Would it surprise you to know, that in 2020, there is a silent genocide happening in the middle of Europe? St. Alexis Toth’s people, Andy Warhol’s “people from nowhere”1—who practically brought the Orthodox Faith to North America, are now disappearing from their homeland in the lonely Carpathian Mountains.
They are the Carpatho-Rusyns, also called Carpathian Ruthenians, or simply Rusyns/Rusyns,2 and for centuries, there has been push to marginalize, assimilate, or even exterminate them. (For more on their history, see here.)
A little-known fact is that Andy Warhol was a Carpatho-Rusyn. Many think he was simply being mysterious when he claimed that he “came from nowhere”, however in reality, like many Rusyns, he simply didn’t know how to explain where his people came from, considering their land is divided between the territory of several states and often shifted hands. Rusyn lands are part of modern-day Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania.
Rusyns suffered greatly when the powers-that-be clashed over their lands.
This article is not sufficient to describe the war crimes committed against the Rusyns—that would require several articles. This article instead is written in the hopes that it can help raise awareness for the Carpathian Ruthenian people, and also to explain why their story should matter very much to American Orthodox Christians—the short version—according the history of the Orthodox Church in America alone, whether Americans realize it or not: Rusyns built hundreds of churches in America and literally laid the foundations for what we recognize today as much of American Orthodoxy.
These people do not deserve to be forgotten, especially not after what they’ve been through.
According to U.S. Congressman Medill McCormick, the prisoners were beaten and tortured;5 the photos are an eerie foreshadowing of the holocaust to come. The numbers may be smaller, but Rusyns are a tiny nation of less then a million people, which made this crime all the more horrible for such a close-knit society.
Many Lemko victims of Talerhof were from the same region of Galicia and Poland as Holocaust victims would later come from. The Carpathians truly are the Galician Golgotha, or arguably, the Golgotha of Europe, where thousands of these peaceful shepherds were slaughtered.
Some sources list that between the camps of Talerhof and Terezin, 10,000 people were murdered in around three years’ time.6
If you read the account of the execution of Rusyn Hieromartyr Maxim Sandovich in the prison camp, it sounds just as horrifying as any Holocaust story—and the only thing scarier than a heinous crime is one where the perpetrators get away with it, and everyone is none the wiser.
Well… when was the last time you’ve heard someone shed a tear for the Rusyns?
Virtually everyone knows about and condemns the Holocaust, and the ideology of racial supremacy (rightly so!), but today, there are few people who know the story of the Carpathian Ruthenians. Thousands of them faced the same fate as St. Maxim in concetration camps before WW2.
Glory to Jesus Christ, there are no more concentration camps, Rusyns are not being mass murdered by Austrians, mass exiled by Stalin, or forcefully converted to Unaitism by… well… basically all of their neighbors, though violent Church seizures are still a very real threat in Western Ukraine since the 1990s.
In 2019 alone, the rector of a Transcarpathian Church, Priest Ioann Deket was threatened with murder.
And there is still a cultural genocide happening—a conscious and even subconscious effort to erase the name Rusyn from the history books—and it’s happening in their own native towns and villages.
Despite the fact that the Transcarpathian region of Western Ukraine is arguably one of the capitals of Rusyn civilization, the Ukrainian state to this day does not recognize the Rusyn people as a nation, or even sub-ethnos, classifying them simply as Ukrainian “Highlanders” or Verhovyntsy. This is how an entire people are taught about in Ukrainian schools and media to the children of even uninformed Rusyns. Take this clip from a song performed by Ukrainian children in the Subcarpathian Drohobych region of southern Lviv, which says “Our (Ukrainian) Highlanders, Boikos and Hutsuls, Lemkos and Mazurs who danced across the mountains…” They mentioned every obscure tribe of Rusyns, but leaving out the word Rusyn itself. There is another song entitled simply, “Carpathians”, were the girl sings about growing up in the Carpathians and being proud to be Ukrainian.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of those songs, or certainly not being Ukrainian; however especially in the second case, the dress and music style is clearly Carpatho-Rusyn. As a matter of fact, the people are essentially Galician Ruthenians; however their ancient name Rusyn is left out of the history books and all media, so children are intentionally not exposed to it in schools or on television.
