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Identity of Lemkos

Corinna Caudill, Justin Houser and Richard Trojanowski made contributions to this page.

Although many Lemkos consider themselves to be part of a greater Ukrainian nation, or a Ukrainian ethnic group, not all Lemkos feel this way.   Modern Lemkos are ideologically divided between three principal ethno-national identities: Ukrainian, Rusyn (or “Carpatho-Rusyn”) and Carpatho-Russian, identity divisions that were affected by history and politics.  Ecclesiastical politics in the twentieth century heavily contributed to the identity fracture.  The following is an overview of the three major ethno-national identities that evolved among Lemkos in the 19th and 20th centuries:

The Ukrainian Orientation 

To put things into perspective, Lemkos comprised about 1/5 of the total number of eastern Christian slavs (Greek Catholic or Orthodox) who inhabited Poland before World War II and who were considered to be “Ukrainians” by the Polish and Soviet governments (who uprooted them from their historic settlements between 1944-1947.) The partial “Ukrainianization” of the Lemko population in the 19th and 20th centuries is a complex phenomenon. The Lemkos were part of a larger group of medieval Kyivan Rus’ descendants, and for most of their existence, a stateless people. Ukrainian national identity didn’t really form as a national concept in Europe until around the mid-19th century, much later than the national identity transformations among many western European nations such as Italy, France, Germany and Spain. During the interwar period, Ukrainian identity had taken hold in many parts of the Lemko region. As a general rule of thumb, it was more prevalent in the eastern districts of the Lemko region (Krosno, Sanok and Lesko) whereas the regional Rusyn (Rusyny/Rus’nak) identity was more prevalent in the western districts (Jaslo, Grybow, Gorlice, Nowy Sacz.) This is only a rule of thumb; for example, many Lemkos in the Gorlice district had adopted Ukrainian identity by the onset of World War II.

The Rusyn Orientation

Other Lemkos consider themselves to be “Rusyns” or “Carpatho-Rusyns” and gravitate not in Ukrainian circles, but in the realm of “Carpatho-Rusyn” organizations. Rusyn-oriented Lemkos see themselves as part of a greater “Rusyn” people that includes Rusyns from Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine’s Transcarpathian oblast (which they refer to as “Zakarpattia”) and Serbia’s Vojvodina region. Many Carpatho-Rusyns, including some Lemkos, do not self-identify as Ukrainians, and do not consider the Lemko language to be a Ukrainian dialect, but rather a separate language all together. (A great deal of scholarly debate exists on this topic.)

The Carpatho-Russian Orientation

There is a contingent of Lemko descendants whose ancestors emigrated from southeastern Poland to North America around the turn of the twentieth century, and who self-identify as “Russian” or “Carpatho-Russian” despite the fact that the Lemko region was never historically part of the greater Russian empire. In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a Russophile political movement that was active in the Lemko region, and it was closely linked to religious politics and a feeling of “brotherhood” with the Russian Orthodox Church. The historical details are too complex to explore in one brief article, but in short, Lemkos who emigrated to the U.S. preserved this identity in their diaspora organizations which are usually centered around Russian Orthodox churches. Many such churches are part of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which was under the Patriarch of Moscow until 1970, as well as a few parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USA which remain under the Patriarchate of Moscow to this day, and Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) parishes, which were in schism from the Moscow Patriarchate because of concerns about communist influence in the Russian Church until 2007, when they once more came into communion with the Patriarch of Moscow. Another subset of Lemkos may have joined with their neighbors from south of the Carpathians, who formed the “American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the USA” (abbreviated as ACROD) in 1938; they did not enter the predecessor of the OCA precisely because they did not want to be “Russified,” although they did not feel Ukrainian, either. Although the Carpatho-Russian identity has been virtually nonexistent in the Lemko region since the end of World War I, it has been fairly well preserved in the United States.

Related to the identity issues, it’s also important to note that the various groups refer to the Lemko region in different ways, a phenomenon that is related to the identity divisions between them. Lemkos of Ukrainian orientation call the region “Lemkivshchyna,” and those of Rusyn or Carpatho-Russian orientation refer to it as “Lemkovyna.” Ukrainians refer to what they view as “Ukrainian ethnic territories” west of the Curzon line (the post World War II border demarcation) using the Ukrainian term “Zakerzonnia” which literally means “beyond the Curzon” (indicating their view that “Lemkivshchyna” is part of a larger Ukrainian territory that includes the Chelm, Podlasie and Nadsiannia regions.) Scholars and writers who are trying to treat the region objectively without politically infusing the name may refer to it as “The Lemko Region”, “The Lemkian Region” or even “The Lemko Land.” All of these names are good key search words for your online research, but when keying in the “politically infused” names, you may come across monographs or articles that come from the ethno-national perspective associated with that name.

Identity divisions between Lemkos affect the existing body of literature as well as individual and organizational perspectives. It is not uncommon for two individuals from same village (or even within the same family) to view their identity differently. With this in mind, we believe that it’s most helpful for the comprehensive researcher to obtain information from all knowledgeable individuals and organizations.

The Lemko Project

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