As I sat in the café, I felt myself getting more and more nervous. Behind me, an irate shouted “secessionist!” while filming me with her cell phone camera. Eager to learn more about ethnic politics, I had come here to Uzhgorod, a city lying in the western Ukrainian province of Transcarpathia, or Zakarpatts’ka Oblast’, an area known for its diverse and multi-cultural character. In line with my interests, I had arranged to speak with a local resident familiar with the underlying history and politics surrounding the Rusyns or Ruthenians, eastern Slavic people related to Ukrainians. But no sooner had we started to talk than the woman filmed us and even threatened to upload her videos to the internet.
Such sensitivities underscore Ukraine’s fraught ethnic tensions, which have been sorely tested by Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 not to mention Kyiv’s ongoing war with Russian-backed separatists in the east. For years, the Kremlin has depicted the Ukrainian government as being dominated by right-wing Neo-Nazis intent on rolling back minority rights. Transcarpathia has not been hit by the same level of ethnic strife as Donbas but some have stoked fears by raising secessionist sentiment, perhaps in an effort to secure outside Russian support. Talk of secession has in turn encouraged a counter-reaction from Ukrainian nationalists as well as the government in Kyiv, whose state-supported media accuse the Kremlin of stirring up trouble among the Rusyns.
Transcarpathia and the Rusyns
In the midst of the high-stakes propaganda war, what’s the truth behind such claims? Transcarpathia has an unusual history as the region has been traded back and for between rival empires and states for centuries. Walking through Uzhgorod’s city center, I came upon a neighborhood displaying constructivist architecture and some art deco motifs, a legacy of the interwar period when Transcarpathia belonged to Czechoslovakia. Nearby, I spotted a statue of Avgustyn Voloshyn, who became president of Transcarpathia in 1939 when the region briefly declared independence for literally one day. Unfortunately, the region was promptly absorbed by Hungary, before later passing to the Soviet Union and subsequently coming under the control of independent Ukraine.
Just how much appetite exists for ethnic or political autonomy much less independence? For some time, academics have debated whether Rusyns constitute a separate ethnic group. During the Soviet period, authorities forbade any recognition of Rusyn language and culture out of concern that nationalism might stir up dangerous political instability. As a result, many Rusyns simply adopted the Ukrainian label. But later, during the breakup of the Soviet Union, a revival of Rusyn culture took place within Transcarpathia with calls for greater recognition of Ruthenian ethnic identity and language.
In 1991, Transcarpathia held a referendum on self-rule which resulted in almost eighty percent of residents voting for autonomy within Ukraine. In that vote, Rusyns represented one of the key constituencies favoring such autonomy. Kyiv has argued that Rusyns’ Slavic roots are inextricably connected to Ukraine and therefore Ruthenians should be considered a Ukrainian subgroup with their own local dialect. Today, there are officially 10,000 Rusyns in Transcarpathia though other estimates put the number much higher. Traditionally, Rusyns have lived in small, rural villages though in recent times they have migrated to larger cities such as Uzhgorod.
Views on the Rusyn Question
For more on these matters, I caught up with Denis Pilash, an Uzhgorod native son and a veteran of Maidan’s political revolution. Though Pilash speaks Rusyn at home with his family, he prefers to avoid ethnic labels. “There’s not much of a conflict between Rusyn and Ukrainian identity,” he told me, “and in fact the majority of Rusyns in Transcarpathia believe they are ethnically Ukrainian.” There is “significant support” for greater autonomy, Pilash added, but this should not be conflated with secession as claimed by Russian propaganda.
Curious to hear more, I met up with Mykola Palinchak, a professor of political science and head of the Faculty of International Economic Relations at Uzhgorod National University. Though Palinchak defines himself as Ukrainian, he has been following the debate over Rusyn identity for some time. The Rusyn community, he told me, has been split over whether they are related to Russians, constitute a “sub-ethnic” Ukrainian group or perhaps even form an entirely different ethnicity. Palinchak was somewhat skeptical of the latter view, pushed by a kind of “radical wing” which claims it has no common kinship with other Ukrainians.
To be sure, the professor conceded, Transcarpathia authorities as well as many local residents haven’t always been receptive to the Rusyn revival, and some have even gone so far as to look down on Ruthenians as backward, under-educated illiterates. However, Palinchak insisted that the Rusyn issue was “an artificial problem” and Transcarpathia “shouldn’t be judged or defined on the basis of the actions of a mere ten to twenty people.”
Russia has sought to exploit the secession card and some politicians try to raise the political temperature by arguing that Rusyns lack any ties to Ukraine, the professor said. Nevertheless, people in Transcarpathia are apolitical and focused on economic problems. In fact, even though local residents have historically been alienated from corrupt elites in Kyiv, the war in Donbas has altered the political climate. “Putin has united us,” Palinchak explained, adding “when our people started dying and the coffins came back, everyone became very patriotic which wasn’t the case before.”
Within this zero-sum geopolitical game with murky underground agitators, Rusyns have become symbolic pawns. Stoking the flames, state-owned media in Russia has been issuing breathless reports highlighting alleged frictions between Kyiv and the Rusyn community. The latter, however, has expressed befuddlement at such reporting which is deemed to be “fake news.” But while Russian propaganda needs to be systematically exposed and uncovered, that doesn’t mean that Transcarpathia is immune from tangible ethnic fissures, as my encounter with the irate woman in downtown Uzghorod demonstrates.
Moreover, judging from other conversations, my experiences are hardly unique. Evgenia Navrotska is a historian who teaches at the Romani Studies Department at Uzhgorod National University. “Nationalism is always dangerous,” she told me, explaining that as a Russian speaker she has sometimes felt intimidated or scared in Uzhgorod. “I know where I can speak Russian, and where this has become inadvisable,” the academic said, adding that she has even felt scared to select Russian while withdrawing money at the ATM.
Echoing such concerns, native son Pilash remarked that the rise of the Ukrainian right threatens to stoke inter-ethnic tensions which have long remained dormant. “We didn’t use to have any far right in Uzhgorod,” Pilash told me, “but now we have a small group called the Carpathian Sich.” For two years, the group has been violently attacking leftists and minorities with a sense of impunity. “They are a bunch of neo-Nazis who could easily be arrested and sent to jail,” my contact adds, “but obviously someone wants to use them, maybe to bring about destabilization.”
Though numerically small, groups like Carpathian Sich threaten the notion of a more multi-cultural Ukraine. The “ethnic question,” Pilash declared, should “be addressed in a different way; now it’s just framed as dangerous separatism and bringing divisions and blaming people for being proxies for Russian aggression. It should be more about creating a more inclusive and pluralistic society.”