As a result, they have been effectively denied an opportunity to express their unique cultural and ecclesiastical life, whether you consider them an entirely separate nation like related Slovaks, or an independent Slavic sister in the greater Rus’ family, which includes modern Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians.
Sadly, many schools in Western Ukraine only teach the Ukrainian nationalist perspective, and therefore Rusyn children and people of Rusyn descent are unable to learn about their history. If they’re lucky, some may encounter the word Rusyn as a footnote in a history book—an archaic term for Ukrainians—as their whole people are literally written out of history.
The result is many Rusyns don’t even realize their nation is disappearing, because they don’t even realize they’re Rusyn!
See this video from Pennsylvania, in which Carpatho-Rusyn expert, Professor Paul Robert Magocsi is translating into English, as Rusyn cultural leader Valerij Padiak from Uzhhorod amazingly recounts the story of how a Rusyn electrician came to the Ruysn center in Uzhhorod to work, and after becoming interested in some of the displays, asked him, “And so… who are these Rusyns anyways?” The best part is that he asked in the Rusyn language. That is how serious the Rusyn situation has become.
Rusyns are asking the director of a Rusyn cultural center, in the Rusyn language, “What are Rusyns?” because they aren’t quite sure. He’s heard the word in some songs or from his grandmother perhaps. The issue is not so much that in the villages the Rusyns completely lost their way of speaking or culture, but that they are deprived of the intellectual platform from which to articulate and broaden their knowledge and self-awareness.
Do you think it is implausible that a member of a certain nation can forget that it exists?
If so, then here is something even more impossible which actually happened:
Did you know that between 1921 and 1931, Poland made an entire nation appear out of thin air, and half of another disappear, all without touching a hair on anyone’s head?
Understanding how that happened is the key to understanding why this most Orthodox Rusyn people are in danger of disappearing.
Here is an excerpt from the Polish Census of 1921. Rusyns are listed at the top in the red box. To be clear, this does not refer to the people we call modern Russians today, or Muscovites, as they are listed at the top as Rosijski, in the blue box.
Now, here is the Polish Census of 1931.
Low and behold, out of nowhere, now we have Rusyns and Ukrainians (Ukrainski; highlighted together with Rusyns in red)! Where did the Ukrainians come from? As you can see, the number of Ukrainians increased, and the number of Rusyns is around three times smaller than before.7
The reality is that the “Ukrainians” and the “Rusyns” on the census were essentially the same people. The Rusyns were just written out of the history books and given another name, whether they wanted one or not.
Whoever is currently in power can simply decide whether “Rusyn” is a valid ethnicity or not—and Rusyns do not possess a Rusyn state…
It is said that the difference between a dialect and a language is that a language is a dialect of human speech, which possess its own army and navy—this too is the fundamental aspect of consistent nationhood throughout history. And that is sadly a fact of the human condition.
While a large portion of the clergy and intelligentsia were “Galician Russophiles”8 (which does not always mean Moscophile) at the end of the nineteenth century, a movement began with Austrian support around WW1 to forcefully rename all Ruthenia.
Ruthenia—being the Latin name for the Slavic “Rus”, or the Greek, Ros(sia)—includes not only Carpathian Ruthenia, but essentially most of the lands which are Ukrainian today.
As a result, the Ruthenian people—or Rusyni, as they call themselves, are the ancestors of todays Ukrainians.
Carpatho-Rusyns, are the unique Ruthenians from the Carpathian Mountains, who were probably baptized as part of Great Moravia by Sts. Cyril and Methodius—and as a result, in the words of Rusyn Archpriest Dimitry Sydor, Carpathian Rus’ may in fact be the oldest Rus’.9 They preserved their ancient name, the common root word Rus’, also found in the name of Russians and Belarusians.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted this name to disappear for that very reason—that Catholic empire ruled many Orthodox Slavs and they wanted their subjects in Transcarpathia and Galicia to forget or renounce their ethno-religious ties with the Russian Orthodox identity.
