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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 Slovakia.

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.

How 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 websites:

          Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn Genealogy Research Pages
          Carpatho-Rusyn Society

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 Ukrainian.

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 Belarusian.

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 York, 1964.
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.            Questions and Comments to Matthew Bielawa
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