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Updated on February 19, 2010

Ruthenes is the medieval Latin term for the inhabitants of ancient Kievan Russia. In modern times it has been used as a synonym for those Ukrainians who are also known as Little Russians, for the Ukrainian-speaking population of the regions of Galicia and Bukovina, and for those inhabitants of the northeastern districts of Hungary who speak a local Ukrainian dialect.

The term "Little Russians" began to fall into disuse before 1914, although the Czarist Russian government employed it officially until 1917. But neighboring countries with Ukrainian-speaking minorities continued to call these minorities Ru-thenians. In addition, Ukrainian-speaking people who claimed a nationality distinct from Ukrainian or Russian retained the name.

The appellation "Ruthene" was most commonly used for the Ukrainian elements that were for a long time subjects of Poland and Hungary. They speak a Ukrainian dialect, and though they were formerly Eastern Orthodox, most later acknowledged the supremacy of the pope but preserved their own rites. After the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, its Ruthenian subjects were divided between Russia and Austria. In 1806, Austria created the Uniate metropolitan archbishopric of Lwow (now Lvov) and in the same year restored the Lwow University. The Ruthenes in Hungary inhabited the territory southwest of the central Carpathian Mountains, along the present borders of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Rumania. Most of the people are engaged in agriculture, and the region, heavily forested and mountainous, was largely undeveloped until after World War II.

Modern Ruthenian states: Ukraine and Belarus
Modern Ruthenian states: Ukraine and Belarus

After World War I

At the end of World War I many Ruthenes, invoking the right to self-determination, aspired to become part of an independent or autonomous Ukrainian state, and a short-lived independent Ukrainian republic was proclaimed. The new state was overwhelmed by Bolshevik forces, and became part of the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Austrian Ruthenes were divided between Poland, which received Galicia, and Rumania, which received Bukovina. The Ruthenes of Bessarabia, a Russian province before 1918, went to Rumania.

On May 8, 1919, the Central National Council of the Ruthenes in Hungary declared union with Czechoslovakia, within which an autonomous province of Subcarpathian Ruthenia (Czech Podkarpatska Rus) was founded. The area of the province, whose capital was Uzhgorod, was 4,900 square miles (12,690 sq km). Its population was 725,000, of which 450,000, or about 62*, were Ruthenes.

Subcarpathian Ruthenia was the only region inhabited by Ruthenians to receive special political status between the two world wars. They enjoyed much more national and cultural freedom than their co-nationals in Poland, Rumania, and the USSR. But many of the Ruthenes in Czechoslovakia were dissatisfied in their new country, largely because they were never given the autonomy that had been promised them. The political situation was aggravated by the Great Depression and the general political instability of Europe. The Ruthenes desired either a full autonomy inside Czechoslovakia, or unification with the Ukrainian SSR, or full independence. Despite progress in all phases of life under Czechoslovak administration, Subcarpathian Ruthenia remained the most backward part of the state and had the highest rate of illiteracy.

Later History

On October 11, 1938, after the historic Munich agreement, an autonomous Ruthenian government was formed within Czechoslovakia. But as a result of the so-called Vienna Award of November 2, 1938, Germany and Italy gave Hungary the southern part of Ruthenia, including Uzhgorod (Hungarian Ungvar). What was left of autonomous Ruthenia was administered from Khust, the new capital. On March 15, 1939, after the second partition of Czechoslovakia, an independent Carpatho-Ukrainian state was proclaimed. This was followed by immediate occupation by the Hungarians.

During World War II the former Czechoslovak Ruthenia was a part of Hungary. In the meantime, the Soviet Union acquired the Ukrainians of Poland as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 and retained most of them after World War II. The Soviet Union has controlled Bessarabia and the northern part of Bukovina since 1944.

Czechoslovak Ruthenia, which had been freed from the Hungarians by Soviet troops in 1944, was briefly returned to Czechoslovakia. By the treaty of June 29, 1945, however, it was transferred to the Soviet Union and became the Transcarpathian oblast of the Ukrainian republic on January 22, 1946. In that year, the Soviet government suppressed the Ruthenian Church and imprisoned some of its clerics. In 1965 the Pope designated Josif Slipyj, the head of the Ruthenian church, as cardinal.


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