Saturday, August 4, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Saga Of A Remarkable People

We live in an era of rebounding ethnic identities, as historical groups,
many of them lacking national sovereignty or even a modicum of
political power, struggle to keep their languages, cultures, histories,
religious affiliations and (perhaps most importantly) their aspirations
alive and strong.

There are many of these ethnic groups in Europe, Africa, North America
and Asia, as well as other parts of the world. Some of them are well-known
and long-suffering. A few have been and remain virtually unknown outside
their own immediate geographical location.

Occasionally, a hitherto mostly unknown group appears through the cracks
of our mostly monolithic world cultural consciousness, and that often
happens through the reawakening ethnic consciousness of a group spurred
on by a combination of repeated persecution and by the powerful bonds of
their shared values and history.

Such a group are the Rus or the Rusyns, a Slavic people who have lived as
an ethnic entity since the Middle Ages in Central Europe, particularly in
Carpathian Mountain region which traditionally has included parts of
Ukraine, Poland, Hungsry, Russia, Slovakia, and Rumania.

The Rusyn traditionally are devout and agricultural peasants. Church life
and ritual has been central to Rusyn identity and culture.They have not
had a national identity of their own, but have live suborned in the nations
which have occupied their home lands for more than half a millennium.
Rusyn is a distinct language (just as Catalan is distinct from Spanish and
French) of the Slavic group, but many Rusyns over the centuries were
forced to speak the language of the nation which controlled their territories.
Most Rusyns are Catholics, many of whom observe the Byzantine Orthodox
rite, but who are nontheless affiliated with the Roman Catholic church in
Rome. Their priests may marry.. An almost equally large group of Rusyns
are Russian or Eastern Orthodox.

Because political boundaries in Central Europe have changed so much in
recent centuries, Rusyns have only had their ethnic identity and language
to keep them bound together. Soon after World War I, however, Rusyns from
throughout the Carpathian region met, and subsequently sent to the 1919
Paris Peace conference a delegation which asked for a national Rusyn state.
(As we now know, many of the origins of today's international political
problems stem from the often capricious re-drawing of maps of Europe, the
Middle East, and Africa, at that conference (especially in today's Middle
East where the 1919 victors imperiously carved out the new nations of Iraq,
Saudi Arabia, Syria, Palestine and Transjordan). The Rusyn's did receive a
short-lived autonomous area in Slovakia, but that was soon wiped out by
the murderous German Nazi regime which decimated the whole region.

Even before World Wars I and II, Rusyns began to emigrate from their
home lands. Some of them went to what used to be Yugoslavia, France,
Great Britain, Canada and Australia, but most came to the United States,
settling primarily in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
There are believed to be about 2 million Rusyns worldwide, with about
750,000 living in the U.S. and Canada.

Some well-known Rusyn-Americans have emerged in the U.S.. Perhaps
the most famous was Andy Warhol whose work has had a profound impact
on U.S. art and pop culture. Movie stars Sandra Dee and Tom Selleck have
Rusyn origins, as does former Pennsylvania governor and the first secretary
of homeland security, Tom Ridge. Astronaut Thomas Jones, NHL hockey
star Scott Stevens, tennis star Zaneta Husarova and Sgt. Michael Strank
(one of the men who raised the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima) also share a Rusyn
heritage. Both in Europe and the U.S. there has been an impressive
reawakening of Rusyn culture, led by Rusyn artists and scholars.

Two very notable and recent works bring Rusyn history and contemporary
literature to a broader English-speaking readership. The first is a remarkable
novel, "The Linden and the Oak" , by Rusyn-American Mark Wansa. I was
sent a copy of this book to read, but before doing so I was apprehensive
because it is long and because the author had not written a book before and
was not a "literary" person. I began the book thinking I would skim through
it, but no sooner did I read page one, I was involuntarily swept up into this
amazing saga taking me through more than a century of recent Rusyn
family life both in Europe and in the U.S. One of the novel's most
impressive chapters recounts the emigration of a Rusyn family from the
Carpathian region to America at the turn of the century. This family and
other Rusyns also emigrating at this time paralleled so many other
European refugees fleeing Europe, and on the same ships, all huddled
together in steerage. Another chapter recounts daily life in the Carpathian
farms and small villages where most of the the population were Rusyns,
but small groups of Jewish refugees had settled, fleeing from Czarist
persecutions. These Jews served as tradesmen and tavern owners in the
Rusyn homelands for more than a century, and remarkably, there was no
anti-semitic persecution from the Rusyns. In fact, the Rusyns may be the
only non-Jewish ethnic group in Europe who did not persecute their
Jewish neighbors. As author Wansa tells it, the Rusyn majorities found
the Jews among them to be curious and quaint in their practices, but
apparently, after being persecuted so long themselves, kept the Jews living
among them in an informal and tolerant sympathy.

The second book was just published. It is Elaine Rusinko's "God Is A
Rusyn," a superb collection of recent Rusyn poetry and short stories.
Elaine Rusinko, a professor at the University of Maryland, is one of
the world's foremeost Carpatho-Rusyn scholars. Her anthology presents
the powerful emotions of Rusyn identity as shaped by a thousand years of
persecution, peasant labor, religious devotion and ethnic endurance at the
most personal level. Since almost all of the Rusyn homeland was located
in territory controlled by the Soviet Union and its satellites until about 25
years ago, and it was Soviet policy that the Rusyns were not a distinct
ethnic group, nor that Rusyn was a separate language, modern Rusyn
literature is a recent phenomenon. In fact, Rusyn literature really did not
exist until the middle of the 19th century. The Rusinko book only includes
Rusyn literary work of recent years. The outpouring of Rusyn poetry
and fiction today is thus all the more remarkable, and Professor Rusinko's
book makes some of the best of this mini-renaissance available to readers
to English through a number of excellent translators.She, furthermore, in
her selections for the anthology displays much of the variety of new
Rusyn literature, some of it traditional and some of it experimental, all
of it revealing Rusyn sensibilities.

The Rusyn people are not the largest ethnic group in central Europe; in
fact, worldwide they are a relatively small group. What is most remarkable
about the sudden flowering of this long-suppressed people, their language
and culture, is that everywhere in the Rusyn world, in its Trans-Carpathian
homeland, and in their diaspora in the West, there is so much energy,
passion and celebration, as well as creation of new institutions of education
for the Rusyn youth of today and for the generations ahead. While so many
persons in the West seem to be retreating from their ethnic origins and
their cultures, here is a group which seems to be embracing and
intensifying theirs.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

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