Roots and Cyberspace: Linking the Ruthenian Diaspora

Daniel Winfree Papuga
Paper presented at the conference "Postkommunismens Antropologi", 12-14 April 1996, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen

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Po nashemo
The diaspora
The media today
Appropriating ethnicity
Virtual identity


This paper is about names, and about ambiguity.

We can start out with two citations. The first is from an American geneologist who says that "...if you come to me bearing tales of a confused or a negative identifier heritage (not Polish, not Slovak), then I know that you are Carpatho-Rusyn" (in Mihalasky 1995).

A researcher from eastern Slovakia writes: "When we compare the rubric 'nationality' in census from different dates, we find an incredible fluctuation: inhabitants of the same village are mentioned once as Rusyns, ten years later as Slovaks, a further ten years later as Russians, later still as Ukrainians, then again as Slovaks." (Mushinka 1992:224)

Po nashemo

The people who inhabit the carpathian mountains have many names, and at least as many identities. The region has been disputed between power blocks over several hundred years, and each of the dominant states has attempted to subjugate the mountain people to their own model.

We can call these people Ruthenians or Rusyns. Those are two of the names they have called themselves. But until this century, they normally used a much more ambigious name for themselves and their language: "po nashemo" ( us, in our manner, our language). The borders of the group weren´t clearly defined, aside from being able to say that others either were or were not like ´us´. There was no language norm for the region, local dialects had minor variation from village to village.

As Hann (1993:202) points out, ambiguity is also a feature of the church which most Ruthenians adhere to. Ruthenians in the former Hungarian empire once belonged to the Eastern Orthodox church. Laws were passed in the 16th and 17th centuries, however, declaring that all inhabitants of the empire were obliged to become Catholics. The peasants in the carpathian mountains protested this, however. Being on the perifery of the empire, the ruthenians were eventually allowed to keep their rites as long as they showed that they accepted the hierarchy of the Catholic church, by acknowledging the Pope as their religious leader. The resultant new church was labled uniate, or Greek Catholic. In effect, the Greek Catholic Church represents a variance between theory and practice. The Ruthenians "were asked to accept the theology of the Western Church (...) But they were assured that they would not have to alter their ´practical religion´, i.e., Orthodoxy" (Hann 1993:203).

The diaspora

In a general discussion of diasporas, James Clifford (1994:304-5) lists five criteria as normally being seen as central: (1) a group is displaced from a 'homeland' and has (2) not been assimilated into their host country. The group has (3) a collective identity which is influenced by their (4) support for the homeland, and (5) a wish to return there.

For Ruthenians, diaspora can mean two things. It can refer to groups that live outside of the ´homeland´, and who have either emigrated or have been forced to move to other areas. Diaspora can in addition refer to the division of the homeland between different states. Communication over borders has been difficult, particularly during the last two generations. This has led groups to be isolated from each other, even though the physical distance between them isn´t large.

Ruthenian transit from the carpathians began in the mid 18th century, when local peasants were given land in the Vojvodina, along southern border of Austria-Hungary in order to hinder the further expansion of the Ottoman empire. Contact with the homeland was kept up through the church, and periodic new waves of immigration.

At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, many ruthenians emigrated to the USA and Canada. Ethnic associations were established in several cities, such as New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, mostly tied to the Greek Catholic church. However, due to scattered settlement other places, many immigrants kept a stronger connection with their ´roots´ through printed media in their native language than through face to face interaction with other ruthenians. Several ruthenian newspapers were published during this period. For example, the Amerikansky Russky Viestnik began publication in 1895, and continues today as the Greek Catholic Union Magazine.

