Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 25
26 June 2000
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Petro Kuzmjak Gymnasium in Ruski Kerestur
Rusyn-language school
in Ruski Kerestur
Caught in the Middle
Carpatho-Rusyns and the Vojvodina
Brian J Požun

The vocal Albanian minority in Kosovo and Metohija and the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina are not the only national minorities in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The Carpatho-Rusyns, or Ruthenians, are one of the smaller, lesser-known and more successful national minorities living in Yugoslavia today. But what will happen to them if the Vojvodina really is to be the next Kosovo?

The Carpatho-Rusyns (also called Ruthenians) are a small Slavic group of just under two million who live primarily in Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Romania, as well as in diaspora in Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, the United States and elsewhere. They speak a range of dialects and standardized languages that are officially classified as East Slavic and are written using the Cyrillic alphabet. Most belong to the Greek Catholic Church, but the Orthodox Church also has strong support among the group.

Some 250 years ago, Rusyns began migrating south from their homeland in the Carpathian mountains to the Srem and Bačka regions of what is now the Vojvodina in Yugoslavia and Eastern Slavonia in Croatia. At the time, the Carpathian region along with the Srem and Bačka regions were all parts of the Kingdom of Hungary. The first major Rusyn settlement in this region was in Ruski Kerestur (in Serbian, Ruski Krstur), to this day inhabited almost exclusively by Rusyns.

Rusyns in the Vojvodina

In the Vojvodina today there are officially about 18,000 Rusyns. They make up 0.2 per cent of the total population of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and 0.9 per cent of the population of the Vojvodina. Unofficial data taking voluntary assimilation and other factors into account shows significantly higher numbers, as high as 35,000. Apart from external factors such as voluntary assimilation and emigration, the Rusyn minority, like other groups in the Vojvodina, suffers from a low birthrate and declining population statistics.

The historical heart of the Rusyn settlement in Yugoslavia, Ruski Kerestur, remains the Rusyns' major center. It is home to 6000 Rusyns who make up 95 per cent of the population of the small town. Rusyns also live in significant numbers in the small towns of Kucura, Đurđevo several others. The cities of Novi Sad, Sid, Sremska Mitrovica, Vrbas and Kula also count Rusyns among their inhabitants.

Rusyn culture in Yugoslavia

The major organization working to protect and promote Rusyn culture in Yugoslavia is the Rusinska Matka, founded in 1945 and re-established in 1990. It is headed by a teacher, Mihajlo Varga. The organization works closely with other Rusyn groups throughout the world, and especially with those in Slovakia. An educational exchange program conducted by Rusinska Matka and its Slovak counterpart, Rusinska Obroda, has brought Slovak Rusyns to Ruski Kerestur and Yugoslav Rusyns to the Slovak Rusyn town of Medžilaborec. Cooperation between these two organizations also extends into the fields of culture and municipal administration.

The two most important Rusyn cultural events are the annual cultural festival Červena Ruža and theatre festival in memory of Petro Riznić Đađa. Both are held in Ruski Kerestur. The Society for Rusyn Language and Literature, founded in 1970, succeeded in publishing the first volume of a Serbian-Rusyn dictionary in 1996, and the second volume in 1999, in cooperation with the University of Novi Sad.

Use of the Rusyn language

The Yugoslav government has consistently supported the use of the Rusyn language since the days of Tito. While the Rusyn language was, and continues to be, suppressed by official policies elsewhere in Europe, in the Vojvodina there is a long tradition of its public use. Rusyn has been used in governmental administration since 1974, when the new constitution of the Vojvodina named it one of the five official languages of the province (the other four were Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian). Elementary education in the Vojvodina is routinely conducted in the all of the province's five official languages, including Rusyn, and there is a strong Rusyn-language tradition in the media.

Rusyn has been used in education on the territory of the Vojvodina since 1751. The Rusyn community has the lowest rate of illiteracy and the highest percentage of individuals with a secondary or higher education in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1992, students in Ruski Kerestur received the highest marks in the Vojvodina in standardised testing.

As of the 1996-1997 school year, more than 50 per cent of all Rusyn students in the Vojvodina had some form of Rusyn-language education. The Petro Kuzmjak Gymnasium in Ruski Kerestur is the only one in the world offering a complete elementary education conducted in Rusyn. In schools where Rusyn is not the primary language, classes in Rusyn language and national culture are offered. More than 125 Rusyns are presently enrolled at the University of Novi Sad, which until recently had the only Department of Rusyn Language and Literature in the world. At present, 15 Rusyn students are pursing that course of study.

Rusyn-language newspapers have appeared in the Vojvodina since 1924. The most important publisher of Rusyn-language materials is the publishing house Ruske Slovo, which annually publishes several books and four magazine titles, in addition to the 20-page weekly newspaper Ruske Slovo (Rusyn Word). Ruske Slovo has a print run of about 2500 copies. It has been noted that when the number of Rusyns in Yugoslavia is compared with Ruske Slovo's publication statistics, almost 10 per cent of all Rusyns in Yugoslavia subscribe to Ruske Slovo, and a far greater number read it without subscribing.

