World Academy of Carpatho-Rusyn Culture



Lemkos — the farthest western ethnographic group of Carpatho-Rusyns. The territory they inhabit consists of a triangular wedge jutting into West Slavic settlement, with *Poles to the north and *Slovaks to the south. The base of the triangular wedge is formed by the valleys of the Oslawa and Laborec rivers, while its apex reaches as far as the Poprad river valley. Some authors extend the eastern boundary of Lemkos almost as far as the San River and the upper Uzh River and its Turia tributary in Subcarpathian Rus’/Transcarpathia (see Map 3). The farthest western Lemko-Rusyn village is Osturna, at the foot of the Tatra Mountains on the southern flank of the Carpathian crests. The triangular wedge is about 150 kilometers long on its west-east axis and about 60 kilometers long at its north-south base. In terms of present-day administrative borders, the lands traditionally inhabited by Lemko Rusyns comprise the southern part of the Podkarpackie and the southeastern corner of the Malopolskie palatinates (wojewodztwa) in Poland, and the northern parts of the Stara L’ubovna, Bardejov, Svidnik, Stropkov, Medzilaborce, Humenne, and Snina districts (okresy) in Slovakia. Elsewhere in this encyclopedia Rusyn-inhabited lands in present-day Poland are referred to as the *Lemko Region, and in Slovakia as the *Presov Region.

The northern flank of the triangle follows a line just below of the towns of Grybow, Gorlice, Zmigrod, Dukla, and Rymanow in Poland. This invisible line has traditionally functioned as a sharply delineated ethnocultural boundary between Lemko Rusyns and Poles. Completely different is the situation along the southern flank of the triangular wedge, where traditionally the boundary has not only been invisible, but also quite uneven and permeable. One reason for this difference has to do with language and religious factors. For instance, on the southern slopes of the Carpathians the “Rus’ faith” is common to inhabitants who still speak Rusyn as well as those who adopted Slovak or Hungarian.

The ethnonym Lemko is externally ascriptive in character. That is to say, because the population uses the word lem (meaning only) in their speech—a word not used by nearby ethnographic groups—their neighbors ascribed to them the nickname Lemko. This name was first mentioned in the scholarly literature in 1820 and gradually became accepted by many authors. By the early twentieth century the Rusyns living on the northern slopes of the Carpathians had given up their traditional ethnonym, Rusnak, for the name Lemko. South of the Carpathians, however, they retained the ethnonym Rusnak, or its variant, Rusyn. As the Rusnaks north of the mountains adopted the new name Lemko, they also evolved from an ethnographic to an ethnonational group. In this entry, the Rusyn inhabitants north of the Carpathians (in the Lemko Region proper) will be referred to as Lemkos, those on the southern slopes (in the Presov Region) as Rusnaks. As a whole, the population will be referred to as Lemkos/Rusnaks, their territory as the Lemko/Presov Region.

During the interwar years of the twentieth century there were in the Lemko Region of Poland about 180 villages inhabited exclusively by Lemkos and a few dozen others of mixed Lemko/Polish habitation, for a total Lemko-Rusyn population of about 130,000 (1931). On the southern slopes of the Carpathians in Slovakia there were at the outset of the period (1919) 269 villages in the mountainous regions and another 149 villages in the immediately adjacent areas to the south and southwest. Of this total of 418 villages, 103 were inhabited primarily by Rusyns, 54 by Rusyns with a Slovak minority, and 7 by Slovaks with a Rusyn minority. In absolute numbers, 85,000 persons in eastern Slovakia declared their nationality as Rusyn (1930), although it is likely that several thousand more identified themselves as “Czechoslovak.” By the 1930s the majority of the Lemko/Rusnak population was of the Greek Catholic faith, with about 15 percent (20,000) Orthodox in Poland and 9 percent (9,000) in Slovakia.

There is still controversy about the ethnogenesis of this farthest western Rusyn ethnographic group. Some authors consider Lemkos/Rusnaks the autochthonous inhabitants in the Carpathians, living in the region (once much larger in extent than it became in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) since proto-Slavic times. Other authors argue that Lemkos/Rusnaks made their appearance only in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, as when Vlach shepherds migrated from the Balkans and settled in the Beskyd ranges of the Carpathians, where for the most part they were rusynized (see Vlach colonization).

Traditionally, Lemkos/Rusnaks earned their livelihood primarily through agriculture, but also through raising goats, sheep, and cows. Agricultural productivity always remained underdeveloped, however, owing in large part to the harsh mountain climate, poor soil, and antiquated farming techniques. Aside from the main crops, oats and barley, potatoes, kohlrabi, cabbage, beans, and flax were also sown. Livestock breeding was not very well developed; most households had only from two to at most a dozen cows that grazed all year long in the common pasture land (toloka).

Other means of livelihood were limited. A few villages specialized in small-scale crafts, while some Lemkos/Rusnaks worked in the forests and may have tried their hand at retail commerce. The products they made were based on accessible materials such as wood and stone. The forest was particularly important. Women picked mushrooms and berries, which they sold in the nearby small towns, while men felled trees, sold as uncut logs or cut into lumber. Some villages were noted for crafts such as wagon-making, metal-repairing, barrel-making, embroidery, stone-cutting, and tar-making. The village of Losie near Gorlice was particularly renowned for the production of grease. Losie’s grease merchants were the most mobile element among the Lemkos, in some cases traveling on their wagons as far as Lithuania, Russia, Silesia, Moravia, and Transylvania.

