The Lemkos as a Micro Ethnic Group

For untold centuries the mountains of the southeast corner of present day Poland were inhabited by people who, all observers agree, spoke an East Slavic language, used a version of the Cyrillic Alphabet, and who belonged to the Eastern branch of Christianity and who used a version of the Byzantine Rite in church services. The territory these people inhabited forms a rough elongated triangle with its eastern base on the Oslawa River and its western apex at a point on the Dunajec River, southeast of Krakow. This land, on the north slope of the Carpathians, includes the Beskid Sadecki, the Beskid Niski and the western Edge of the Bieszczady mountain ranges and is variously known as Lemkowszczyzna (Polish), Lemkivshchyna (Ukrainian), Lemkovyna (local) or Prikarpatska Rus and people from the area are known as Lemkos.

In 1944 – 1946 a large part of the surviving population was “evacuated” to the Soviet Ukraine and in the Spring and Summer of 1947 the whole region was depopulated (the rest of the native people were sent into exile in the Northern and western territories of post-war Poland, so-called “Akcja Wisla) and devastated in order to deprive the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which was fighting against the Polish People’s Army, of whatever support it had in the region. The area was turned into a “free-fire zone”. After 1956 some Lemkos were able to return home and since that time, despite administrative measures taken to prevent it, there has been a steady trickle of returnees to the region, which in the meantime had been given over mainly to Polish settlers from the plains.

To this very day there is a considerable discussion amongst scholars and lay-people alike about who the Lemkos are and where they fit into the larger scheme of Slavic-ethnic patterns in Eastern Europe. Extreme opinions range from naming the Lemkos as a “Lost Tribe of Poles” (a view advanced in the 1930’s) or as Great Russians, pure and simple (a view found in the region until as late as W.W.II).

The problem lies in not being able to clearly classify the Lemkos: are they a kind of tribe, a folk, an ethnic group (micro-ethnic group), a religious group, or a nation? In the scholarly community we may detect four approaches to a discussion of the Lemko conundrum. These may be identified, in a short-hand way, as the Polish, the Ukrainian, the Carpatho-Rusyn, and the Religious approaches.

The Polish Approach

The situation of the Lemkos in Poland is not unknown to the Polish public and the press not infrequently publishes small pieces about the Lemko question, for example Maciej Kozlowski’s article “Lemkowskie Lasy: Spor o Sprawiedliwosc (Lemko Forests:Dispute over Justice) which appeared in the Krakow Catholic weekly newspaper Tygodnik Powszechny in May 1989. Polish scholarly publications have been mainly in the area of anthropology/sociology [ethnology]. In book-size works we may note the three volumes published in the 1960’s by Wydawnictwo Literackie of Krakow, Nad Rzeka Ropa (On the Ropa River) which made available nearly 1500 pages of material dealing with the middle area of the Lemko area – the Beskid Niski region. In 1974 the noted Polish sociologist Andrzej Kwilecki published his Lemkowie: zagadnienie migracji i asymilacji (Lemkos: Problems of migration and assimilation) in which he held that the Lemkos deported to the Western and Northern territories were disappearing into the larger Polish cultural and ethnic community.

In 1983 the PTTK (Polskie Towarzystwo Turystyczno-Krajoznawcze – the Polish Association for Tourism and Knowledge about the Country) organized a symposium about the Lemkos. The papers of that conference were published in 1987 as Lemkowie:kultura-sztuka-jezyk (Lemkos: Culture-art-language) in a book of 170 pages of material in nine chapters including discussions of language, church art, place names and architecture.
There was even a 6 month exposition of Lemko material culture in Nowy Sacz (see the 50 page catalog Lemkowie: Muzeum Okregowe w Nowym Saczu. Galeria Dawna Synagoga. Luty-Czerwiec 1984) (Lemkos: Regional Museum in Nowy Sacz – Gallery in the former synagogue, February-August, 1984).
The general tendency of the “Polish” treatment of the Lemko question is to see the Lemkos as falling within the Polish “Lebensraum,” albeit as an extremely peripheral group but somehow “Polish” none-the-less.

