Ukrainian Tribal Divisions and Ethnographic Groups

The following material is an essay written by Z Kuzela and published in Ukraine – a concise Encyclopedia by the Shevchenko Scientific Society. It gives short descriptions of the various ethnic groups of Ukrainian origin includes a map showing the areas where the groups were traditionally located.

Tribal Composition in the Ninth Century

The leading role in the formation of Ukraine as an ethnic and political unity fell to the small but favorably located tribe of the Polianians, who lived on the middle Dnieper around the old center of Kiev. The Primary Chronicle mentions the following other tribes: the Derevlianians, the Siverianians, the Ulychians or Uhlychians, the Tivertsians, the Duiebians, and also the White Croats, whose ethnic affiliation is still the subject of study. With the development of Ukraine as a political unit, new names, corresponding to new territorial divisions, emerged in addition to the old tribal names. In particular, in place of the Dulebians there appear the Volhynians and Buzhanians. The names, with the exception of the Volhynians, have not been preserved in geographical usage, but they have left traces in the toponymic names, while the old tribal names have given way to the modern political and national names.

Territorial Names

The tribal names having long lost the basis for their existence and no longer being mentioned in the contemporary literature, there now appeared purely geographical, territorial names having nothing in common with the ethnographic divisions. The Poltavtsi, Chernihivtsi, and Slobozhany in the east of Ukraine were exclusively territorial groups whose names had no ethnographic basis.

It would hardly be exaggerating to say that the central and, in part, the south-eastern areas of Ukraine were settled by a population which was basically comprised of one ethnographic complex, although having some variations in physical appearance, dialect, and material culture. Local peculiarities are more evident on the peripheries of the Subcaucasus and the south Bessarabian regions but even there they are not so distinct and characteristic as to create ethnographic entities. For this reason, this major section of the Ukrainian territory does not require any special ethnographic analysis here.

Ukrainian Ethnic Groups

The northern and western lands of Ukraine have preserved a considerable degree of diversity, many primitive, archaic features, and definite traces of old tribal characteristics. The inaccessibility of the area of northern Ukraine, from Polisia to the northern part of the former Kiev and Chernihiv guberniyas (provinces), and the mountainous terrain of the Carpathian region have protected them from alien incursions.

These areas have preserved the original Ukrainian folk culture in their traditional customs and rites, in their architecture and clothing. In spite of their distance from each other and the fact that they are separated by other ethnic groups, the two above-mentioned ethnographic areas have in common many customs, rites, and features of material culture which suggest a common origin or neighborhood in the old pre-Christian period and have developed to a great extent because of the nature of this wooded area (“wood” culture).

On the other hand, Ukrainian tribes in the Carpathians and the ethnic groups which developed from them absorbed, through the intermediary of the Southern Slavs, the Slovaks, Czechs, and Poles, certain western and southern European influences. Situated on both sides of the Carpathian chain ridge, they were in close contact with a number of tribes and peoples of the Danube basin. Many ancient rites and customs, objects of material culture, as well as spiritual conceptions, motifs, and themes have resulted from this association, appearing most clearly among the western Lemkians and the southern Hutsuls.

Western Ukrainian (Carpathian) and Neighboring Ethnic Groups

The population on both sides of the Carpathians is divided into three approximately equal groups: the Lemkians, the Boikians, and the Hutsuls, who have inhabited the same regions since they first settled there.

The Lemkians

The westernmost Ukrainian ethnic group is that of the Lemkians, who are also known in Transcarpathia as the Lemaky. Until 1946 they inhabited both sides of the main Carpathian range from the Poprad in the west to the sources of the Sian ( San ) and the Uzh in the east, extending in a wedge into Slovak and Polish ethnic territory. In the course of many centuries they have lost parts of their territory to the Slovaks and the Poles, retaining only small enclaves ( such as Osturnia ) outside the compact area of their main territory. They have shown more resistance to the Poles than to the Slovaks; a group which at the present time uses the Slovak language, but is of the Greek Catholic faith, shows clearly that it is of Ukrainian origin.

