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Meet the Carpatho-Russians - the Slavs from Nowhere

The fascinating tale the suffering and salvation of the Carpatho-Russian people

Originally appeared at: Orthodox England

 

Lemko (Rusyn) women in national dress. Lemko's are a Carpatho-Russian tribe from Western Ukraine.


Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from generation to generation.

The Great Doxology (part of a Russian Orthodox Morning Service).

O God, give me the strength to live through this day and help me to survive in this foreign land where they have brought me and my children...O Lord, give my children the wisdom to find their way back to the native land of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers to honour their graves, their churches and their faith.

Kateryna Rusyn

"Not all those who wander are lost"

J.R.R. Tolkien


Once when the American pop-artist Andy Warhol, was asked where he came from, he answered: ‘I come from nowhere’. In one sense he was right, for his real name was Ondrej Varchola, the son of Carpatho-Russian immigrants to Pittsburgh in the US in 1918. It is no good looking on a map – you will not find Carpatho-Russia. It exists, and yet it has never existed, it is ‘nowhere’. No wonder that some have called the Carpatho-Russians ‘the Kurds of Europe’. Who are they and where is Carpatho-Russia?

Perhaps a more common name for Carpatho-Russia is Ruthenia. However, we should use this name ‘Ruthenia’ with care, for, just as Greeks do not call themselves ‘Greek’, so ‘Ruthenians’ do not call themselves ‘Ruthenian’. This Eastern Slav people, who live in and around the Carpathian mountains, speak a language which resembles Ukrainian, and yet which is distinct from it. For well over fifteen hundred years, they have lived in these Carpathians, the original home of all the Slav peoples.

The Carpathian Mountains are truly a place of beauty. Check out this article about a martyred Rusyn Priest for more stunning pictures like that.


 Before the Russian Revolution, most Carpatho-Russians lived scattered across a thousand villages in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, many in a region known as Galicia, where they were sorely persecuted and Uniatized. After the break-up of that oppressive Empire, the true ‘prison of the peoples’, most Carpatho-Russians found themselves living in Poland and Slovakia.

Since 1945, when Stalin took an eastern slice of Slovakia, most, over 600,000, have lived in what is now the Ukraine. Others still live in north-east Slovakia north of Presov, and in the south-east corner of Poland. However, there are also smaller groups of Carpatho-Russians in Hungary, Serbia and Romania and elsewhere, and also a very large emigration, mainly from 1880-1914, in the USA, especially in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and in other countries of the New World. (One of these Carpatho-Russians, Sgt Michael Strank, was the soldier who raised the stars and stripes at Iwo Jima, thus figuring in one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century).

Sometimes called ‘rusnaks’, in the Ukraine the Carpatho-Russians are often known as ‘Transcarpathians’, in Poland as ‘Lemki’ and in Slovakia they are called ‘Subcarpathians’. Academics usually term them as ‘Carpatho-Russians’ or ‘Carpatho-Rusyns’. However, they call themselves ‘Rusyn’.

With their emigration, the Carpatho-Russians number well over one million souls, perhaps as many as one and a half million. By folklore and custom the Carpatho-Russians resemble very much the Slovaks, Ukrainians and Poles, with influences from the Austrians and the Hungarians. However, by religion, and this is what defines the Carpatho-Russians, they are all Orthodox-rite.

Palanok Castle, Ukrainian Transcarpathia


Less than one third are actually Orthodox, and over two thirds, since the forced ‘Unia’ of the end of the sixteenth century, are nominal Greek-Catholics or Uniats. No Carpatho-Russian worthy of the name, is a Latin Catholic or Protestant. Moreover, if you talk to such ordinary Greek-Catholics, most of them will tell you, and they believe it, that they are in fact ‘Pravoslavny’ – Orthodox – such is the deception and trickery played on the simple by the clerics of the Vatican.

Converted to Orthodoxy by Sts Cyril and Methodius, traditionally in the year 863, for centuries the Carpatho-Russian people survived as Orthodox, outside the protection of any Orthodox State, and many still do so today.

