01 May 2017

Mountain bandits, hedge-priests and the Unia

Carpathian oprishki опришки

On this International Labour Day (which is also the day on which the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenia was supposed to take place in past years), I would like to write a post about this people without a nation, who have always and ever been friends to the international labour movement, and who themselves have both suffered from exploitation and have fought against it with banditry, and later with labour activism.

Before I begin this post, I should probably make a full disclosure. I lived through my graduate career in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; I was chrismated into the Holy Orthodox Church in the Moscow Patriarchate; and I now attend an OCA parish in Minneapolis. (That means, of course, that I do have a ‘side’ as far as the following issues I’m highlighting here are concerned, and I’m sticking to it.) I’m taking a Slovak class in the very same church which Holy Father Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre established. I live, in a literal and physical sense, very close to ground zero for a lot of the issues I am about to discuss. It is not my desire to cause offence or scandal or division, given that there are many good people of strong faith and good will, some of whom I know personally, who attend parishes aligned with the Unia. At the same time, of course, the truths of the history, and the ecclesiological, the cultural and the class issues that go along with it, should not be ignored.

The history of the Union of Brest-Litovsk is a very long, very ugly, very bloody tragedy, and no one – not the Orthodox Cossacks, nor the Catholic Poles – comes out of it with clean hands. It is necessary, though, first to note who was affected, and where the impetus for a political union of the Orthodox Church with the See of Rome came from. The Orthodox believers living under Polish rule were spread in a wide crescent stretching from Polotsk and Mogilev (both in modern-day Belarus) down to Poltava (now in the modern-day Ukraine) and westward into the Carpathian mountains, stretching into the Rusyn areas of what are now Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. They all regarded themselves as ‘Русь’ and all spoke Eastern Slavic languages; but the term which entered common English usage, under influence from the Latin, was ‘Ruthene’ or ‘Ruthenian’. Residents of the Carpathians, who called themselves ‘White Croats’ at the time but who would eventually call themselves ‘Русь’, were in fact among the original mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs.

It is also important to understand that these people, these Rusyns, from the late Middle Ages forward were basically treated like dirt by everyone who claimed rule over them, whether Polish or Magyar or German. They were overwhelmingly peasants, and, in the Carpathians at least, they were peasants who were given the poorest land to farm, usually with tax incentives from the Polish government (which often came with strings attached, though this was not apparent at the time). They were poor farmers and shepherds, but at least – some of the time – they were relatively independent. This independence they maintained through their own village commune structures (similar and directly parallel to the ‘black’ Russian obshchina община and the Ukrainian hromada громада), their own conciliar leadership, and especially their own Orthodox churches. It’s unclear anymore whether these churches were governed by their own bishops. As Lemko-Rusyn social historian Dr. Simeon Pyzh put it: ‘It is certain that in the monasteries and churches the monks and priests copied books, kept chronicles and received and recorded letters and documents; but after acceptance of union with Rome the Uniate clergy did not preserve these documents. On the contrary, it destroyed them, so that not even a trace of the old faith would remain.’ But the few surviving histories record that they were under the omophor of Constantinople (not under the Metropolitans of Kiev or Moscow).

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was modernising itself by the 1580’s; the powers of the nobility, the szlachta, were being supplanted by a growing bourgeoisie. The Commonwealth occupied an enviable maritime position on the Baltic coast, and its urban élites were growing in power and influence as a result of Baltic sea trade and as a result of the opening of the inner Commonwealth lands to prospecting, speculation and mining enterprises in rock salt, lead, iron and precious metals. The story of Polish enclosure is a sad and familiar one to students of English history or of European history more generally: in order for them to retain their traditional privileges and status alongside these nouveaux riches, the nobles began adopting their methods, enclosing commons, revoking village rights, forcibly buying out the richer peasants (and robbing the lands from the poorer), and taking taxes in ever-larger cuts.

At the same time, the religious wars of the Continent were making their influence felt even in the traditionally-tolerant Commonwealth; and the Latin Counter-Reformation through the Society of Jesus was exercising a strong influence on the Polish princes and szlachta. The confluence of these two impulses, œconomic and religious, led the rising Polish bourgeoisie as well as the modernising gentry to look hungrily at the lands occupied by the Carpathian Rusyns – there were commons to appropriate, there were taxes to levy, and there were converts to make that would add to the piety, prestige and purses of the landlords.

However, the peasants living in these areas were as stubborn and reticent as they were poor, and given to Robin Hood-style social banditry when they were squeezed too tightly. The Rusyn bandits (called zbuytsi збуйцы ‘highwaymen’, or else oprishki опришки ‘brigands’) generally took to the forests and foothills and would prove a thorn in the side of the Polish, Austrian and Hungarian nobility for centuries. Some who came from the eastern part of Transcarpathia even sought out and joined the Cossack uprisings against the Polish state. These latter, of course, were as much religious as social banditry – the Cossacks in rebellion were devoutly and violently Orthodox and utterly opposed to the Catholic nobility. Rusyn bandits were notably present in many of the peasant uprisings against the Habsburgs and the Polish state, including the Hussite wars and the rebellion of Francis Rákóczi.