The Ukrainian Approach

The Ukrainian approach is fairly straight forward – these people are Ukrainians, period. At worst they are a kind of Ukrainian hill-tribe, at best an integral part of a politically-conscious Ukrainian nation. Any divergent view is “another attempt at imposing upon Ukrainian studies the concept of regionalism, denying the existence of an underlying trend toward an all-Ukrainian identity.”(2) In the USA the “Organization for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna” (OOL), a group of people closely allied with the Ukrainian independence movement, has published four volumes of Annals of Lemkivshchyna (1974, 1975, 1982, 1984) which offer articles and miscellaneous information in English, Polish and Ukrainian supporting the Lemko-Ukrainian cause. In 1988, the Shevchenko Society published on behalf of OOL, under the editorship of Bohdan Struminsky, 1,100 pages of material in two volumes entitled Lemkivschchyna: Zemlya, Lyudi, Istoriya, Kultura (Lemkivschchyna: Land, People, History, Culture) Additionally, a quarterly magazine, Lemkivshchyna, is also put out by OOL.
A separate monthly newspaper in support of the Ukrainian cause, Golos Lemkivschchyni, (The Voice of Lemkivshchyna) is published in Yonkers, New York.
As may be supposed the several organizations which bring together veterans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) also support the Ukrainian view – see for example any of the volumes of Litopys [a kind of yearbook] published in Toronto or Peter J. Potichnyj (McMaster University), “The Lemkos in the Ukrainian National Movement during and after WW II,” a paper presented at the 20th National Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS), 1988 93 pages (mimeograph available from the paper’s author).

The Carpatho-Rusyn View

The Lemkos masses, themselves, at the beginning or the 20th century, rarely took a stand on national issues. The people knew they were “local inhabitants,” (“tutejszy” in Polish) , and they were not about to be stampeded into the Russophil or Ukrainophil camp. If there was an orientation, it was to the Byzantine-Slavonic world in general (the starorusyn view — see the next section) but not to particular nations.
This “separatist” tendency has continued to this day, despite some defections to the Ukrainian camp, and an articulate supporter of this position, in a somewhat larger context, is Professor Paul Robert Magocsi, holder of the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto – a situation much to the horror of some Ukrainians.
The term Lemko and Lemkovyna became popular amongst the Lemkos only in the 20th century, although to be sure “Lemko” appears in the historical record as early as 1834 The Lemkos can be juxtaposed with Ukrainians and Poles as Magocsi did in his paper “Nation-Building or Nation-Destroying?, Lemkos, Poles and Ukrainians in Contemporary Poland” also given at this aforementioned AAASS convention.(3)
Magocsi, who has written principally about the Byzantine-Rite East Slavs on the south slope of the Carpathians (Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia), in Austria-Hungary and Czechoslovakia, is of the opinion that a Carpatho-Rusyn group exists which is neither Slovak, Ukrainian nor Polish (much less Russian). In support of this view he has written:
The Shaping of a National Identity: Subcarpathian Rus’. 1848-1948 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978) Pp. 640.
Our People: Carpatho-Rusyns and their Descendants in North America (Toronto: Multicultural History Society, 1984) Pp.160.
He also founded the Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center which has published some 31 titles, among which are his:
Let’s Speak Rusyn: Presov Region Edition and
Let’s Speak Rusyn: Transcarpathian Edition [both of 106 pages];
Carpatho-Ruthenica at Harvard-A Catalog of Holdings; and
Carpatho-Rusyn Studies: An Annotated Bibliography 1975-1984.

The Research Center has been publishing a quarterly newsletter, Carpatho-Rusyn American, for 13 years and is currently collecting money with a view to establishing a Chair of Carpatho-Rusyn Studies at some major North American university.

There is an echo of this activity in Poland as seen in the “Lemkovyna” folklore singing and dancing group, the Lemkivska Vatra several day meetings held at the end of July for the past eight years in the Beskid Niski region, and attempts to regularize the Lemko language by producing a dictionary and a grammar.

The Religious View

The most bitter battles for Lemko allegiance have been fought on the field of religion. In early modern times the struggle between Orthodox and Greek Catholics (that is, Byzantine-Slavonic Christians of different organizational persuasions) was particularly strong in the Lemko area (see Marian Bendza Prawoslawna Diecezja Przemyska w latach 1596-1681 (The Orthodox Diocese of Przemysl in the Years 1598-1681) (Warsaw: Chrzescijanska Akademia Teologiczna, 1982. 267 pages). At the beginning of the 20th century the Orthodox persuasion was oriented on Moscow and the Tsar but this direct “Moscophilism” died down with the rise of Soviet Russia. However, the Polish Autocephalic Orthodox Church, in existence since 1921, supported the orthodox orientation between the wars. During that same period the Ukrainian (formerly “Greek”) Catholic Church (the so-called Uniate Church) with its headquarters in Lvov sustained Byzantine-Slavonic-Rite Catholicism.
After W.W.II the Ukrainian Catholic Church was liquidated by the Soviets within the new borders of the USSR and in Poland that church, its rite and its adherents were precipitated into a legal limbo where they continue to reside. Greek Catholic priests and chapels exist but under the auspices of the Latin-Catholic Church. However, the ordination of a bishop for Ukrainian Catholics in Poland in 1989 appears to be a harbinger of the resurrection of that church. Many Lemko churches were destroyed after 1947, some however were turned over to Latin-Rite use and a few lately have undergone restoration and have been handed over to the Polish Orthodox Church. The existence of some sort of a strange non-Latin christianity in southeast Poland is sometimes acknowledged in minor publications of the “Polish” orientation.

