Home      Blog       Faith       About This Site

FYI: Russophilism, the return to Orthodoxy, and Rusyn Greek Catholics

Moscophilism Amongst the Lemko Population in the Twentieth Century

By Paul Best

The present writer is a political scientist who specializes in Soviet and East European politics, with a focus on Polish-Ukrainian relations in general and, in particular, the shifting herder area in "East" Central Europe where Ukrainian-Orthodox-Byzantine and East European culture clashes with Polish-Catholic-Roman and "West" European civilization. One point of especially strong contention Is that triangle of land which has its base on the Oslawa River in South-East Poland and its western apex at a point in the Dunajec River Valley, south-east of Cracow. This territory, which includes the Beskid Sadecki and Beskid Niski mountains, is variously known as Lemkowszczyzna (Polish), Лемкiвщина (Ukrainian) or Lemkovyna (local). At the beginning of the twentieth century it was inhabited by a little-known micro-ethnic group of East Slavs called Lemko.

Carpatho-Russian Shield

These Lemkos, living north of the Hungarian border in the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, spoke an east-Slavic language which was heavily influenced by Polish and Slovak. These people were Greek Catholics, that is, members of a Byzantine-Slavonic Rite church which recognizes the Roman Pope as its religious leader. Living in remote mountain valleys, their pastoral and agricultural ways of life were relatively little affected by changes going on in the outside world. However, as the twentieth century progressed, pressures to change and to conform to the requirements of one or another larger national community forced these people to political and nationality choices they were little prepared to make. Religious conflicts (Orthodoxy versus Greek Catholicism), linguistic struggles (selection of a literary language, which would determine political orientation — Russian, Ukrainian, Rusyn, Slovak, Polish) and World War I created mutually-opposed camps supporting the various alternatives.

A certain historical drama was played out amongst these Carpathian Slavs in the twentieth century. They began to develop feelings as Russians, as the Lemko part of a Carpatho-Rusyn people, or, perhaps, as part of the Ukrainian nation. Prof. Paul Magocsi of Toronto University has already written an extensive monograph about this process in the sub-Carpathian (south slope) region. The pre-Carpathian Lemkos were under different influences from those of the sub-Carpathian Rusyns in that they lived in the Austrian part of Austria-Hungary and had not experienced the 1,000 years of Magyar domination found south of the Carpathian crest.

Scene from old Russia

In seeking a larger national identity and an answer to the question "who are we?" — beyond the obvious "we're from here" ("tutejszy," in Polish) response — some Lemkos decided for the "Russian" solution. In simple terms this meant that the Lemkos were part and parcel of the Great Russian Nation whose territory stretched from the Carpathians to Kamchatka. This united/undivided people had several attributes: all spoke some version of Russian, all were Orthodox christians dependent on Moscow and the Holy Synod and all recognized one great and holy leader, the Appointee of God, the Tsar of All Russia. As reality did not conform with this great "Russian idea" (русская идея) — Lemkos were Greek Catholics, in the Austria-Hungarian Empire (with an Emperor in Vienna) and the Lemko language was not comprehensible to a Muscovite and vice versa — reality had to be changed.

In the 19th century, the so-called "Starorusin idea" slowly evolved from vague Pan-East Slavism into a strong Pro-Moscow tendency. In the Lemko territory (where ideas arrived with a rather considerable delay), by the 20th century, the intelligentsia and the active peasantry were in good part engaged in the Russophile movement.

The origins of this movement were several. First a very strong influence came directly or indirectly from Moscow — or more precisely from St. Petersburg. After the defeat in the Crimean War Russian foreign policy focused, in part, on punishing Austria for lack of assistance. Here was a country (Austria) which the Russians had saved as an Empire in 1849 when Tsarist troops selflessly defeated the Hungarian rebels on behalf of the Habsburgs. Six years later, in the Crimean Crisis, the Austrians stood aside as neutrals and Russians could not forgive this ingratitude. Beyond that, in Russian political-religious circles there developed the idea of pan-Slavism which in its lesser phase included the East Slavic people of the Austro-Hungarian State, in its middle-sized form all the Orthodox Slavs and in its grandest phase all Slavs whether Orthodox, Catholic or even Moslem.

Beginning in the 1870s the Tsarist regime began to take action. The first group to feel the pan-slavic pressures was the East-Slavic people of Austria-Hungary (we will not discuss here the other grander ideas of Pan-Slavism). At the same time in the self-same area the Ukrainian idea was taking root. While in the main Ukrainianism succeeded in Galicia the same cannot be said to be true in Lemkovyna.

In direct action the Tsarist regime funded newspapers and agitators and positions for Lemko youth in Russian Orthodox seminaries. The attempt was made to develop a base amongst the intellectuals and the general peasant population for the reception of Orthodox propaganda and, more importantly, for the reception of a trained (Russian) Orthodox clergy that just started to emerge from Orthodox schools at the beginning of the 20th century. Let us note clearly here, that — whatever one's personal religious feelings (or lack thereof) — to join the Orthodox church meant, for all practical purposes, that one declared oneself as a "Russian" and thus it was a strong "political" declaration. The magnetic pull of Russophilism was felt also among the Greek Catholic clergy, so much so that some priests entered Orthodox service when the chance for such action arose during the Russian invasion of W.W.I.