The Rusyn community is also served by radio and television. Radio Novi Sad annually broadcasts about 1500 hours of radio programming in Rusyn. Every week there are 4 hours of talk- and music-format Rusyn programming, complemented by several special programs in the course of each year, such as coverage of important cultural events and church services on important holidays. Radio and Television Serbia broadcasts about 143 hours of Rusyn-language TV programming annually. There is a ten-minute news broadcast in Rusyn five times per week, and on Saturday there is a 60-minute magazine show. There are also several other special programs aired throughout the year.

Prospects for the Rusyns

For all of the success the Rusyns have had in preserving their culture in Yugoslavia, there is much cause for concern. During the war between Serbia and Croatia in the first half of the 1990s, the Rusyn community was particularly hard hit. The fact that Rusyns from Serbia were drafted into the Yugoslav army, while those from Croatia were drafted into the Croat army, meant that Rusyns were fighting Rusyns in a war that was against their national interests. The Croatian region of Eastern Slavonia was home to a community of several thousand Rusyns, centered on the cities of Vukovar and Osijek. It was also the scene of some of the worst fighting of the war. Before the war, official statistics showed over 3000 Rusyns living in Vukovar. Death, deportations and escape left the community severely depleted. Today, however, signs of recovery are beginning to show.

The Rusyn community suffered with everyone else in the Vojvodina during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia last year. Fortunately, the Rusyn center of Ruski Kerestur was untouched. As one resident commented, "Sometimes it's a great plus when you live in a small and somewhat backward village without factories and bridges." As is well known, the regional center of Novi Sad and many other cities in the Vojvodina with Rusyn populations were not as lucky.

Life in the Rusyn community is slowly returning to normal. Last October, a group of 27 students and ten teachers from an elementary school in Medžilaborec, an important Rusyn town in Slovakia, participating in an exchange program with the Rusyn elementary school in Ruski Kerestur became one of the first foreign delegations to visit Yugoslavia after the end of the bombing.

The NATO bombing energized the significant Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina, which began intensifying demands for the return of autonomy to the Vojvodina. Fortunately for the Rusyn minority, the leader of League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina and Serbian opposition figure Nenad Canak is opposing those demands. As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has reported, "the small Ruthenian and Ukrainian minorities would get practically nothing" given the demographic dominance of the Hungarian minority.

The preferred solution would be a return to the situation that existed from 1974 to 1989. At that time, the Vojvodina was an autonomous province within Serbia, like Kosovo and Metohija, which gave five nationalities (Serbs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians and Rusyns) official status. These five nationalities remained official even after autonomy was revoked.

Vojvodina and Kosovo-Metohija

When the autonomy of the Vojvodina was revoked, there was public unrest, but nothing like that which occurred in Kosovo and Metohija. The Albanian minority in Kosovo had the same rights and guarantees as the Rusyn minority of the Vojvodina and other minority groups throughout Yugoslavia, but their desire for independence or unification with Albania created a completely different situation.

While it is impossible to condone the suppression of the Albanians in Kosovo by the Yugoslav and Serbian governments, one only has to refer to international coverage of the Kosovo situation from the late 1980s to see that the Albanians took a much different tack than the Rusyns in trying to secure more freedoms. One article published in the New York Times in 1987, concerning the problems brewing in Kosovo, said "The goal of the radical nationalists among them, one said in an interview, is an 'ethnic Albania that includes western Macedonia, southern Montenegro, part of southern Serbia, Kosovo and Albania itself.'" This persists to the present day, and has never seemed more likely.

The fact that the Albanians have the highest birthrate in Europe and made up 90 per cent of Kosovo's population while the Rusyns have a low birthrate and make up only 0.9 per cent of Vojvodina's population must also be taken into consideration. Moreover, the Rusyns are Slavic and are more easily assimilated into the majority Serb population. The Rusyns were and are much more vulnerable than the Albanians and considerably much less of a threat to the Serbian leadership. But the Hungarians are not.

The Rusyn experience in Yugoslavia has been marked by cultural achievements and peaceful coexistence. But in the past ten years, the Rusyns have twice been made victims simply by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time: during the Serb-Croat war, and again during the NATO bombing. The potential for a third has remained on the horizon since the end of the bombings in the form of the Hungarian minority's calls for autonomy or unification with Hungary. The Hungarians' demands are the same as those of the Albanians and the issue must be addressed as soon as possible if a Kosovo-like situation is to be prevented. The Rusyns have survived in Yugoslavia for more than 250 years, but, through no fault of their own, they may not be able to survive there much longer.

Brian J Požun, 26 June 2000

Photo courtesy of the Serbian Ministry of Information

Moving on:


Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe
New York Times
Rusyn Magazine
Rusyns in the Former Yugoslavia
Ruski Krstur
Report on the Situation of the Ruthenian Minority in Serbia (Complete Serbian Text)
Trier, Tom, ed. Focus on the Rusyns: International Colloquium on the Rusyns of East Central Europe, The Danish Cultural Institute, Copenhagen, 1999.

For more information:

Carpatho-Rusyn Knowledge Base
Legacy Rus
Society of Friends of Subcarpathian Rus (Russian-only)
Ruski Kerestur Underground
Vojvodina Homepage
Novi Sad Homepage



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