The Polish language makes a distinction between a “kosciol” and a “cerkiew,” the former being Western (whether Protestant or Catholic) the latter either Catholic or Orthodox (Byzantine-Rite). However in translations into English the term “Cerkiew” is almost always identified, on maps, on illustrations and in summaries, as an “Orthodox church” — there was a prohibition against admitting to the existence of Greek (Byzantine-Rite) Catholic buildings until the liquidation of censorship in spring, 1990.
Of the Carpatho-Rusyn view we have Paul Magocsi’s Wooden Churches in the Carpathians (Vienna:W. Braumuller, 1982, 176 p.) and Carpatho-Ruthenian Plain Chant a 5 disc (6 inch, 33 1/3 revolutions per minute) collection of the rather unique Carpatho-Rusyn Church music (available from the Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center).
The Ukrainians weigh in heavily with Sviatoslav Hordynsky’s bi-lingual Ukrainian Churches in Poland: Their History, Architecture and Fate (Rome: Bohoslovia Editions, 1969, 71 illustrations) and Professor V. Karmazyn-Kakovsky Mistetstvo Lemkivs’koi Tserkvi (The Art of the Lemko Church) (Rome:Ukrainian Catholic University, 1975, 457 pages). The very latest, beautiful, multicolor pro-Ukrainian work is the 350 page bi-lingual volume Church in Ruins: The Demise of Ukrainian Churches in the Eparchy of Peremyshl by Oleh and Wolodymyr Iwanusciv.
In the interwar period the unusual and “separatist” nature of the Lemko people caused a stir in the mountains when the Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Przemysl Josafat Kocylowski attempted to change the local people into conscious Ukrainians by sending young, celibate, shaved priests into village parishes and by modifying the ritual in certain key places. His actions were met by a “religious war” in which some villages (around 40) drove out the newcomers and invited in married, bearded, orthodox priests who followed precisely the old ways. The Vatican became so alarmed that the nine western deaneries of the Peremysl diocese, including over a hundred parishes with 130,000 believers, were detached and formed into an Apostolic Administration under an Administrator who had quasi-episcopal powers. (see Shematizm Greko-Katolitskogo Dukhoven’stva Apostol’skoi Administratsii Lemkovshchini (Schema of the Greek Catholic Clergy of the Apostolic Administration of Lemkovshchyna) published 1936 in Poland and reprinted in Stamford, Connecticut, 1970 by the Ukrainian Museum and Library.
Presently the Polish Autocephalic Orthodox Church is most publicly active in the Lemko area, especially after the establishment of the Peremysl-Nowy Sacz Orthodox diocese under Bishop Adam in October 1983. However, Ukrainian Catholics have reestablished several churches in the area.

Lemkos, whether in the region or outside of it, if they are religious, attend either Greek (Ukrainian) Catholic or Orthodox services; that is, the Eastern (Byzantine) Rite churches.
In sum then, if we exclude the use of the term “tribe” as having pejorative meaning in the European context, we can certainly use one of the not-precisely-defined sociological terms such as Ethnic Group or Micro-Ethnic Group to describe the Lemkos. This certainly is a foundational term;(4) as to whether, on a larger geographic scale, the Lemkos would adhere to a Carpatho-Rusyn identification is not clear, although this writer’s opinion is that the majority of Lemkos would recognize that they have compatriots in Slovakia and the USSR.
The jump from Carpatho-Rusyn to Ukrainian is problematical for many Lemkos and, despite Ukrainian desires to the contrary, there appears to be sizable portion of currently living Lemkos who would reject the connection to a Ukrainian nation.

written by Paul J. Best, June-July 1990
Carpatho-Russyn Studies Group
Political Science Department
Southern Connecticut State University
New Haven CT 06515 USA


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