Lemkos/Rusnaks also found employment as seasonal workers in the more agriculturally developed lands to the south, especially the Hungarian Plain. Beginning in the 1870s, increasing numbers emigrated abroad, in particular to the United States but also to Canada and Brazil. The phenomenon of emigration resulted in improved economic conditions for Lemko/Rusnak villages; it also had a positive impact on national self-identity and changes in cultural and civic life.

Lemko/Rusnak culture has been heavily influenced by Poles and Slovaks, although at the same time it has retained archaic elements that have disappeared among neighboring groups. In comparison to other Rusyn ethnographic groups (*Dolyniane and in part *Boikos/Verkhovyntsi), and in particular to their neighbors to the north and south, a number of cultural characteristics allow Lemkos/Rusnaks to differentiate “their own” from “the others.” Among the most important of these differentiating factors is the manner of laying out villages and the spatial plan for domestic dwellings and property. Village houses were arranged in the form of a long chain along a river or brook. Also part of this spatial plan were the so-called arable lands in the forest, located halfway down the valley from the village. The Lemko/Rusnak homestead more often than not consisted of a single dwelling built in wood and divided into two parts. Roofs initially had four slopes, but subsequently only two slopes with eaves covered with straw or shingles. The living quarters had walls of wooden planks. Villages inhabited by Lemkos/Rusnaks were also distinguishable by the presence of Lemko-style wooden churches (see Architecture).

Another important element differentiating Lemkos/Rusnaks from other groups and contributing to their self-identification as a distinct group was their language (see Language). Clothing too was distinctive male dress consisted of a white linen shirt, linen (summer) or woolen (winter) pants, a white or light blue vest, and a short jacket made of homespun wool. Of particular importance was the heavy mantle or cloak (chuha), swung over the shoulders, which was worn by the gazda (peasant landowner) as a distinguishing badge from other people in the village. All men wore a black hat (kalap) with a short brim. Female dress consisted of an undershirt (oplicha), a blouse (koshelia) decorated with beads in an embroidery-like design, over which was worn a black velvet (or more likely linen) corset-like vest decorated with silver-threaded embroidery patterns resembling plants, a pleated skirt with decorated base, and an apron with horizontal decorative strips sewn on. In the winter women wore a coarse woolen vest (serdak/laibyk) or a heavy white sheepskin coat. Married women covered their heads with a small close-fitting cap (chepets) over which was worn a shawl (khustka) or simply a kerchief (khustka/fatselyk) directly on the head. Unmarried girls wore a necklace with small beads. Male and female footwear consisted of leather moccasins and in the winter high boots.

Lemko/Rusnak spiritual culture, with its religious beliefs, customs, and rituals, continues to reflect archaic and pagan elements mixed with later features from both Eastern and Western Christianity. Still evident are traces of primitive cults based on belief in the forces of nature, according to which the world is filled with supernatural beings that take the dreaded form of forest spirits and spirits to punish wrongdoers, as well as the unbaptised, masked demons, devils, and vampires. These beings were thought likely to be encountered at crossroads, in cemeteries, and in old mills. Shepherds usually knew how to neutralize their evil powers.

The unity and integrity of Lemko/Rusnak ethnographic territory was destroyed during the twentieth century. After World War I the establishment of an international border between the new states of Poland and Czechoslovakia reduced the ease with which Lemkos and Rusnaks on both sides of the mountain crests had interacted when the entire region lay within one state, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the close of World War II the Lemkos on the northern slopes of the Carpathians were, between 1945 and 1947, deported from their homeland. About 70 percent went to the Soviet Ukraine, the remaining 30 percent to those parts of Poland inhabited by Germans (also deported after the war), in particular Silesia in the southwestern part of the country. A smaller number of Rusnaks from south of the Carpathians (about 12,000) opted voluntarily to leave northeastern Slovakia and were also resettled in the Soviet Ukraine. After 1956 an estimated 10 percent of the deportees from “the West” (i.e., western Poland) returned to their native Carpathian region, while nearly all the Rusnaks from the southern slopes who had opted for the Soviet Ukraine returned to Czechoslovakia (see Lemko population resettlement; Optanty).

Despite the historical and cultural changes that have occurred over the centuries, most Lemkos in Poland and Rusnaks in Slovakia continue to be aware of the ethnographic and ethno-national unity of their homeland on the northern (Lemko Region) and southern (Presov Region) slopes of the Carpathians.

Bibliography: Jan Husek, Narodopisna hranice mezi Slovaky a Karpatorusy (Bratislava, 1925); Ivan Bugera, Zvychai ta viruvannia na Lemkivshchyni (Lviv, 1939); Roman Reinfuss, “Lemkowie jako grupa etnograficzna,” Prace i materialy etnograficzne, VII (Lublin, 1948-49), pp. 77-210—and separately (Sanok, 1998); Roman Reinfuss, “Ze studiow nad kultura Lemkowszczyzny po obu stronach Karpat,” Polska Sztuka Ludowa, XX, 1 (Warsaw, 1966), pp. 3-22; Myroslav Sopolyha, Narodne zhytlo ukraintsiv Skhidnoi Slovachchyny (Bratislava and Presov, 1983); Jan Podolak et al., Horna Cirocha (Kosice and Humenne, 1985); Bohdan Strumins’kyi, ed., Lemkivshchyna: zemlia—liudy—istoriia—kul’tura, 2 vols. (New York, Paris, Sydney, and Toronto, 1988); Roman Reinfuss, Sladami Lemkow (Warsaw, 1990); Jerzy Czajkowski, ed., Lemkowie w historii i kulturze Karpat, 2 vols. (Sanok, 1992-94); Iurii Hoshko, ed., Lemkivshchyna, Vol. I: material’na kul’tura (Lviv, 1999).

Helena Duc-Fajfer

Entry courtesy of Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture.

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