Under their beloved Patron, St Nicholas the Wonderworker, they have survived innumerable persecutions and massacres, particularly from Catholic Poles, Hungarians and Austrians (at their notorious Thalerhof concentration camp), then Czechs, Fascist Germans and Slovaks, then Communist Poles and Ukrainians and now Slovak Uniats.

Catholic Uniates stole many Orthodox Churches and converted them into Catholic churches similar to this one in Lvov.


Over one hundred years ago, starvation and persecution led many of them, nearly half a million, to emigrate to the USA. Here many of the Greek Catholics among them, persecuted by Latin Catholic bishops, reverted to Orthodoxy. They came to form the backbone of what has now become the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Other Orthodox, formed the fifty parishes, now under Metropolitan Nicholas of the Carpatho-Russian Diocese (at present in the Patriarchate of Constantinople).

Some others belong to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), like the [then] present head of ROCOR, Metropolitan Laurus [now diseased]. Indeed, before the Second World War, the Carpatho-Russians were much helped by the ROCOR monastery in Ladomirova in Carpatho-Russia, which published a journal, ‘Orthodox Carpatho-Russia’. After that war the printing press and monastery moved to Jordanville in the USA and the title of the journal changed to the present ‘Orthodox Russia’.

Ladomirova Monastery of Saint Job of Pochaev


In their homelands, Greek Catholic Carpatho-Russians, persecuted by the Communists, are now reviving. Unfortunately, fanatical Ukrainian nationalist sentiment, originally an anti-Russian tool invented by Austrians and Hungarians, has lately been much exacerbated among them by the Vatican. In the last fifteen years, these Uniats have been taking revenge for Communist persecution on the Orthodox, causing considerable problems through their aggression and stealing most of the old wooden Orthodox churches in Slovakia from the Orthodox.

As regards the Orthodox who remain in the homeland, they belong to the Orthodox Churches of the Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland. In the Ukraine there are some tensions between Ukrainians and the Carpatho-Russians. They mainly live around Uzhgorod, near the border with Slovakia, to which State this region belonged until 1945. Indeed, Uzhgorod is the real capital of Carpatho-Russia.

As regards the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, it is in fact divided into three ethnic dioceses, one for Czechs, one for Slovaks, and a reinvigorated one, the real Metropolitan centre of this Local Church, in Presov, for the Carpatho-Russians, the Rusyny of ‘Presov Rus’ (Priashevskaya Rus’).

The Polish Orthodox Church is in fact largely composed of Ukrainians and to a lesser extent Belorussians, with very few Poles, but it also includes Carpatho-Russians, Lemki, faithful like most Orthodox Rusyns in the homeland, to the Orthodox calendar.

In the Diocese of the Polish Church bordering Slovakia, under Bishop Adam, there is a particular revival, which has come about partly since the canonization in 1994 of the Priest-Martyr Maxim, slain by the Latins in 1914. In 2003, another confessor, St Alexis (Kabaliuk) (1875-1947), ‘The Apostle of Carpatho-Russia’, whose relics were found intact in 1999, was canonized in the western Ukraine – Carpatho-Russia. He not only resisted the Austro-Hungarian persecutors, but later also the corruptions of the modernist innovations of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and found protection for his people in the Russian and Serbian Churches.

We now give the Life of the Holy Martyr Maxim, which explains something of the background to the sufferings of the Carpatho-Russian people.

Check out this great article about Father Maxim to learn more about his amazing life and brutal martyrdom by the hands of Austrian Catholics.

Orthodoxy in Carpatho-Russia has deep roots and the infamous ‘Unia’, or union with Rome, did not begin with the common people. In fact it was imposed by the machinations of the urban merchant class and a small minority of the clergy who desired the same feudal rights as their Catholic counterparts. Thus, these two classes of people betrayed their Orthodox princes and the faithful. The two religions struggled and even after the ‘victory’ of the Unia, Orthodoxy was not forgotten.

