathian Mountains until the present day, Rusyns have lived under foreign rule—enjoying political autonomy at the best of times and facing cultural marginalization at the worst of times. Straddling the geographic borderland between eastern and western Europe, Rusyns and their descendents in the United States present an extraordinary case of ethnic identity formation and retention given the crucial fact that they have never possessed a nation-state of their own. Surrounded by much larger and more vocal ethnic groups, the Rusyn claims to a separate ethnic identity have been historically stifled and dismissed by their neighbors as well as rulers, enshrouding Rusyns and their descendents in a veil of invisibility in the popular mindset. Indeed, the popular conflation of historic Rus', from which Rusyns derive their ethnonym, and modern Russia has resulted in the misconception that Rusyns are ethnic Russians who have inhabited the Carpathian Mountains, hence the incorrect term Carpatho-Russians. Given these complex variables, it is worth and indeed necessary to explore the long and intricate history of this often marginalized ethnic group and its American descendents in some detail.
The origins of human settlement in the Carpathian Mountains can be traced to the sixth and seventh centuries, but the region remained a sparsely populated hinterland well into the eleventh century. The Rusyn migration into the Carpathians continued until the sixteenth century (and even later) from north and east, particularly Galicia. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Rusyns were under the political jurisdiction of three medieval powers: Hungary, Poland, and Kievan Rus' (through the principality of Galicia). The political circumstances shifted somewhat in the fourteenth century when sovereignty over Carpathian Rus' was divided between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Kingdom of Hungary. From 1795 until 1918, all Rusyns lived within the political borders of the Hapsburg Austrian Empire (officially the Austro-Hungarian Empire after 1867). From their early settlement in the Carpathian Mountains and well into the twentieth century, nearly all Rusyns depended on agriculture for their subsistence and livelihood. Foreign rule, however, reduced most Rusyns to the lowly status of peasant serfs at the service of Hungarian, Polish, or Austrian landlords for two centuries. The abolition of serfdom throughout the Austrian Empire in 1848 coincided with a cultural revival movement devoted to the preservation of Rusyn national identity, led by Aleksander Dukhnovych and Adolf Dobrians'kyi. The marked growth of the population in Carpathian Rus' at the turn of the twentieth century exacerbated the shortage of agricultural land and the lack of industrial employment in the region, forcing many Rusyns, especially young men, to seek their fortunes in the United States. Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Rusyns became the citizens of three new states: Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. About 460,000 Rusyns resided in Czechoslovakia, most in the autonomous province of Subcarpathian Rus', and about 200,000 in Poland. A smaller number of Rusyns lived in an autonomous Rus'ka Kraina in northern Hungary. However, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist as an independent state after two decades following the implementation of the Munich Agreement in 1938. The provisions of the agreement included the Hungarian annexation of Subcarpathian Rus' and the creation of a quasi-independent Slovak Republic, dividing the political jurisdiction over Czechoslovak Rusyns between Nazi-allied Hungary and Nazi-controlled Slovakia. The Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939 brought Polish Rusyns under direct German rule. During WORLD WAR II, nearly all 100,000 Carpathian Jews, who made up nearly one-quarter of the population in Subcarpathian Rus', perished in Nazi death camps after their forced deportation by Hungarian and Slovak authorities. The end of World War II generated new political borders that directly affected Rusyns. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) annexed the former Czechoslovak province of Subcarpathian Rus' where the majority of the Rusyn population lived and incorporated it into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as the Transcarpathian Oblast. The rest of Rusyns became citizens of either Czechoslovakia or Poland, both Soviet satellite states. Four decades of Communist rule devastated Rusyn communities. Soviet, Czechoslovak, and Polish officials abolished the Rusyn national identity by declaring all Rusyns to be Ukrainians, banned religious worship, and undercut many traditional expressions of Rusyn culture. The collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989 engendered a Rusyn national revival. The inaugural World Congress of Rusyns and Congress of the Rusyn Language were both held in Czechoslovakia in March 1991 and November 1992, respectively.
Originally, all East Slavs living in the eastern regions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth used the term Rusyn (or its variant, Rusnak) for ethnic self-identification. The term remained in common use among the East Slavic subjects of the Austrian Empire in eastern Galicia, northern Bukovina, and northeastern Hungary. With the demarcation of distinct Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian ethnic identities in the early modern era, however, only the East Slavs living in Carpathian Rus', and emigrants from the region, persisted in identifying as Rusyns. During the mid-nineteenth century national awakening movement, Rusyn intellectuals first employed the term Rusyn as an ethnonym for the East Slavic inhabitants of Carpathian Rus'. Rusyns living along the northern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Galicia adopted the ethnonym Lemkos to differentiate themselves from their Ukrainian neighbors in the early twentieth century and have persisted in using it for self-identification to this day. The ethnonym Rusyn gained official recognition in Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the interwar years with the creation of autonomous Rusyn-inhabited provinces in both countries. Since the collapse of Communism, the democratically-elected governments of Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Serbia recognized Rusyns as a distinct national minority. The regional government of Transcarpathian Oblast recognized Rusyns as a distinct national group in 2007, but the national government of Ukraine did not follow suit. In addition to Rusyns, the East Slavic inhabitants of Carpathian Rus' have been known as Rusnaks, Ruthenians, Uhro-Rusyns, Carpatho-Russians, Carpatho-Ukrainians, and Carpatho-Rusyns. Rusyns speak several dialects of an East Slavic language that is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. The classification of the Rusyn language has been a contentious issue in recent years. Rusyn scholars believe it to be an independent language, while Ukrainian scholars view it as a dialect of the Ukrainian language.