We remember that in WW1, St. Nicholas Romanov, the martyred Tsar of Russia, was fighting Austro-Hungary to prevent the destruction of the Serbian state and people—a fight he knew Russia, and he personally, could pay dearly for.
Against this backdrop, the last thing the Austrians wanted was their Galician Rusyn subjects identifying with their culturally similar enemy (Russians), so they required a new name for these peoples, previously ruled by the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
They needed a name with no connections to Ancient Kievan or Carpathian Rus’, in the hopes that they would more strongly embrace the Latin Uniate faith and not ally with the enemy of Austria—Orthodox Russia—which under the rule of the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas, was championing the pan-Slavic cause.
On this forceful renaming of the children of Kievan Rus’, St. Lavrenty of Chernigov—a city in modern-day northern left-bank Ukraine—spoke heavily.
“And it’s absolutely necessary to know, remember, and not forget that it was the Baptism of Rus’, and not the baptism of Ukraine. Kiev is a second Jerusalem and the mother of Russian cities […] The Jews hated the words ‘Rus’ and ‘Russian’, so at first they called the Russian lands conquered by the Poles and rented out to them ‘Malorossia’ (Little Russia). Then they realized that it contained the word ‘Ros’, and they named it Okraina (Ukraine). The word Okraina is a disgraceful and humiliating word! What ‘remote, outlying district’? What ‘borderland’? Why and for what is it ‘Okraina’?! You see, beyond this supposed ‘borderland’ there lie other countries and states. And later the Poles legitimatized the concepts of the Ukraine and Ukrainians to us, so that we would willingly forget our own name of 'Rus' forever, so that we would be torn away from Holy and Orthodox Rus’ forever.”10
The modern Ukrainian state, however, unlike Poland, Slovakia, the United States, and many other countries, refuses to recognize the Rusyn people, and at times even considered Transcarpathia and the Rusyns to be separatists! This is despite the fact—as Rusyn leaders such as Archpriest Dimitri Sydor,11 and Valerij Padiak12 have pointed out—that Rusyns helped Ukrainians to form the Ukrainian state, and supported Ukraine’s separation from the Soviet Union.
The reason for this essentially all goes back to what St. Lavrenty explained about the very formation of Ukrainian nationalism as a movement that was at the core, originally designed as an anti-Rusyn movement, intending to strip the people of their nationality. It was, therefore, Russophobic.
This is not anything against the Ukrainian people—a Rusyn could in fact be the strongest defender and advocate of the Ruthenian-Western Rus’-Polish-Lithuanian Rus’ cradle, and prefer all things Galician to all things Muscovite; therefore the Russophobic argument that those who defend the unity of the Russian Church, like the Rusyn Metropolitan Laurus, are somehow “agents of Moscow”, is ridiculous.
And it is literally Russphobic—a certain phobia or fear of a united Rus’, or even the name Rus’, because that entire movement was dedicated to taking Rusyns, removing the name Rus’ from that name, and leaving them with the name Ukrainian, which means essentially “borderlander”, according to St. Lavrenty. This is a name completely removed from Old Kievan Rus’, or the knightly land of Ruthenia at the height of the commonwealth. It is a name that ironically expresses exactly what Ukrainian nationalists use in their accusations against the idea of the “Russian world”; it is a name without nationality.
As a result of this, the long-persecuted Rusyn people, who are a traditional cradle of Orthodoxy, are being forced into a position where, within a few generations, more and more people will forget they even exist and will lose their beautiful traditions—and this is despite the lively Rusyn awareness movements in Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, the United States, Canada, and other places.
Again, this is nothing against those modern Ukrainian people, be they from Kiev, Lviv, Kharkiv or Odessa, who wish to identify as Ukrainians. After all, we have a wonderful Ukrainian Orthodox Church, led by His Beatitude, Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and all Ukraine. If anything, this should illustrate that Ukrainophiles can also be a part this idea of Holy Rus’—as it cannot, and should not be a political ideology—as His Holiness Patriarch Kirill said in his talk with the youth of Kiev.
