Whence they came, no one can tell. Nobody knows exactly who, how many, or where they are. They live in six states and in none. They are loyal to each of these states, and to none of them. Their language is written in five different versions; in the Cyrillic alphabet, but also in the Latin. Some regard themselves as Ukrainians, others as Slovaks, others as Poles. Or Romanians. Or Hungarians. Or Yugoslavs. But many insist they are “Rusyns,” or “Carpatho-Rusyns,” or rusnatsi. Or they throw up their hands and give the ancient answer of the peasant from Europe’s Slavic borderlands: “We’re just from here.”
Yet now they have a provisional government that wants to form a new nation-state. A state called Ruthenia. Here I am, talking to the prime minister. We are sitting in the office he occupies as a pharmacologist at a large hospital in Uzhorod, capital of what Ukrain- ians call Trans-Carpathian Ukraine but he insists is Sub-Carpathian Rus’. Professor Ivan Turyanitsa is a stout, cheerful, energetic man, with a shock of black hair, bright eyes, and the gift of the gab. He is dressed in what I find to be the current style among the Ruthenians: polyester sports jacket above, pin-striped trousers below. He has just introduced me to the foreign minister, who has come specially from Slovakia, and the justice minister, who is a surgeon in the same hospital. “But,” he hastens to add, “only two of the cabinet work here.”
While the justice minister—still wearing his medical white coat—makes me a cup of tea from a kettle in the corner, the prime minister expounds. In the December 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence, he says, 78 percent of the people in this region voted for greater autonomy from the rest of Ukraine, on the far side of the high Carpathian Mountains. But what he calls the “Ukrainian national fascist regime” ignored this popular wish. So in May 1993 he and his colleagues formed the Provisional Government of Sub-Carpathian Rus’—or, in English, Ruthenia.
How did the Ukrainian authorities react? “Normanie!” he replies. (As befits this transfrontier folk, we are speaking a mixture of Slovak and Polish.) “In the normal way. They arranged a car crash for me.” Later, he takes me outside to show me the damaged car. At present, he says, he and his colleagues are tolerated, but given no access to the press.
They want their own state, in the boundaries of the present Trans-Carpathian oblast, or province, of Ukraine, but with close ties to fellow Ruthenians in Slovakia and Poland. As responsible politicians, they will leave defense and what they call “global” foreign policy to the Kiev government. Everything else—including “local and European” foreign policy, education, health, and so on—would be their domain. They would have their own currency, “though it could be called the same.” Professor Turyanitsa hands me a lapel badge showing their national symbol: yellow and gold stripes, with a red bear prancing. Rather …