Lemkivshchyna is alive!

Lemkivshchyna, also known as Lemkovyna, Lemkovshchina or Lemkowszczyzna in Polish, is a scenic territory traditionally inhabited by Lemkos. This territory stretches from the Beskids (a traditional name for a series of Eastern European mountain ranges, in this case the Carpathian Mountains) — most of the Low Beskids, the western part of the Middle Beskids (Beskid Sadecki and Bieszczady in Polish), and the eastern fringe of the Western Beskids. Lemkos are an ethnic group that includes the populace of the southern slopes of the Beskids. However, Lemkivshchyna is a place name that traditionally refers to the northern part of this “Ukrainian-Carpathian Peninsula.” Back in the 14th century, it was part of the Polish kingdom. After 1772, it found itself under Austrian rule. (There is also Priashivshchyna, or the Presov region, a spot in the south of the historical Transcarpathian — Zakarpattia — territory annexed by Slovakia in 1919, historically part of Hungary, with Presov being the central city which, in the first half of the 19th century, became the Ruthenian-Ukrainian religious and cultural center.)

White Croats are often described as the first settlers in Lemkivshchyna, thus rating the status of Lemko forefathers. Nestor the Chronicler mentions them as a Slavic tribe under the rule of Kyivan Rus’ in the 10th century A.D. There is little doubt, however, that what Rus’ owned was only the eastern part of today’s Lemkivshchyna, approximately as far as the river Yaselka, considering that, back in the 15th-18th cc., it marked the frontier between the Sanok land of the Ruthenian Voivodeship and that of Krakow (with the villages of Zavadka Rymanowska, Daliowa, Lipowiec, Czeremcha located to the east of the boundary). This frontier was, of course, inherited from a previous historical period when Sanok was Ukraine’s political and military outpost and when that part of the Beskids remained scarcely inhabited because there was practically no chance of tilling the land.

It is safe to assume that Lemkivshchyna, as a Ukrainian ethnic and cultural region, formed in the 15th-16th cc., as soon as the territory had been swept under the tidal wave if rural colonization relying on the Moldovan custom law adjusted to local highland practices, where herding sheep was the key personal income source, with tilling being lower on the agenda. Some authors keep trying to separate Lemkivshchyna from Ukraine’s ethnic and cultural environs. The fact remains that the strongest demographic impact of this colonization wave was not made by ethnic Romanians, nor by other migrant tribes that, allegedly, crossed the Beskids and miraculously became Ruthenian, but by the impetuous Ruthenian environment that absorbed various foreign influences. On the other hand, Lemkivshchyna, being a wedge between the Polish and Slovak communities, served to preserve cultural and language archaisms.

In the 15th-17th cc., as a result of the Moldovan custom law (those promulgating this law were popularly referred to as kniaz (lit., prince) or soltys in the vernacular, there emerged over 150 settlements on the banks of the rivers Oslava in the east and Poprad in the west. Originally they consisted of several small village homes, but kept growing over the next couple of centuries, showing a steady tilling trend. Thus emerged a highland territory inhabited by Rusnaky [Ruthenians], people who adhered to their vivid spiritual and material culture. This culture started being described by the Ukrainian populists-awakeners of the people in the first half of the 19th century. It was then that the notion of Lemkos appeared in some of the works by Yosyp Levytsky, Ivan Vahylevych, Oleksii Toronsky. Lem literally means save/ except for. That was how this ethnic group became known among the Ukrainian neighbors. In the 20th century, Lemkos were accepted by scholarly literary sources and Lemkivshchyna as a place name. Gone was the old notion of Rusyny/Rusnaky [i.e., Ruthenians].

Hence the name Lemkivshchyna, the Land of Lemkos. In the first half of the 20th century, Ukrainian and Polish researchers tried to determine its frontiers and populace. In fact, it’s easy to outline the western and northern boundaries between the Lemkos and their Polish neighbor, considering that Lemkivshchyna once bordered on Hungary, then since 1919, on Poland and Slovakia. Polish historians claim there were attempts at Polish rural colonization, relying on the German Law, but after the Ukrainian settlers came the ethnographic boundary line became clearly apparent. Unlike the Sanok or Chelm regions, practically none of the local villages had mixed populace, nor were there mixed marriages. More often than not, a Greek Catholic Lemko village would be located next to a Polish Roman Catholic one. It was harder to determine the eastern border of Lemkivshchyna, considering that the Lemkos lived next door to other related ethnic groups, among them Boiko highlanders and dolyniany [lit., people of the valley] in Nadsiannia [San Region]. Some drew up a map of Lemkivshchyna until the upper reaches of the San in the east (including Ustryky Dolisni, Baligrod and Lisk). Finally, a consensus was achieved, whereby the river Oslava marked the eastern boundary of Lemkivshchyna – e.g., The Illustrated History of Lemkivshchyna (by the Lemko Julian Tarnowicz (1903-77), Lviv, 1936, and the more prestigious Polish author, Roman Reinfuss (1910-98). However, there are divided opinions on the territory between the Oslava and Wislok rivers, Tarnowicz believes all populated areas as far as the town of Sanok, are part of Lemkivshchyna. Reinfuss adopts a restrained attitude, stating that the Sanok County [Sianocki powiat], as Lemkivshchyna, before the war, included the villages reaching as far as Rudawka Rymanowska, Pulawy, Darow, Wislok Wielki, Jawornik, Szawnik. He further determines a compact Boiko community made up of eight villages (e.g., Kulaszne, Wysoczany, Polonna, Karlikow, Przybyszow, Kamjani, Petrowa Wolja, Tokarnia). A map constantly on display near the stage at the Lemko Tower in Zdynia shows the boundary lines determined by Reinfuss that were accepted by the Lemkos.