As adherents of Eastern Christianity, Rusyns recognized the ecclesiastical authority of the EASTERN ORTHODOX CHURCH until the late 16th century when Rusyn priests officially pledged their allegiance to the Catholic Church in Rome. Under the terms of the Union of Brest (1596) and the Union of Uzhgorod (1646), the Catholic Church established the Uniate Church for Eastern Christians who accepted the spiritual and temporal primacy of the Pope. The newly-created Uniate Church retained many of the features of Orthodoxy: the use of Church Slavonic in liturgy, the Julian calendar, and married clergy. After 1777, the Uniate Church became known as BYZANTINE RITE CATHOLIC CHURCH. The fact that Rusyns lived for centuries among Western Christians, mainly Slovaks, Hungarians, and Poles, faithful to the Roman Catholic Church influenced and informed their ecclesiastical shift from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. Once the Hapsburg rulers of Carpathian Rus' banned the Eastern Orthodox Church and conferred official recognition on the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church in the region, all Rusyns nominally became Eastern Catholics.
As a minority long dominated by foreign powers, most Rusyns immigrants to the United States had a weak sense of national identity but a strong sense of ethnic and religious identity. Rusyns immigrated to the United States in three distinct periods: around the turn of the twentieth century (1880-1914); post-World War I (1920-38); and post World War II (as displaced persons). The vast majority of Rusyns came during the first period, largely men hoping to earn money and then return home. Religious persecution also prompted some Eastern Orthodox believers to emigrate. Between 125,000 and 150,000 Rusyns immigrated to the United States prior to the outbreak of WORLD WAR I, nearly 80% of them men. It is difficult to estimate the precise number of Rusyn immigrants to the United States because first generation immigrants and their descendents identified as national citizens of the foreign power that ruled their village rather than as ethnic Rusyns, who lacked an independent homeland. Only 7,500 Rusyns immigrated to the United States between 1920 and 1938 owing to a national quota system enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1924 that severely restricted immigration from Eastern (and Southern) Europe and a global depression in the 1930s. Women and children predominated among new immigrants during the second wave as families from the Old World joined men who decided to remain in the New World. Fleeing the wholesale devastation wrought by World War II, an estimated 2,000 Rusyn refugees emigrated to the United States during the third wave of immigration. As the Iron Curtain descended upon Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, banned the emigration of their citizens, including Rusyns.
Rusyn immigrants secured employment in the anthracite coalfields of eastern and western Pennsylvania, the steel mills of Pittsburgh, and the factories and oil-refining plants of New Jersey and New York. Others found similar work in Ohio, Connecticut, and Illinois. As an unskilled workforce of agrarian extraction, Rusyn immigrants held physically demanding and low paid jobs as coal breakers and haulers, stokers, ditchdiggers, and machine operators. By 1920, nearly 80% of all Rusyns in the United States lived in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, and the greater Pittsburgh area was considered the unofficial capital of Rusyns in America. Most second-generation Rusyn-Americans entered the economic mainstream of middle-class America during the 1930s and 1940s after completing their high school education and securing skilled and professional employment. Many Rusyn-Americans have acquired college and university education since the 1950s.
As other immigrants before and since, Rusyns brought their religious beliefs and practices with them from the Old to the New World. Most were adherents of the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church, beholden to the Pope in Rome, with a small number of Eastern Orthodox Christians among them. However, the Orthodox rituals of Rusyn Byzantine Rite Catholics, especially the use of Church Slavonic and married clergy, perturbed the Catholic hierarchy in the United States which sought to create a unified American Catholic church with a single set of beliefs and practices. Rusyn priests in America responded in different ways to the Catholic demand for ecclesiastical uniformity. Most established their own Byzantine Rite Catholic churches and brought in priests from Europe to attend to the spiritual needs of the Rusyn communities. Others abandoned their Orthodox rituals and conformed to the established Roman Catholic practices. Still others left the Catholic fold altogether and joined the Russian Orthodox Church (known as the Orthodox Church in America since 1970). An estimated 25,000 Rusyns, particularly Lemkos, "returned" to what they considered to be their old faith, Eastern Orthodoxy, by 1914. In 1916, the Holy See in Rome created separate ecclesiastical jurisdictions for Rusyn and Ukrainian Byzantine Rite Catholics in the United States, and provided each ethnic group with their own priests and bishops. Tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and Rusyn Byzantine Rite Catholics resurfaced anew in 1929 when the Vatican imposed celibacy on all new Greek Catholic priests and abolished the ownership of church property by laymen. The constant friction with the Catholic hierarchy induced some Rusyn-American priests to form their own independent Eastern Christian denomination. Affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Church, the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church has been based in Johnstown, Pennsylvania since 1937. Rusyn-Americans have also joined the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States, an episcopal polity distinct from the Orthodox Church in America, since the 1930s.
