MY GRANDPARENTS' NATIONALITY: NOT RUSSIAN, RUSYAN
I remember my mother's parents' house on Jefferson Avenue in Bushwick. In the forties we kids would troop up the stairs of their three story brownstone on Sundays and be greeted, first by the welcome bouquet of chicken soup, then by the joyous sounds and smiles of grandma. Then we would dutifully go over to grandpa, who would be sitting at the potbellied stove reading the paper, kiss him hello on his hard-stubble cheek and collect a quarter. Then we would stuff our tummies with a wonderful dinner which sometimes included my favorite fluffy white dumplings in goulash. After dinner we would either run outside and play stoopball or drift off into digestive sleep. A rather prosaic memory, I guess. I have heard similar stories from so many. For me of course it's a special memory because it's mine...or I should say ours, because I was only one member of the family of nine sometimes known as the "Jensen tribe".
Back then "extraction" and nationality were of much greater interest than they are among young people today. Perhaps it was the war that made people want to know just how everyone fit in to the global mess. Of course we didn't say "global" back then; everyone's origin was a distinct place that could be considered on its own and apart from all other places. We knew that my grandmother came from one of those places: she spoke with a heavy accent. My grandfather probably did as well but, since he spoke so rarely, I'm not sure. My cousin Eddie remembers her encouraging us to eat with the phrase: (phonetically transcribed) Yetz! Yetz! Neckla dui nik domu!.....Eat Eat! Don't starve like you do at home! He also remembers her word for dishrag: shutok, and her invitations to eat some ham: "Eat shunky". In Uncle Dan's and Aunt Emma's house he remembers an embroidered pillow which punned: "You're Some Duma." (A check with an internet Slovakian dictionary shows duma means "muse." A liberal translation as "inspiration" would make some sense of the pillow...unless duma means something else in some other language.)
One Sunday evening I remember I was sitting on the floor studying the picture on the side of the wind-up victrola while my grandmother tried to explain her nationality. "I'm not Russian," she said, "I'm Russian." At least that's what it sounded like to me. After a few attempts at clarification we seemed to be stuck at "Not Russian, Russian." At that point I probably fell asleep.
That might have been in 1946 or 48: I was eight or ten. Now, 50 some odd years later, while trying again to sort out the distinctions between Hungarian, Bohemian, Slovakian, Slovenian, Slavik, Slavish and place names that can be in German, Polish, Roumanian, Ukranian, Slovakian or Russian, I finally stumbled on what may be the key to the whole puzzle: RUS. I now realize that my grandmother was saying: "Not Russian, RUSYN!" but I was too ignorant to hear the distinction.
Prompted by my brother's comments that the town of Habura was closer to the Carpathian Mountains than Presov I plugged Carpathians into Yahoo! and quickly found the site for the Carpatho-Rusyn Knowledge Base. There I found people who were interested in the same names and towns that we were interested in: Presov, Habura, Haburay, Mathea, Matzko, Malinak, Sedlack, Shavnik. I learned that there had been a great migration of Rus people from this area about 1880 - 1914 and that many of the immigrants settled in Pennsylvania and were involved in mining and steel. My brother reminded me that we often were introduced to distant relatives at wakes who had driven all the way from Pennsylvania where they worked in the mines. I remember that too, but I'm not sure of their names or just how they were related to us.
After much reading among the sites noted below I will venture to say that the problem about the nationality of the Matheas-Haburays is that they did not have one. That is, although they had an ethnic identity, Rus, and a linguistic identity, Rusyan, they had no national identity because there was no country called Rusya to identify with. The Matheas-Haburays were, as all the Rus still are, a stateless people like the Kurds, the Gypsies, the Palestinians or the Iroquois "nation", or, until 1945, the Jews. If one asks, "Where is the border of Kurdistan or Romany or Palestine or Rusya?", there can be no answer because there are no such places for those people. They are stateless. If they are lucky, like the Rus and the Gypsies, the countries where they reside will include them as citizens. If they are unlucky, like the Kurds, they will be treated as foreigners, visitors, or refugees, as the Kurds are treated by Iraq and Turkey.
Rus is a word which was originally Swedish and meant tribe or clan. The Vikings who set up colonies along the banks of the Volga River referred to themselves as Rus. This group gradually extended south toward and beyond Kiev and is today called the Kievan Rus. It is the Kievan Rus who evolved into the people we know today as Russians, helped along in the process by Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, who controlled lucrative trade routes extending from Scandinavia down to Constantinople. Known as a fornicator immensis et crudelis, Vladimir was nevertheless made a saint because in 988 he decided that all in Kievan Rus should be Eastern Orthodox Christians to match the southern end of the trade axis. This eliminated certain(?) trade problems arising from the pagans in Kiev and the north and created the unifying force that eventually coalesced the loose confederation of semi-independent principalities into Czarist (pre-communist) Russia. (To learn more refer to U.S.News & World Report, "A Trader in Theology: Vladimir of Kiev." August 16/23, 1999, Its special issues on "The Year 1000." This article quotes a number of sources, including James Billington, The Icon and the Axe.
The Rus who settled along the southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains and in the valley extending southwest from those slopes toward Budapest are referred to today as the Carpathian Rus, Carpatho-Rus, Subcarpathian Rus, Ruthenian and other terms. (Of course, along the way there was much mixing with other ethnic groups which were coming west out of Asia so that the Norse of the Vikings over the centuries gave way to an assortment of Slavic languages. The concept of a "pure" ethnic or racial group is a fantasy, nevertheless, in spite of DNA and language, ethnic affinity and identification among groups persists, such as we see for instance with the Irish.)
At about the same time that Vlad was doing his thing north of the Carpathians the Hungarians became dominant on their south side and incorporated the Carpathian Rus into what would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Along the way the Carpathian region, caught between Russia and the western part of Europe, at times fell under the control of the Ukranians, the Poles, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, and the Roumanians. After 1918, it was the Germans who took over in 1938 and then Soviet Russia in 1945. Presently, the region is, mostly, part of Slovakia.
Here are some links to interesting sites where you can learn more about the Carpathian Rus.
A memorandum, dated 1 July 1941, for FDR from the British Foreign Office which, though unsigned, is presumably from Churchill. It discusses the creation of a provisional government (in exile) for Czeckoslovakia and dismisses concern for the eventual restoration of Ruthenia from Hungary to Czeckoslovakia, characterizing Ruthenians as a "relatively small and unimportant community." Ruthenia had been independent for one day in 1938 before Hungary marched in, presumably under instructions from Hitler.
FEEFHS Carpatho-Rusyn, Rusin, Ruthenia Cross-Index An apparent goldmine which I haven't had time to explore.
An essay: The Tragic Tale of Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia (Podkarpatska Rus')
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