An Understanding of the Terms
'Ruthenia' and 'Ruthenians'
For the purposes of the HalGal website, Ruthenian refers
to Ukrainian. However, the term Ruthenia and Ruthenians can
mean different things depending on the historic timeframe and geographic region.
Basically, the terms Ruthenia and Ruthenians
are Latinized forms referring to the ancient East Slavic princedom called Rus
or Kyivan Rus (Kievan Rus) <Kiev is Russian, Kyiv is
Ukrainian>. This loose confederation of several East Slavic principalities
covered the territory of what is today Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and eastern
Due to foreign invasions, Kyivan Rus began to be broken
up by its dominating neighbors. In the 14th Century, Poland and Hungary
took control of the western principality of Halych. Over a period of time,
an East Slavic principality to the north, called Muscovy, grew to
dominate the region including the central and eastern principalities of Kyivan
Rus. Later, Muscovy adopted the name Russia taking advantage of the
great legacy of the powerful and influential Kyivan Rus.
These terms Ruthenia and Ruthenians are
often used during the times of the Austrian Empire (and in modern writings about
the Austrian Empire) to mean Ukraine and Ukrainians found within the
empire (specifically in its province of Galicia). You'll often see the terms Ruthenia and
Ruthenians to mean what we now know as Ukraine and Ukrainians
in popular genealogical resources such as Naturalization Papers, Immigration
records, Passenger Lists, and Census returns.
could a people be called by two different names: Ruthenians and
Ukrainians? The answer is a historical one, and as we know, history is
often written by the victors of wars and geopolitics. These terms
(and even a history of Ukraine itself) come to us by way of foreign
interpretation, namely Polish, Austrian and Russian interpretations. The Ukrainian people were split between
Russia and Poland, then subsequently by Russia and the Austrian Empire. The term Ruthenian
was used for the western
Ukrainian people living in the Austrian Empire. In the Russian Empire, the term Ukrainian,
meaning "on the borderland" was used. <It should be noted
that Russia only officially accepted Ukrainians as a unique and separate ethnic
group in the early 20th Century. Up to this that time they were often
derogatorily called "Little Russians".>
There was a conscious effort on the part of the Russian and
Austrian Empires to keep the Ruthenians from
acknowledging their common ties with the millions of Ukrainians living across
the border in the Russian Empire. The Austrian Empire, being a
multi-national empire, often played the Poles and Ruthenians against each other
to keep both in check thus maintaining its own control in the region.
The term Ruthenian is also used for a group of
people living in the Carpathian mountains. These East Slavic peoples are
also referred to as Rusyns or Carpatho-Rusyns. You'll also see terms like
Lemko (Carpatho-Rusyns in Poland), Hutsul and Boyko. For more reading on this ethnic group, visit these popular
Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn
Genealogy Research Pages
So, if your ancestors come from the immediate region of the
Carpathian Mountains, the term Ruthenian would mean Rusyn or
Carpatho-Rusyn. If your ancestors come from what is today Ukraine but not
in the mountainous region, the term Ruthenian would mean the same as
Finally, Ruthenian could refer to the East Slavic
peoples of the historic Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which occupied lands in
modern-day Belarus and Ukraine. The official language of the government
and court of this massive empire was known as Ruthenian, or old
As a final note I must add the following (which I
sincerely hope doesn't create too much confusion). Please keep in mind
that there are some who believe the Rusyns (aka Carpatho-Rusyns, aka Boyko, aka
Lemko, aka Hutsul) to be a regional variation of Ukrainians. The
scholarly debate continues between the two camps: one stating that Rusyns
are a unique and separate ethnic group, while the other stating that Rusyns are
essentially Ukrainian who were cut off from Ukraine proper by mountains and
politics which created a separate identity with regional dialects and traits.
The over-simplification above is meant to explain
the terminology and is no way intended to be a complete history. For more
information on this subject, you should read the following:
Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire 1526-1918.
University of California Press. Berkeley, 1974.
Kann, Robert A. The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National
Reform in the Habsburg Monarchy 1848-1918. Octagon Books. New
Magocsi, Paul Robert. A History of Ukraine. University of
Washington Press. Seattle, 1996.
Markovits, Andrei S. and Sysyn, Frank E. (editors). Nationbuilding and
the Politics of Nationalism: Essays on Austrian Galicia. Harvard
University Press. Cambridge, 1982.
Potichnyj, Peter J. (editor). Poland and Ukraine: Past and Present.
Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. Edmonton, 1980.
Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History. University of Toronto
Press. Toronto, 1988.