A very powerful indirect influence on Lemkovyna came from North America where the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries. While it is true Russian Orthodoxy had old religious roots in Alaska and along the Pacific coast, the new missionaries came not to those areas but rather to the immigrant communities from Galicia and the Carpathians. These people felt themselves under attack from the hostile Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches (the local Roman Catholic bishops were particularly adverse to the Byzantine-Slavonic rite and a married clergy, perceiving such things as not being true "Catholic"). The Russian church, on the other hand, accepted these long-lost brothers, priests and laymen alike, with open arms. The Tsarist regime was pleased and happy to fund clerical stipends and church buildings. This feeling of having found a home was reflected in correspondence with the old country and in attitudes of the re-immigrants in their old communities. Beyond that, money and publications supporting Orthodoxy and Russophilism began to flow in from North America. These Russian efforts began to bear fruit just before W.W.I when Orthodox quasi-parishes began to crop up in Lemkovyna and a pro-Orthodox (Russian) newspaper, Lemko, began publication in Gorlice. However, all came to naught with the outbreak of the Great War.

The Austrian Gendarmerie knew exactly who was a Russophil and who was not and, acting on orders issued under martial law conditions, the Austrian police and military security arrested, beat (killed), and shipped off to an Internment camp in the village of Thalerhof near Graz in Stelrmark, all Russophils that could be caught This is not the place to discuss the horrors of Thalerhof, but suffice to say that thousands died amongst the internees (who were aged from newborns to 90 years old) and that for the rest treatment was brutal. While there were a sprinkling of Ukrainians, Jews, Russophil Poles and even prostitutes the vast majority of internees were of the Russophil persuasion. After the devastation caused by acts of war and the interments Lemkovyna slowly returned to some semblance of normality. However, in the 1920s and 1930s the Russophil Orthodox movement returned in full force.

The feelings of wrong done to the Lemko people during W.W.I, the aforementioned Tsarist preparations in the area and two previously occurring but now more strongly felt feelings, anti-Greek Catholic and anti-Ukrainian, caused a strong resurgence of the pro-Russian (Orthodox), movement. Starting in 1926, 40 villages went over officially to Orthodoxy and perhaps upwards of half the Lemko population, at least informally, joined this flow.

That some of the movement was not exactly pro-Russian or even in an exact sense pro-orthodox should be expanded on here. The aforementioned anti-Ukrainianism and anti-clericalism (anti-Greek-Catholic clergy) was based upon perceptions that the "Ukrainians" helped the Austrians in pointing out "Russophils" during W.W.I and that Ukrainians treated the Lemkos as a lower-cultured Ukrainian "tribe" with a "spoiled" language (with "foreign" influences and a constant accent, not a movable one like literary Ukrainian). With joining or being part of a Great Russian culture some Lemkos could reject Ukrainian accusations of Lemko separatism by Lemko-Russian accusations of Ukrainian separatism. Further, the exactions of the Greek Catholic clergy for religious services were quite high (and in some few cases, rapacious) for a basically farming population living on the edge of poverty. The local Greek Catholic priest also administered a not-infrequently a large piece of land, and perhaps a mill, which belonged to the parish but from which the priest derived income. This caused, no doubt, feelings of jealousy further enhancing anticlericalism. Orthodox priests accepted little or no money for services.

In 1924 the newly formed Polish Autocephalic Orthodox Church began a mission in Lemkovyna which yielded the previously mentioned results. This church and its clergy was initially made up of Russians, strictly speaking, and it (the church) was under very heavy pressure to conform to Polish reasons of state and in areas, other than Lemkovyna it found itself in sharp conflict with the ruling authorities. However, in the Lemko lands Polish Government and Orthodox goals coincided. In payback to the Catholic church for propagating the Neo-Unia amongst Orthodox believers in Byelorussian regions, the Orthodox church counterattacked in Lemkovyna, bringing into the Orthodox church probably as many souls as it lost to the Neo-Unia. On the other hand, the Polish government using all the means at its disposal to break the Ukrainian movement was pleased to support Orthodoxy in the Lemko territory, viewing it, rightly so, at that time, as an anti-Ukrainian movement.

World War II completely changed the issue, however. The destruction of the war, the "evacuations" of 1940 and 1944-1946 to the Soviet Ukraine and finally the resettlement/exile of the surviving Lemko population to the northern and western lands of post-W.W.II Poland shattered the Lemko people. [This exile/deportation was "Operation Wisla", after the defeat of the Lemko guerrilla warfare against the Polish Communists.]

What there is left of a pro-Russian movement cannot be detected. Among Lemkos today we may detect two general national directions, a Lemko Carpatho-Rusyn one and a Ukrainian one. The religious issue, as far as Ukrainians are concerned, is more or less resolved, the Orthodox church (at least in the Przemysl-Nowy Sacz diocese), despite having a predominance of Byelorussian clergy, accepts the Lemkos as Ukrainians, while the Greek Catholic church now calls itself the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The only echo of the Russophil movement is found among descendants of Lemko immigrants. It is estimated that 75% of the adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America can trace their roots to the Carpathians (both sides) and Galicia.

Date last modified: February 21st, 2000
Institute of History of the Jagiellonian University and the St. Vladimir Foundation in Krakow
Conference on:
Ukrainian Political Thought in the Twentieth Century
May 28-30, 1990

Moscophilism Amongst the Lemko Population...
Paul Best

Political Science Department
Southern Connecticut State University
New Haven, Connecticut 06515

A conservative site for peace