In 1946-48 the Poles transferred a great number of the Lemkians to the USSR and resettled others in those Polish provinces which were German before World War II. During the last few years many Lemkians have returned from what is now western and northern Poland. In Slovakia all the Lemkians have remained in their old territory. Until recently the Lemkians preserved their native costume (with the characteristic woolen mantles – chuhy), which was homemade, except for some foreign items (e.g., the men’s caps were bought in Czech Olomouc). Their repertoire of songs, as has been shown by the collections and studies of F. Kolessa, is rich and original and is related to Slovak songs, as it was, formerly, to Czech songs, from which have come some ballad motifs and love songs.

Near the Lemkians, to the north of the city of Krosno, live the Zamishantsi. They call themselves Rusyny (Ruthenians).

The Boikians

To the east of the Lemkians lies the territory of the Boikians, called Boikivshchyna (the Boikian region), which extends to the Solotvynian Bystrytsia and the Tereshva in the east. The Boikians themselves, especially those in Transcarpathia, do not like this name which they regard as derisive, and prefer to call themselves Verkhovyntsi (Mountaineers). The inhabitants of the southern Boikian territory in Transcarpathia are known as the Dolyniany (Valley People ) and are considered to be the pioneers of Ukrainian colonization in those regions. Although both areas of the Boikian region belong to the same general ethnic group, certain differences can be noted in the southern region especially in dialect and in housebuilding, the main type of house being a two-room structure, consisting only of an entrance hall and the house proper.

The Boikian group also includes the Tukhol’tsi who live in the neighborhood of Skole and Smorzbe and who speak the dialect of the Boikians but differ from them in type and in disposition. Whereas the Boikians breed cattle, the Tukhol’tsi show a great ability for trade, and before World War I were known in Galicia and beyond as sellers of grapes and other fruit.

The Boikians have preserved their ancient customs and rites and much of their material culture, architecture, and costume. In their burial rites they have preserved certain features which have disappeared in other sections of Ukrainian territory (the wake and special types of graves ). The Boikian region still preserves the old type of wooden house under the same roof as the farm buildings, the old agricultural implements (e.g. kadovby, clay receptacles for grain), typical old churches, characteristic forms of costume and ornament (shirts, head coverings, beads, long cloaks, etc.), and some survivals of old customs (“the great family,” “maiden fairs” ) and terminology.

The Hutsuls

In the area to the east of the Boikians, extending down to the Rumanian ethnic territory in the east and southeast, live the Hutsuls. Their ethnic area has receded somewhat before the advance of the Rumanian population, which has long tended to move to the north and northwest. The pioneers of the Rumanian colonization, known as the Wallachians, have left certain traces in Hutsul life and local nomenclature, but rave not remained on Ukrainian territory. However, the Hutsul group’s relations with the Rumanians have resulted in the spread of cultural features of the Balkan type, which are apparent in certain rites, in costumes, and in folk art. The Hutsul region, although mountainous, is better suited to agriculture than the Boikian region. Nevertheless, the principal occupations of the population are the breeding of cattle (marzhyna) and sheep, and work in the forests, cutting, hauling, and floating timber.

The Hutsuls are also skillful builders, and almost all the old wooden Hutsul churches, which resemble the old Byzantine types, are the work of Hutsul craftsmen.

The Hutsul region is widely known for its highly developed domestic handicrafts, especially wood-carving, brasswork, rug-weaving, and pottery-making. The Hutsuls’ originality and artistic taste are particularly evident in their ornamentation and choice of colors.

The Hutsul costume is of the same southern, Balkan type as that of the Boikians, the Lemkians, and the rest of the Carpathian population, but its colors and adornment are more striking than those of the Boikians or Lemkians. It differs from theirs in details and, until recently at least, has been made from the Hutsuls’ own materials.

The Hutsul region has its own special type of architecture (the enclosure – grazhda, high-roofed houses, characteristic porches), which is also widespread in the transitional Boikian-Hutsul belt. The people live in scattered settlements. But, to a large extent, Transcarpathia has lost the Hutsul mountain type of architecture, except in the region of upper Tysa.

In the Hutsul region the old rituals are still well preserved. There is a great wealth of beliefs, in particular in the realm of demonology, as well as of rites and customs connected with the folk calendar.

The Pokutians

Pokutia lies to the northeast of the Hutsul area and extends, in both Galicia and Bukovina, to the Dniester in the north. The nopulation of this section has many characteristics similar to those of the Hutsuls. The transitional type between the Hutsuls and the Boikians, on the one hand, and the population further to the north, on the other, is represented by the Pidhiriany – “people of the foothills.”