The media today

Since the 'velvet revolution' of 1989, the expression of ethnicity has gained prominence for many ruthenians, both in the homeland and in the diaspora. A number of new ruthenian publications reflecting this have come out, such as Podkarpatska Rus in Ukrainian Transcarpathia, Besida, a Lemko-Ruthenian publication in southern Poland and the weekly Narodni novinky in Preshov, eastern Slovakia. These publications can be seen as part of a revitalization process, but as Fredrik Barth (1994) points out, the recent ´resurgence´ in ethnic identity may not be due so much to "the reassertion of identities that had been attenuated, so much as their greater visibility following on from the enhanced freedom to express them after the fall of the former repressive regimes" (Barth 1994:27). In either situation, such discourses center on the control of information, on the knowledge of what values others within the ´community´ embrace, and how these values relate to oneself.

We shall now look at two publications that are expressly oriented towards uniting the diaspora - the bi-monthly magazine Rusin , and the quarterly Carpatho-Rusyn American..

Rusin has been published by the Rusin Rennaissance society (Rusinska obroda) in Preshov since 1991. This is the same organisation that puts out Narodni novinky . The publication is listed as a Cultural - Christian magazine (kulturno - hristijanskiji chasopis) and is printed on glossy paper with many color photographs. Each issue of the magazine is divided into sections for the various regions of the diaspora: Slovakia, Transcarpathia, Poland, Jugoslavia, Hungary, America, Australia.There is also a section for religious news. Themes that are discussed are generally the ruthenian language, folklore, history, litterature and arts in general. Codification of an official literary language norm, in particular, has recieved much space in the magazine. Since its start, the rusin rennaissance has been prime mover for concretizing tradition and language, and has helped organize several conferences working towards an official written language that would establish the ruthenian homeland as culturally distinct from the states which control the localities where it is spoken.

The activist work of the Rusin Rennaissance is seen as threatening by many other organisations. For example, the Ukrainian World Coordinating Council sees the rusyn movement as a step towards a possible fifth column in Transcarpathia:

As a result of codification, (...) the anti-Ukrainian forces intend to struggle against Ukrainianism and to de-stabilize the situation in western Ukraine. In their attempt to separate those Ukrainians who prefer to call themselves by their historic name Rusyn and to transform them into some kind of ´other´ nationality, the enemies of Ukraine are with persistence creating a situation leading to a new change of borders, to rebellion, and to armed conflict. (Drach 1995:7)

Appropriating ethnicity

The creation of imagined communities require the manipulation of symbols which can both express what the community holds in common in a condensed, easily understandable way. Lets look at one section of the magazine Rusin which I haven´t yet mentioned: "Klub Endi Varhola" after the main iconic figure within pop-art. Andy Warhols parents were both born in the Medzilaborce area of Slovakia, but emigrated to Pittsburgh before Andy was born. Andy grew up speaking ´po nashemo´ at home, but felt very uncomfortable with his ethnicity in public. According to one of his biographers (Colacello 1990:10-11), He refused to tell journalists anything about his background, saying only that "I come from nowhere". In a sense, his statement is true. There is still no state of ´Ruthenia´, and the ambiguity of ´po nashemo´ doesn´t nesessarily lead to group identification.

Since his death in 1987, however, Warhol has become appropriated as a key symbol in the ruthenian revival. Far from having connections to his ´roots´ severed, his figure now can be seen to be closely tied to romantic nationalism and folklore. A photograph in Narodny Novinky clearly shows this, with a folklore group dancing in front of a giant poster of Andy.

Virtual identity

The Carpatho-Rusyn American. has been published since 1979 by the Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center in the USA. Much of the work of the magazine has been to provide information about the homeland for people in the diaspora who only have a vague understanding of their ´roots´in the Carpathian region. Contextualizing what ´po nashemo´ means, and putting it in a new reified form that can be used both in discovering individual 'identity' and in group mobilization. As Michael Meeker writes, such publications "instill in reading audiences an experience of homogeneous time, and to enable them to concieve an intimate relationship with anonymous others" (Meeker 1994:61) .