At the same time, Rusyns should not be forced to disappear; and I would argue, as fellow Orthodox Christians, that all of us should take the time to get to know our Carpathian brothers and sisters. They may be closer than you think…
Why should this matter to American Orthodox Christians?
Considering there is a good chance many readers may be Americans or Canadians, you may ask, “Okay. So this is a European issue? What does this have to do with Orthodoxy in America?”
Carpatho-Russians, in fact, have everything to do with Orthodoxy in America.
St. Alexis Toth On this matter, I will let the website of the Orthodox Church in America speak as to why a Rusyn priest from modern-day Slovakia—St. Alexis Toth—is practically the apostolic father of North American Orthodoxy:
“He was instrumental in the formation or return of seventeen parishes, planting a vineyard of Christ in America, and increasing its fruitful yield many times over. By 1909, the time of his blessed repose, many thousands of Carpatho-Russian and Galician Uniates had returned to Orthodoxy. This was a major event in the history of the North American Mission, which would continue to shape the future of Orthodoxy in this country for many generations to come. Any future growth or success may truly be regarded as the result of Father Toth’s apostolic labors.”13
Few Americans realize this fact, but there are easily hundreds of parishes in America founded by Rusyn or Galician immigrants—parishes which still function to this day.
In the immigration, the classic issue of Rusyns—their lack of understanding and self-awareness of their own identity and history—arose in an odd place: at Ellis Island. The Rusyns, due to their history, have a very weak national identity, but a very strong religious identity; in Galicia to this day, religious affiliation is a very important aspect of people’s identity. As a result, thousands of Rusyns faced Andy Warhol’s dilemma in coming to America: explaining where they were from. Here is an example from an academic study of the diaspora written by a convert to Orthodoxy, Doctor of Theology and Hieromonk Constantine (Simon), Ph.D., of Red Ruthenian decent:
“Upon their arrival, almost none of the early immigrants from Galicia or Transcarpathia were able to reply to the immigrant official’s inquires… The best reply that these early immigrants…could offer was Rusyn or Rusnak… These terms could hardly have helped the immigration official, whose job it was to place all immigrants in a national identity category. Thus, many of those immigrants ultimately represented themselves as members of the neighboring nationalities—the Poles or the Russians. Others gave the state from which they came; thus, they became Austrians or Hungarians in the immigration records. Still others gave their religious membership as a means of their identification; they consequently were referred to as Greeks or Greek Catholics. Obviously the American immigration records are confusing and hardly a reliable source.14”15
Despite the fact that Rusyns came to America unable to even name their nationality, they came with a deep Christian piety, and it was the mass conversion of Rusyns from Uniatism to Orthodoxy that practically built what we now call the OCA.
If you simply study the OCA’s list of parishes you will find a similar story: The vast majority of parishes around the Great Lakes Region, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York State have this archetypical story of being founded between 1900-1925 by these Carpathian immigrants who came to labor like slaves in the steel mills and coal mines of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Little did they know that they would come to labor like servants of God Almighty in the vineyard of eternal life—as it was these simple people who built the cradle of American Orthodoxy.
St. Michael’s Church in Pennsylvania, displaying typical Rusyn-Galician style domes; the land behind the church displays features very similar to Transcarpathia, which is one of the reasons Rusyns fell in love with these regions. This is merely one example chosen from literally hundreds: http://orthodox360.com/tours/stmichael-jermyn/
It is also no coincidence they ended up in these regions. When the first Rusyns came to New York City they were often depressed, because as simple pastoral people, the concrete jungle looked nothing like the rural Carpathian Mountains, which are incredibly green. And so the directors of steel mills and coalmines, particularly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, knowing this enticed the Rusyns to come work for them, as this region in particular had a strong resemblance to the Carpathian foothills.
The immigration of Slavic Orthodox people to America can broadly be classified in three periods—the Carpathian Immigration, The White Immigration, and the Red or Post-Soviet Immigration.