Northwestern Ukrainian Ethnic Groups

These groups inhabit the region on both sides of the Sian (San) from the Lemkian region and the territory of the Pidhiriany in the south (Sianik [Sanok] Peremyshl [Przemysl]) to the southern Kholm [Chelm) region in the north including enclaves in ethnically Polish territory. In the south the population of this area is related to the Lemkian group, and in the northeast (to the east of Yavoriv and Rava Ruska) to the Opolian (Dniester) group, but in the center of the region the people’s characteristics as a group entitle them to be considered as a separate unit known as the Dolyniany – “valley people.” The Dolyniany speak their own Sian dialect (see “Language”) and differ from their neighbors in dress, They also have certain characteristic details in their customs and rites (the singing of spring songs called ryndzivky). The old type of town-dwellers with their ancient costumes and customs have survived in this region. In general, this interesting border territory has been little studied. Among the most important ethnic sub-groups should be mentioned the Batiuky who inhabit the area extending up to Nesteriv (Zhovkva) and Rava Ruska, and the border group to the east of Yavoriv, the Veresiuky (so named after the Vereshytsia River ).

The Opolians
The Opolians inhabit western Podilia up to the river Strypa and, in some places, as far as the Seret in the east. They speak, with slight variations, the same dialect, that of the Dniester group.

The Podilians

“Galician” Podilia begins at the Strypa, and extends to the Zbruch. Eastern Podilia, lying between the Dniester and the Boh, stretches as far as the area south of Balta. The Podilian ethnic region shows many features characteristic of Western Ukraine especially in its customs and rites (e.g, ceremonies for the dead) and folklore (e.g., folk tales and the songs of the opryshky [robbers] ), which are unknown in eastern Ukraine. The norther section of the Podilian ethnic group is related to the southern Volhynian belt


Volhynia today is not an ethnically homogeneous area, but is characterized by two closely related types: the southern, which begins in northwestern Galicia and extends up to Lutsk and Rivue, and the northern, which extends to Polisia. As in the case of Podilia, the political frontier has not destroyed the ethnographic unity here and has not produced noticeable differences in the ethnic type and dialect. Volhynia has preserved not only many old koliadly (winter festival carols) and shchedrivky (New Year songs), but also a number of Church carols and religious songs. Lyre-playing has been especially widespread and popular in this region.

Northern Ukrainian Ethnic Groups

The entire northern part of Ukraine from the Buh to the Seim, south of the Yaselda and the Prypiat, on both sides of the Desna and on the left bank of the Dnieper is occupied by the northern Ukrainian ethnic groups, who settled on the old territories of the Derevlianians and Siverianians. They have preserved the old Ukrainian folk culture; but in the westernmost area, the Kholm [Chelm] region and Podlachia, they ave not been able to resist Polish pressure. The inhabitants of the Kholm region do not form a separate ethnic type; the eastern part of the area was settled by Volhynians, and the southern part, by the Dolyniany.

The Podlachians definitely belong to the northern Ukrainian type with its cultural and ethnic characteristics and they speak basically the same dialect (northern dialects).

Polisia and its population

To the east of Podlachia stretches the quite broad belt of Polisian territory, where much has been preserved from ancient times: the old wood culture, the old costume which shows traces of the traditions of the medieval period, and widespread rituals, which are basically analogous to those of the Boikians and the Hutsuls in the Carpathians. Polisia has a great wealth of oral tradition, which is closely related in content and type to Ukrainian folklore in general as for example the terminology relating to the Danube, the Kozaks, and Ukraine. Polisia has preserved a great number of koliadky (carols) with ancient themes, many ritual songs which are today regarded as “survivals” (e.g., volochibni songs and rohul’ky Easter songs), and the themes of many tales which the Belorussians, who live further to the north, have taken from them. See map for the Ukrainian-Belorussian ethnic boundary.

Ethnically Polisia is not entirely homogeneous, and its eastern part in particular shows variations. Polisia as a whole is usually divided into four belts: Polisia proper, the Pinsk region, the Volhynian, and Chernihiv Polisia. The people are usually called Polishchuks or Pinchuks, but many local names are also used.


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