Rusyns live along the southern and northern slopes of the north-central ranges of the Carpathian Mountains in central and eastern Europe. Today, between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Rusyns inhabit several countries, most notably Ukraine, which has between 600,000 and 800,000 Rusyns.
Rusyns have never had their own state, and the use of Rusyn as a written language has never been widespread. Even the terminology used to describe Rusyns is varied and tainted by foreign influences - Carpatho-Ruthenians, Capatho-Russians, Carpatho-Ukranians, Lemkos, Ruthenes, and Ruthenians, to name a few.
Rusyns, for centuries members of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in 1918 became citizens of the first Czechoslovak Republic, in which they enjoyed a significant level of autonomy. But after World War II, Ukraine (as a part of the Soviet Union) usurped almost all territories from Czechoslovakia that were inhabited by Rusyns. A comparative handful of Rusyns remained in Czechoslovakia in areas where Slovaks also lived.
After becoming part of Ukraine, Rusyns were subject to swift and comprehensive 'Ukrainisation', a policy that, by Soviet request, reached across international borders. Rusyns everywhere in the former Eastern Bloc were suddenly labelled Ukrainians and forced to use the Ukrainian language. In Czechoslovakia, Rusyn schools switched almost overnight to Ukraine as the language of instruction.
"Rusyns in Czechoslovakia were surprised to find out they were Ukraine all along. They had always thought that they were Rusyn," Alexander Zozuľák, chief editor of Slovakia's only Rusyn newspaper Národny novinky, said sarcastically. "It is quite jarring to find out you were mistaken since birth about your nationality."
Zozuľák added that although it was still hard for him to understand exactly why politicians thought they could change the nationality of a million people, their goals were relatively clear.
"Nobody knew how long the new borders would last [after WWII]. The Ukrainians wanted to turn Rusyns into Ukrainians. And the Soviet Union figured that if it could also turn Rusyns in Czechoslovakia into Ukrainians it might be able to claim lands from Czechoslovakia," said Zozuľák.
According to Zozuľák, an ironic effect of this policy was the voluntary 'Slovakisation' of Rusyns, many of whom claimed Slovak nationality rather than accepting Ukrainian, and demanded Slovak schools for their children. By 1989, only 15 of the original 322 schools which had been converted were still teaching in the Ukraine tongue.
Even after 1989, questions of nationality remained unresolved. In a 1991 census only 17,000 people claimed Rusyn as their nationality, although 50,000 said it was their mother language. Some 13,000 people said they were Ukrainians, of which 3,000 said Rusyn was their mother tongue.