To counterbalance Catholic influence and to further deceive the people, the Uniats carefully preserved the purity of the Eastern Orthodox ritual, considering that a policy of slow and gradual Latinization would be far more successful in the long run than one of outright imposition of the Roman ritual. Yet the cultural inclination of the Carpatho-Russian people towards the Russian mainstream, which expressed itself in undisguised sympathy for Orthodoxy, could not be silenced. In the eyes of most prominent Carpatho-Russians, the Unia was but the instrument and means employed to sunder the one Russian family and they directed their gaze towards Orthodoxy as the ancient and original faith of their people when Holy Rus had been one.

This inclination, which was distinctively Russian, was a crucial element in the Carpatho-Russian reaction against ‘Ukrainianism’, artfully contrived by the Germans and Austrians as a weapon against the pan-Slav movement that threatened their domination of the area. Even among the Carpatho-Russian Uniat clergy, who perpetuated the idea of the union, there were sympathies towards Orthodoxy. These sympathies were so intense that the very concept of ‘Catholic’ was considered a sort of heresy. Indeed, their concept of the union was reduced to a purely jurisdictional recognition of the primacy of the Pope of Rome.

Orthodox sympathies were characteristic of the people of Carpatho-Russia. Alarmed by the growth of these sympathies and concluding that this growth was being directed toward rapprochement with Russia, from about 1900 on, the Austro-Hungarian authorities began to persecute. Unprecedented repression was imposed on Russophile clergy, both Uniat and Orthodox. The area teamed with informers. Not only the gendarmes, village clerks and sheriffs, but also teachers and some clergy denounced their neighbors. It reached the point where, in some areas of Carpatho-Russia, the entire educated class - priests, lawyers, judges, teachers, high school and university students, as well as peasants - were subjected to mass arrests. The prisons overflowed with those accused of treason. One in five Carpatho-Russians was imprisoned.

Lvov, Ukraine, one of the places where Father Maxim was imprisoned.


In accordance with a directive issued from Vienna, the Uniat Metropolitan of Lvov, threatened by the growth of Orthodoxy, quickly shifted his policy to one of isolation from all that was Orthodox. A Ukrainian Uniat ritual was concocted, which differed significantly from Orthodox ritual. The names of saints especially revered in Russia were deleted from the calendar. The veneration of wonderworking icons of the Mother of God which had appeared in Russia (e.g. the Iveron, Kazan and Pochaev icons) were proscribed. The word ‘Orthodox’ was replaced in the divine services with ‘Catholic’. Candidates suspected of harbouring Russophile sympathies were refused admittance to Uniat seminaries, acceptance being limited exclusively to those admittedly Ukrainian in outlook, who were prepared to submit a written oath of hatred for Russia.

Throughout the Carpathian region a tremendous upheaval shook the parishes. Uniat priests of Russian persuasion were driven from their posts, their families were cast out into the streets, and few were the courageous souls who dared to defy the authorities by sheltering the homeless. The parishes were then turned over to newly-ordained priests who had received their education at the hands of the Jesuits of the Basilian College. The imposition of the new Ukrainian Uniat ritual was entrusted to the Jesuit-educated monks of the ‘Order of St. Basil the Great’. But if life had become difficult for the Uniat Russophile clergy, it was far worse for the few Orthodox priests and their families in Carpatho-Russia and Galicia. Let us examine the case of one such priest, Fr. Maxim Sandovich, of blessed memory.

Fr. Maxim was born in Galicia, the son of Timothy and Christina Sandovich of the village of Zdyna.

His father was a prosperous farmer, who also served as choir director in the local parish church. Having completed four years of study at the high school in Novy Sanch, Maxim stole across the border into Russia and became a novice at the great Pochaev Lavra in Volynia.

A view of Pochaev Lavra towards Dormition Cathedral.