Volodymyr Kubiyovych (a.k.a. Kubiiovych or Kubijovyc) worked out national statistics that illustrate Lemkivshchyna’s demographic potential (incidentally, he was baptized 110 years ago in a church in Matijew, a western Lemko village). The publication “Ethnic Groups in Southwest Ukraine (Halychyna)” (01.01.39) contains data on each urban and rural locality in prewar Halychyna with a Ukrainian ethnic community. The westernmost Ukrainian settlements were located by the Dunajec in the Nowy Targ powiat. The area was known as Szlachta Ruthenia and comprised four Lemko villages with a populace of 2,200 Ukrainians. The Lemko territory began in the Nowy Sacz powiat where 27,500 Ukrainians lived in 42 rural communities and two towns, Krynica Zywiec and Myszyna. Kubiyovych counted 27,700 Ukrainians in the Gorlice powiat where Lemkos inhabited 53 villages and small settlements in the Polish village of Szymbark. There were 18 ethnic Ukrainian communities in the Jasla powiat, numbering 8,000 Ukrainians. At the time this powiat belonged to the Krakow voivodeship. Further on began the powiats of the Lviv voivodeship. The westernmost Crosno County had 14 village communities and 8,700 Ukrainians in the south. Reinfuss maintained that 41 communities in the south of Sacz (with 25,600 Ukrainians) and nine rural communities in the Lesko County (5,200) also belonged to Lemkivshchyna. Kubiyovych’s data points to some 105,000 Ukrainians in Lemkivshchyna in the late 1930s (Reinfuss’ calculations are identical). The Lemko territory is traditionally considered to include a small Ukrainian enclave among the Polish villages north of Krosno. It consisted of 10 villages on the boundary of the Krosno and Rzeszow powiats and was inhabited by 9,100 Ukrainians commonly known as Zamishantsy. Ivan Verhratsky studied the Zamishantsy in the late 19th century and assumed that their vernacular was a Lemko subdialect. The village of Krasna was the birth place of the noted Lemko painter and poet, Ivan Rusenko (1890-1960), who was deported to Ukraine in 1945.

Lemkivshchyna’s isolated geographical position served to form an original folk spiritual and material culture that had a strong impact on the Lemko national identity. It was here that the most conservative Old Ruthenian and Russophile simulacra were cultivated that would make all of Halychyna suffer in the second half of the 19th century. Modern Polish-Lemko Krakow-based historian Jaroslaw Mokliak claims that, in the 1890s, the Galician Russophiles were losing influence in the main cultural centers, so they made up for this by setting up a ramified network of reading rooms in provincial Lemkivshchyna. Branches of the Kachkovsky Society attracted semi- or illiterate peasants by their education activities and economic recommendations while brainwashing them into adopting Russophile ideas. The Ukrainian education network was then still in the making and started manifesting itself in the early 20th century when the first branches of the Prosvita Society emerged in places close to Lemkivshchyna: Sanok, Jasla, and Nowy Sacz (1902-03). This trend strengthened ideologically in the aftermath of bloody Austrian repressions during WW I, aimed against people suspected of espionage and aiding Russia, as symbolized by the execution of Maxim Sandovich, an Eastern Orthodox priest (born in Zdyna, Galicia; graduate of Zhytomyr Seminary), and the creation of the Talerhof Concentration Camp. Those senseless repressions also served to disunite the Lemko community as one of the propaganda techniques was to accuse Ukrainian public figures of complicity in repressions by the Austrian law enforcement agencies. And so ideological struggle between the supporters of the new Ukrainian national idea and Old Ruthenian Russophiles continued in Lemkivshchyna between the two world wars. It was strongly politically motivated and its most vivid manifestation was the so-called Tyliavka Schism in the second half of the 1920s, when Lemkos from some 40 villages in central and western Lemkivshchyna converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Ukrainian consciousness continued to spread among Lemkos, particularly in the east of Lemkivshchyna, in the vicinity of Sanok. They showed political activity in November 1918 when the Ukrainian National Council of Sanok Powiat was formed in the largest Lemko village of Wislok Wielki (some 3,000 residents). The council received orders from the West Ukrainian People’s (National) Republic and operated until January 1919. Ukrainian rule lasted the longest in Komancza, the scene of the last battle with the advancing Polish troops. Hence the notion “Komancza Republic,” as though in contrast to the Florinka Republic — or the Lemko Rusyn People’s Republic (LRPR) founded in Florinka, a western Lemko village, in December 1918. Its leadership announced they would join Russia and later Serbia. Their intention was so unrealistic that Polish authorities for quite a while connived at their endeavors as a game of sorts. The key LRPR figures were arrested in March 1920 after they began calling for Lemkivshchyna’s merger with Czecho-Slovakia.