One of the earliest Rusyn settlements in Cleveland dates to the 1890s, when immigrants moved in among the HUNGARIANS along Orange and Woodland avenues. As the two groups prospered, the Hungarians and Rusyns moved eastward along Union and Buckeye avenues. Rusyn settlements always centered around churches. Three early Rusyn churches on Cleveland's east side were the ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST BYZANTINE RITE CATHEDRAL, St. Joseph's Byzantine Catholic Church, and St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Church, all since relocated to the suburbs. A second early settlement was on the west side of the CUYAHOGA RIVER in TREMONT. The original Lemko settlement was also here, with ST. THEODOSIUS RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL and HOLY GHOST BYZANTINE CATHOLIC CHURCH serving the community. By 1906, Rusyns began settling in LAKEWOOD, with St. Gregory's Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite and SS. PETER AND PAUL ORTHODOX CHURCH there. In the 1930s, more than 30,000 Rusyns lived in Cleveland. A large-scale move to the suburbs, especially to PARMA, began after World War II. Some inner-city churches followed their members to the suburbs, while new Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox churches were also established. By the 1980s, most Byzantine Rite Catholic and Russian Orthodox congregations were comprised of several nationality groups. In 1983, approximately 25,000 Rusyns lived in Greater Cleveland.
The most important organizations in the communities, after the churches, were the fraternal societies preserving the traditions of Rusyns and providing financial security with life insurance and workmen's compensation. Culturally, they sponsored youth clubs, sports organizations, social gatherings, and publications. Many early Rusyn clubs for Orthodox members were named for homeland villages to attract former neighbors. While most no longer exist, national clubs, such as the Russian Brotherhood Organization of the USA, the United Russian Orthodox Brotherhood of America, and the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians in America (formerly the Federated Russian Orthodox Clubs of America) continue to function. A newspaper for Orthodox Rusyns, Rodina (The Family), was published in Cleveland from 1927 until 1940. National journals and newspapers, such as the American Orthodox Messenger, Russian Orthodox Journal, Orthodox Church in America, and Novoye Russkoyo Slovo (New Russian Word), still circulated in Cleveland well into the 1980s. Several fraternal, cultural, and athletic organizations were established in Cleveland by Rusyns. The Rusin Elite Society, founded in 1927, maintained the Rusyn traditions among youth, becoming in 1935 the Rusin Educational Society. Its monthly publication, the Leader (1929-30), was short-lived, but the organization sustained itself until the early 1960s.
In 1892, a Clevelander, Michael Lucak, Sr., helped found the Greek Catholic Union (GCU), a national organization promoting unity among Byzantine Rite Catholics who spoke Rusyn, providing insurance, encouraging both academic and religious education, and publishing Amerikansky Russky Vietnik (American Russian Messenger). The GCU has organized golf and bowling tournaments and participated in an annual Byzantine Catholic Day celebration (originally called Rusin Day). Its publication, renamed the Greek Catholic Union Messenger, adopted an English-language format in 1952, retaining a page in the Rusyn language. In 1939, a Rusin Cultural Garden was erected in Cleveland's ROCKEFELLER PARK, with a bust of Aleksander Dukhnovych, a 19th-century Rusyn nationalist. In 2009, the Carpatho-Rusyn Heritage Museum opened at the St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Parma to educate the general public about the history and cultural traditions of Rusyns in Europe and the United States.
Lemkos in Cleveland founded a local organization in 1929 to preserve their traditions. Two years later, representatives of Lemko associations throughout the United States and Canada met in Cleveland to form the Lemko Association. Until its relocation to Yonkers, New York in 1939, the association was based and published its newspaper, Lemko, in Cleveland. During the 1950s, the local branch of the Lemko Association moved to the Lemko Club in Tremont and published magazines, newspapers, and books in the Lemko dialect, but efforts to attract young members were generally unsuccessful. In the mid-1980s, the Lemko Club was sold and planned to relocate in the suburbs. By the 1980s, most of the old Rusyn neighborhoods were abandoned and immigrants' descendants, as well as new immigrants, relocated to suburban areas, with the Rusyn culture kept alive largely through the churches, which had mostly also relocated.
Nicholas J. Zentos, Lorain County Community College
Wendy Marley, Cuyahoga Community College
Michael Metsner, Case Western Reserve University
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Works Projects Admin. The Peoples of Cleveland (1942).
Magocsi, Paul Robert and Ivan Pop, ed. Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).
Magocsi, Paul Robert. Our People: Carpatho-Rusyns and Their Descendents in North America (Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2005).
Magocsi, Paul Robert. The Carpatho-Rusyn Americans (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000).