Subsequently he attended the Orthodox seminary at Zhitomir, and after marrying a young Orthodox woman named Pelagia, was ordained in 1911 to the holy priesthood and returned to his homeland. His pastoral and missionary service was not to last for long, for the militia were ever vigilant; he was denounced by a Ukrainian teacher, a certain Leos, and the Austrian gendarmes carried him off in chains to a prison in Lvov in 1912. He was to languish in prison without trial or inquest for two years, enduring indescribably horrible conditions and abuse. Finally, on the very eve of World War I he was released for lack of evidence.

Fr. Maxim returned again to his home in the village of Hrab, but was not fated to remain there long. The first shots fired in the new war were the heralds of a new repression of Carpatho-Russians. On 4 August 1914, the militia arrested the young priest, his father, mother, brother and wife and after much abuse dragged them off in shackles to the district prison in Horlitsk. The road was rough and the prisoners were forced to travel on foot, prodded on by the bayonets of the gendarmes. Words cannot convey the suffering of the innocent Sandovich family.

Gorlice (Horlitsk) then and now.

Two days passed in prison and Sunday 6 August dawned. Having risen from his bunk before the light of day Fr. Maxim read his morning prayers and three akathists. Then he stood motionless, lost in thought, gazing out the little window of his cell, trying to catch a glimpse of his wife or one of his relatives. They had all been imprisoned in different cells and were denied permission to see each other. The silence of the grave lay on the gloomy building, but beyond the walls the noise of a crowd could be heard.

What could this mean? Could they have brought in some new ‘spies’? Perhaps they had caught some new deserters the terrors of war for many are hard to bear. Suddenly a loud thud on the prison’s black gates broke the priest’s reverie. It was not yet six o’clock. A moustachioed German captain from Linz, Dietrich, a man with a reputation for cruelty and sadism, entered the prison compound with two soldiers and four gendarmes. They were followed close behind by the prison wardens, various civil servants, officers and a small group of curious ladies. This entourage was headed by Pan Mitshka, the head man of the Horlitsky District. The order was given for the warden to bring Fr. Maxim forth from his cell.

Horlitsky District


Silence fell. Two soldiers led the twenty-eight year-old Orthodox priest from the prison and suddenly he realized where they were taking him. ‘Be so good as not to hold me. I will go peacefully wherever you wish’, he said humbly, and with the dignity that becomes a true shepherd of souls he walked to the sight of his final torments. The murmuring of the crowd and the venomous glances they threw the ‘traitor’ affected his courageous bearing not in the least. He walked as befits a follower of Christ, calmly, with measured gait, to the fateful wall.

Again silence reigned. An execution was to be carried out in the name of the ‘apostolic’ Emperor - the execution of a Russian priest on Russian land! Captain Dietrich, the hero of the day, ripped the cross from Fr. Maxim’s chest, cast it to the ground at the priest’s feet and trampled it under foot; he then tied the prisoner’s hands behind his back and bound his eyes with a black kerchief. ‘You do these things needlessly. I have no intention of running away’. The captain laughed diabolically and with a piece of white chalk drew a line across the priest’s chest on his black cassock as a target for the riflemen. Then he arranged the executioners - two gendarmes on each side. The two soldiers, heavily armed, stood only three paces from the defenceless man.

An even more profound stillness descended upon the scene. Mitshka took a blue paper from his briefcase and read the death sentence. A short command was uttered by the captain; the sabre was raised; when it was lowered the rifles sounded. The shots echoed through the back corridors of the prison, and again the silence of the cemetery filled the prison courtyard.

Through this silence the voice of Fr. Maxim was heard distinctly: ‘Long live the Russian people!’ he cried, leaning his head against the prison wall. ‘Long live the Holy Orthodox Faith!’ he continued, his voice becoming weaker. ‘Long live Slavdom!’ he finished, barely audible. These were his final words. Wracked with the throws of death, his powerful frame slid down the wall to the flagstones of the courtyard.