To surmount obstacles in the development of the Ukrainian education network, Prosvita’s head office in Lviv formed a special Lemko Commission in 1932. In 1934, they started publishing the weekly Nash Lemko (Our Lemko) whose editor-in-chief was Julian Tarnowicz. The Lemkivshchyna Museum was organized in Sanok. That same year there were 20 Prosvita reading rooms and 25 co-op ones in the west and center of Lemkivshchyna. The co-op ones belonged to the Audit Union of Ukrainian Cooperatives. In other words, they encompassed only a small part of 130 Lemko villages on that territory. Among the obstacles in the way of Ukrainian education network was Ruthenian highlander conservatism stimulated by Russophile Old Ruthenian propaganda and the Polish administration that started throwing monkey wrenches into the works of the Ukrainian movement, including the setting up of the pro-Polish Lemko Association, replacement of literary Ukrainian by the vernacular in schools, and the formation of the Vatican Apostolic Administration of Lemkivshchyna, headed by Old-Ruthenian-minded clergymen.

Strange as it may seem, under the circumstances the best conditions for Ukrainian education activities were provided under the German occupation. Of course, the occupation authorities did not put up with political activities, but they allowed some progress in the education and co-op networks (a teacher-training seminary was organized in Krynica) and let Ukrainians take part in self-government structures. This was facilitated by the influx of qualified refugees from the west of Ukraine seized by Soviet forces in September 1939 (all this would later cause fresh accusations addressing the Ukrainian side).

Although an attempt to make Lemkivshchyna a land without Lemkos was made after the war, the first steps in this direction were taken during the years of Stalin-Hitler alliance, in 1939-41, under the naive pretext of believing “in Rus’,” when a bilateral agreement on population exchange was signed. Soviet commissars’ propaganda resulted in some 25,000 Lemkos applying for permanent residence in the USSR. Of them 5,000 made the trip practically without any property, believing that they would be given everything in Soviet paradise (others changed their mind after hearing from returnees about what that paradise really looked like). Nevertheless, about 70,000 Lemkos were deported to the east in 1945-46, often ending up in the steppe. From there those who could fled to Halychyna. The 30,000 who were lucky enough to stay in the Beskids were resettled in the so-called Returned Territories, mostly in Lower Silesia, and scattered among the Polish settlers (thus, 178 families from Florinka found themselves in 30 localities in six powiats).

Ukrainians in Zakerzonnia [originally territory west of the Curzon Line, eventually one severed from Ukraine proper when Stalin was redrawing the state borders. – Ed.] received an opportunity to return to the native land after a political thaw in Poland, in the mid-1950s. Some of the Lemkos followed suit, as evidenced by a partial restoration of the church network, the appearance of study groups of the Ukrainian Socio-Cultural Society, organization of a Lemko museum in Zyndranowa, etc. The 2002 census in Poland offers a demographic idea about today’s Lemkivshchyna, although of course, the official figures — a total of 27,200 Ukrainians and 6,000 Lemkos — are anything but accurate. According to the census, most Lemkos currently live in the Gorlice County (1,550), particularly in the Uscja Ruskie gmina (community/municipality): 800. In contrast, there were 550 Lemkos registered in the Komancza gmina of the Sanok powiat.

Apparently, various identifications of Ukrainian ethnic origin that existed at the time of deportations in the 1940s are still practiced. Proof of this is that of the two largest organizations, one, the Lemko Association (organizer of the Lemko Tower in Zdynia), is an associate member of the Association of Ukrainians in Poland, and the other, Stowarzyszenie Lemkow (Lemko Fraternity), with offices in places of resettlement, is trying to lay the foundations of a separate nation (jokingly referred to as “Lem-Lemko”). This also follows from the 2002 census as both Lemkos (as an ethnic group) and Ukrainians are registered in the powiats of the Lesser Poland and Subcarpathian voivodeships that are part of Lemkivshchyna: respectively, 1,654 (mostly in the west, in Gorlice and Nowy Sacz), and 784 Lemkos (statistically these voivodeships number 1,422 and 615 Ukrainians).

I asked Fedir Hoch, a noted Lemko figure from Zyndranowa, how many Lemkos are actually there. Knowing the situation in separate villages, he believes at least 15,000. Even if this sounds too optimistic, Lemkivshchyna, contrary to all hardships and mistreatment, is alive, both in the Beskids and wherever Lemko highlanders and their descendants reside. It is already part of Ukrainian culture, with its own achievements and specifics, and this culture has always been markedly diversified and open, which is a sign of strength and grandeur.