Thus, in order for this exploitation to be effective, first the independence of these difficult-to-manage foothill villages and communes had to be broken. The Rusyn villages and communes of the Carpathian foothills were, as many rural Eastern European villages have been through most of historical memory, centred around church life, and the Orthodox Church and its parish priests had been to that point one of the great props of Rusyn independence or semi-independence from an officially-Catholic state. Thus, they were to be co-opted or they were to be removed. Even if it was not the only motive, figuring heavily in the impulse to the Union of Brest-Litovsk was the œconomic exploitation of these poor but irksome hill-folk.

Looking at the class backgrounds of the Unia’s architects as well, the pattern becomes much clearer. Adam Tyczkowicz, Michel Rohoza and Cyril Terlecki (the diplomatic and clerical architects of the Unia), as well as Josyf Rutsky and the infamous Jozafat Kuncewicz (the brutal, sadistic, inquisitorial enforcer of the Unia against the peasantry in subsequent decades, shamefully ‘sainted’ by the Latins), all came from and supported the interests of the szlachta gentry class, which stood most to gain from co-opting the Orthodox churches in Subcarpathia. Kuncewicz was mentored by wealthy merchants who supported the Unia for their own ends. Piotr Skarga, a member of the Society of Jesus and a key figure in the Counter-Reformation policies of the Polish realm, was another nobleman who had the ear and the implicit trust of King Sigismund Vasa when he advocated for the arrangement (though, in fairness to Skarga, elsewhere he advocated leniency toward the peasantry). The local priests who joined the Unia were usually enticed by the prospect of better relations with the secular nobility. Charitably speaking, many of them may have thought that by approving the Unia they could more effectively speak for their villages. Certainly individual Uniate parishes occasionally did mount some subaltern resistance to the demands of the Latinate Polish and Hungarian clergy, but this was not to prove the norm from subsequent experience.

The entire enterprise of Uniatism was guided not only by the gentry but by the worldly wisdom of the urban bourgeoisie and the educated trades – lawyers, merchants, university-educated churchmen. It was from the start a collaboration between the Polish państwo and the Latin clergy. As Dr Simeon Pyzh summed up in his Short History: ‘the Polish Pans, spiritual and temporal, brought the rural population in the Carpathians œconomic oppression and slavery’. On the other hand, the parish priests and the two bishops who rejected the Unia were not noblemen or wealthy merchants, but low-born, and sympathised strongly with the beleaguered peasantry. One of the handful of Carpathian clerics who resisted and polemicised against the Unia, Fr Mihajlo Andrella, did have considerable education, and wrote in a mishmash of Latin, Hungarian, German and his own Rusyn language. But it is noteworthy that his writings are described as ‘chaotic’: eristic, rough, vernacular, and in a populist hedge-priest style.

It is crucial to point out that most Rusyns, even under the Unia, continued to resist Latinisation, colonialism and expropriation of their customary lands. But for all that, Byzantine-Rite Catholicism in Eastern Europe remained a bourgeois, gentry-led phenomenon: a tool of the exploiters retained and imposed for their benefit through the centuries. For this reason in particular, they attracted the most support from governments and were never lacking for powerful patrons; in latter years, the Uniate Catholics who found themselves in Ukrainian lands have drifted, not toward agrarianism or distributism, but toward the ugliest possible forms of racial chauvinism and bourgeois nationalism. By contrast, the Orthodox holdouts in Carpathia and elsewhere in the lands of the Русь which kept up their links with Constantinople and later Moscow, retained their strong peasant character. Even when, under Austro-Hungarian persecution and exploitation, many Rusyns came to America, they were strongly drawn to the labour movement as they found themselves being again exploited. The notorious ill-treatment of Saint Alexis Toth at the hands of Archbishop John Ireland, right here in the Twin Cities, led directly to many Rusyn-Americans leaving Byzantine-Rite Catholicism for what would later become the Orthodox Church in America, for reasons which were often connected to œconomic as well as ecclesiastical ill-treatment, as the faith of Abp John Ireland came to be seen as the faith of the Irish mine bosses generally. In Pittsburgh and the surrounding coal-mining areas, the Rusyns were prominent in the IWW and the UMWA. The leaders of the Lemko Association and the later Carpatho-Rusyn societies, including Dr. Simeon Pyzh, were to a man socialists and union men – some pro-Soviet, others far less so. During the Second World War, Lemko and Rusyn organisations in the United States (which were majority-Orthodox by that point) were stridently anti-fascist.

I freely admit my own biases, political as well as theological. I do hold out (and I do use the Latinism with a tinge of ironic humour) a ‘preferential option’ for the working class, and particularly the rural working class – and the Carpathian Rusyn people have always and overwhelmingly belonged to that lower stratum of society, whether under Poland, Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union or America. It is little wonder that many of the Rusyns welcomed even the limited autonomy they were allowed under the interwar Czechoslovak state, and that even within that state they gravitated either toward ‘green’ distributist peasant politics, or else toward a ‘redder’ agrarian socialism. But again, I’m putting this historical commentary out there, and the class-based and ecclesiological commentary as well, not to impugn the faith or the good will of the men and women who adhere to the Byzantine Rite in communion with the Church of Rome. That’s neither the point nor the intention of this essay. I am instead attempting, in my own limited way, to put forward one true but neglected aspect of the historical record.

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