One of the gendarmes approached and ended the priest’s sufferings with three shots from his revolver; the priests brains splattered against the prison wall. His aged father and mother both watched the heroic death of their son in silence, but Pelagia, his wife, wept inconsolably in her cell; and when the shots that brought an end to her young husband’s life rang out, she fell senseless to the ground. Thus died Fr. Maxim Sandovich, a martyr for Orthodoxy.

The Tomb of Father Maxim


The Prayer of Kateryna

The persecution of the Carpatho-Russians did not stop after the First World War. 1945 brought great suffering, firstly to those deported to the Ukraine. For other Carpatho-Russians in south-east Poland, the Lemki, in 1947 there also came deportation, mainly far to the north-west, to Silesia, to the former homes of deported Germans. This ‘Vistula action’ of deportation by the Poles was meant to denationalize the Carpatho-Russians. Here follows the prayer of one deportee, Kateryna Rusyn, taken away from Poland to the Ukraine:

O God, give me the strength to live through this day and help me to survive in this foreign land where they have brought me and my children.

O Lord, I pray and beseech Thee, let me not perish, nor my family, nor my people, who were late to sow the holy grain; for the corn will ripen in the summer and they know not when or how it will be gathered.

O Merciful God, may the sun rise and set each day, so that it brings light to all people and me, in the same way as it set each evening, there, far away, in the Beskyd Mountains, in my native hills and valleys; and may rye and every kind of seed grow for us, so that by winter we all have bread and hay and every grain to feed the people, the birds and the cattle.

Beskyd Mountains


O All-Highest Lord, let us not forget - neither today, nor tomorrow, nor ever - and help us to keep alive in our memory all the beauty of our land, of the mountains, and of the rich, healing and pure waters in our rivers: the Bystry, the Poprad, and the Syan; and let us also remember the fair and lovely country of the high pastures, and the woodland paths through the hills; let us not forget the places of plenty in the forest where the mushrooms grow, and the fragrant strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries, and the woodland clearings where the cattle graze.

O God, let us not forget our customs, the lilt of our mother tongue, our stories and our songs, our dances and our evenings together on holy days and workdays.

O Lord, give my children the wisdom to find their way back to the native land of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers to honour their graves, their churches and their faith.

O God, grant unto my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, reason, courage, knowledge, piety, and also give them the most important of all human virtues – Faith, Hope and Love.

O Lord, bestow upon me and my children the knowledge to tell the difference between good and evil, happiness and unhappiness, and give me the wisdom to value goodness and be grateful for good!

Grant me to know how to influence an enemy, give me the generosity to help the poor, and also give me the understanding to convince the wrongdoer of the evil of his ways, and to teach those who do not know. Amen.

Transcarpathian Ukraine


We have heard the voices of Orthodox Carpatho-Russia, calling to us from their highland homes. This little corner of Holy Rus’ has survived through a thousand years of oppression and persecution, outside the protection of the Russian State. It can be said that all who confess Russian Orthodoxy, whatever our nationality and whatever language we use, belong to Carpatho-Russia. For, whatever our nationality, we all live ‘beyond the Carpathians’, and though we do not belong to the Russian State, in our Faith we all belong to Rus’, to Holy Russia, a land much greater than any mere State.

Scattered across the face of the earth, we live surrounded by Non-Orthodox, and suffer, like the Hebrews who of old wept in exile by the waters of Babylon. In suffering for Holy Orthodoxy, we too, like the faithful Orthodox Rusyns, belong to Holy Rus’.

And in picking up such fragments of Holy Orthodoxy all over today’s Non-Orthodox and anti-Orthodox Europe, in putting them together like the pieces of a giant jigsaw, we rediscover not only ourselves, but also the whole picture of a once Orthodox Europe, and there discover the Image of Christ, Who has been here all the time.


Holy Hieromartyr Maxim and Holy Father Alexis pray to God for Orthodox Carpatho-Russia, 
and for all us Orthodox beyond the Carpathians!

Source: Orthodox England

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