Many of the editorial staff of the Carpatho-Rusyn American. are involved in parallel projects of using the world wide web to create a larger ruthenian network. Excerpts from the Carpatho-Rusyn American. are combined with contact addresses for other organisations and magazines, information on geneological research in the homeland, photographic archives. One can, for example, paint ´virtual icons´ at a web site for the Greek Catholic church

Is there a difference between the imagination of the diasporic community as represented by printed media, and that of the ´virtual community´ of the web? I would say that the answer is both yes and no. Before the second world war, Walter Benjamin was already saying that mass media could be an alternative to face to face interaction for creating community. Once access to public media became available to all, the gap between author and public would become blurred: "At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer" (Benjamin 1979:398).

The ease of including oneself in the community when it is immediately available on the net invites participation to a higher degree than the "letter to the editor" section of an ethnic newspaper would, for example. The reader can send a reply to a notice and see it distributed within moments. This is one of the great attractions of internet communications which is strongest in ´newsgroup´ distribution. That anyone could become an ´author´ has always been true, but when time and locality become irrelevant, many traditional hinders towards authorship are removed. Multiple authorship can generate communication and trust across boundaries. For example, during the winter of 1995-6, the official Slovakia web page used links to Carpatho-Rusyn web sites in the USA for most of its information on eastern Slovakia

In discussing the internet-supported communitas of a trans-national organisation, Garsten (1994) claims that "some social processes of structures have the capacity to extend in space, thereby involving large numbers of people and intensifiying relations between local and distant social forms and events" (Garsten 1994:44). For the employees of the organization, mediated interaction with spatially distant colleagues becomes an integral part of daily life. Recent discussions of globalisation would term this the ´disembedding´ of social relations from place (for example, Giddens 1991:17). Individuals come to see themselves as members of groups with common identies built up in networks of indirect relationships. As Giddens (1991:21) says, "Globalisation concerns the intersection of presence and absence, the interlacing of social events and social relations ´at distance´ with local contextualities".

But how sincere is the expression of self from a computer terminal? Is sending an internet communication an intimate or abstract experience? In a recent discussion on interactive virtual communities, Sherry Turkle (1996) describes a range of how participants experience their personas from ´fragmentation´ to ´relief´ and ´self transformation´. Turkle considers that "windows have become a powerful metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed system". According to her, "the self is no longer simply playing different roles in different settings at different times. The life practice of windows is that of a decentered self that exists in many worlds, that plays many roles at the same time." (Turkle 1996)

These questions are important if we are to uncover how disaporas operate in modern societies, and they definitely need to be studied further. For understanding Ruthenian experience, this would entail researching through various media, as well as fieldwork in a wide range of localities. So far, this appears to be a neglected area for anthropologists, but we may await interesting studies in the future.


Barth, Fredrik. 1994. "Enduring and emerging issues in the analysis of ethnicity". in Vermeulen & Govers (eds.) The anthropology of ethnicity: Beyond 'Ethnic groups and boundries'. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis. pp 11-32

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Clifford, James. 1994. "Diasporas". Cultural Anthropology 9(3):302-38

Colacello, Bob. 1990 Holy terror : Andy Warhol close up. New York, NY : HarperCollins

Drach, Ivan. 1995. "Codification: Another viewpoint". Carpatho-Rusyn American 18(1):7-8

Garsten, Christina. 1994. Apple World: Core and Periphery in a Transnational Organisational Culture. Stockholm: Stockholm Studies in Social Anthropology.

Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and self-identity : self and society in the late modern age. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press

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Hannerz, Ulf. 1993. "The withering away of the nation?". Ethnos 1993:3-4:377-391

Meeker, Michael 1994. "Oral culture, media culture, and the Islamic resurgence in Turkey". in Archetti, E. (ed.) Exploring the written: Anthropology and the multiplicity of writing. Oslo: Scandinavian university press. pp 31-64

Mihalasky, Susan.. 1995. "How to find your roots". Carpatho-Rusyn American 18(1)

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