26 October 2018

A hope denied, but not a hope in vain

The end of the Great War did not bring about many changes at all for the better – and certainly none, as we now know, that were lasting. (Many of the effects of the Great War’s aftermath could have been resolved with a more gracious attitude toward the losers.) However, for the Rusin people as well as for many other stateless peoples of Central Europe, the end of the First World War was a great breath of hope. It offered them a chance for self-determination. And for the Rusíni in particular, this chance was something hitherto undreamt-of. The Carpatho-Rusins had been starved, scattered abroad, brutalised and murdered for decades and centuries before – first by the Poles, then by the Germans and Hungarians, and by their own neighbours, the (Ukrainian) Galicians. Little wonder, we should say, that the members of the Rusin community abroad saw the President-to-be of Czechoslovakia Tomáš Masaryk’s proposal as a veritable godsend!

In the coming years, the Carpatho-Rusins would become perhaps some of the most enthusiastic and loyal participants in the Czechoslovak project, which seems natural given the interest so many Czechoslovak public figures displayed in the political legacy of Byzantium. Many Carpatho-Rusins joined the Czechoslovak military and served with distinction. They were also at the forefront of various agrarian and socialist political formations within Czechoslovakia, putting aside cultural concerns for the sake of a fair distribution of land, fair trade practices and more equitable welfare policies. They were, in short, realists – not nativists. (In this, the differences between their own œconomics-first political consciousness and the identitarian one of their Galician neighbours are marked indeed.)

Again, though, the hopes of a true self-determination, whether œconomic or political, were every bit as fleeting and ephemeral as the peace that had brought them. Between the rise of the Nazis in the West and their conquest of Czechoslovakia, and the rise of Stalin in the East, the Rusins were left again in the uncomfortable position of being the inconvenient, unwanted people. Even before that, as the Carpatho-Rusin historian Simeon Pyž makes clear, the Czechoslovak government under Masaryk, Švehla and later Beneš was far from friendly even to any political attempt by the Rusins to assert an identity of their own. Attempts by Carpatho-Rusin political leaders – Grigorij Žatkovič foremost among them – at fostering political regionalism and cultural goods particular to the Carpathian region were met with deafening silence at best.

During the Second World War, things turned much worse. The Nazis and their Galician collaborators treated Rusins with the same genocidal dehumanisation that they visited on most of the other Slavs – particularly Russians. When they fled eastward, hoping to find a warm welcome from their hitherto-solicitous and -hospitable Russian brethren, they found waiting instead Stalin – who promptly sent them to Siberia, where they perished by thousands. The Carpatho-Rusins who survived or returned to their home country have never since had any sort of political or cultural recognition or independence, though in most Central European countries today (notably Serbia and Slovakia, where Rusins form significant minorities – but not in the Ukraine) the Rusíni do have some communal rights. Even so, the Rusins of Slovakia today are more concerned with securing œconomic rights and the common welfare, than they are with communal and cultural rights.

So this is, indeed, still something of a bittersweet centennial commemoration: the memory of a hope denied – though hopefully not a hope in vain. Here is to my neighbours and friends and distant kin the Rusíni; may God save them, keep them and remember them always with love.

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