The Carpathian Immigration laid such a foundation of Orthodoxy that the Russian Orthodox Diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate (which became the OCA) moved their headquarters from San-Francisco to New York, to be close to the center of that Great Lakes-Pennsylvania-New York cradle. In other words, the OCA—the Russian Metropolia—relocated to be closer to the Rusyns.
Bare in mind that today there is only an estimated half a million Rusyns in the world, many of whom are in the U.S., but that tiny Carpathian nationality has built hundreds of churches in North America, and been monumental in the history of three great American seminaries.
There is also an entire jurisdiction—ACROD—the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese.
This means that a stateless nation of less than a million people has arguably played a greater role (per capita) in the establishment of Orthodoxy in America than nations of tens or hundreds of millions. In other words, that small nation was able to produce as many churches in America, or more, than nations more then ten times larger then them.
Whether people realize it or not, the old Russian culture, which most people prior to the 1990s may have encountered in the United States and Canada, has an incredibly strong South-Western Rus’ character to it. The diaspora in general was influenced more by Galicia than Siberia, and certainly by Transcarpathia.
America has one of the largest Rusyn diasporas, comparable to the number in some of the home regions.
People have no idea how influential the Carpathian traditions were in diaspora—it could be argued, at least for a time, that they were the dominate tradition in the diaspora.
Mother Alexandra. Photo: oca.org This includes not only the Rusyn traditions, but even the nearby Romanian as well. Princess Ileana of Romania lived out the rest of her life as Mother Alexandra in monastic tonsure, Abbess of the Elwood City Transfiguration Monastery in Pennsylvania.
The majority of the Romanians in the core Great Lakes region, and the center of the mission of the ever-memorable hierarchs Polycarp and Valerian, were from the Carpathian region of Transylvania and not the capital, Bucharest, for example. In fact, the majority of the Ohio Romanians are from Brasov and Fagaras.
In Romania they have a patriotic song about crossing the Carpathian Mountains, which is set to the same melody as a Polish song; and there is certainly a great diaspora of Poles in the same Great Lakes region, particularly Chicago.
Another great figure is Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko of blessed repose, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, whose hundreds of podcasts on Orthodoxy are beloved by all who listen to them.
Saint John of Shanghai and San-Francesco was a spiritual son of Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky of Kiev and Galicia, the founding First Hierarch of ROCOR, who himself championed the Carpathian Orthodox Cause, and directed many individuals, including St. Dosifey, a Serbian hierarch who studied in Kiev, to labor for Carpathian Orthodoxy. Transcarpathia itself was once part of the Serbian Orthodox Church prior to being annexed by Stalin.
St. Dosifey himself was a friend and contemporary of the Syrian St. Raphael of Brooklyn, who knew him from Kiev, and later became the first hierarch consecrated on American soil, by St. Tikhon of Moscow—who also worked closely with the Rusyns. St. Alexis Toth is buried and was glorified at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Pennsylvania, which was closely associated with St. Raphael.
The first monks who founded Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville came from St. Tikhon’s, and were later bolstered and arguably revived by monks coming from the monastery of St. Job of Pochaev in Transcarpathia, among them the future First Hierarch of the ROCOR, Met. Laurus, of blessed repose.
In fact, the majority of the ROCOR First Hierarchs are of South-Western Rus’ heritage, or had some connection to Transcarpathia.
It could be said that all of American Orthodoxy has been touched by the Carpathian tradition to some degree or another. We are all interconnected.
Transcarpathia, after all, means “The Land Beyond the Carpathians”; and I suppose in a metaphorical sense, wherever we are, we are all somewhere beyond the Carpathians. Wherever in the world we go, Transcarpathia can be our second home.
For everything our venerable Carpathian Fathers have done for Orthodoxy in the world, the least we can do for them is to learn more about their history and keep the legend alive—legend of the small Carpathian Lambs, beleaguered and persecuted, who sojourned beyond their mountain homes and across an ocean, to become the shepherds of Orthodoxy in the new world.