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Ruthenian or Ukrainian?

Mirko Petriw (Vancouver)

For many it may seem a mystery as to why early Ukrainian settlers in Canada had their nationality designated as “Ruthenian” (genealogists take note). And why is it that we call them all Ukrainian today?

Historically, Ukrainians called themselves Rusyny. This name comes from the old name of their country, Rus’. (The apostrophe indicates a soft sounding S, pronounced somewhat more like Roosh than Roos.) The actual political state called Rus’ had ceased to exist after the fall of Kyiv to the Mongol Horde in 1240, but people continued to call themselves Rusyny (plural of Rusyn), and the land was still referred to as Rus’. Western mapmakers had a habit of ending country names in “ia” so Rus’ became Russia or Ruthenia in Latin script, and Rossia in Greek. And the term Rusyn was Latinized as Ruthenian.

Map of Sir Francis Drake (English sea captain, navigator, and politician of 16th century). Modern Ukraine is marked as “Russia” and modern Russia as “Tartaria”

At that time, the country to the north-east of Rus’ was Muscovy, or Moscovia in Latin (Ukrainians called it Moskovshchyna). Centuries later, after Muscovy had annexed the lands of Rus’, the Czar decided to use the term Rossia (from the Greek) in lieu of Moscovia, declaring in 1721 the creation of the Rossian Empire. This caused no end of cartographic problems in the West, and as recently as 1848, Prime Minister Disraeli of Great Britain continued to refer to “Muscovites” as the ones causing him problems in Afghanistan.

In the 1600’s the term Ukraine (actually Ukrayina meaning either “country” or “frontier” depending on which historian you talk to) began to be used interchangeably with Rus’ as the name of the land and eventually replaced it. However ethnicity and the name of a territory were separate matters. In the mid 1800’s the poet Shevchenko referred to Ukraine but never to Ukrainians. It was in those mid 1800’s that the concept of the ethnic name change was introduced – primarily to reduce confusion between Rusyny (Ukrainians) and Russki (Russians).

Map of Europe, 1477. Western part of the modern Ukraine is marked as “Rothreussen” (Ruthenia), Central and Eastern part – “Ukraine”, neighbouring by Moscovites in the North-East (Modern Russia)

This changeover was a slow process. Ukraine’s western province of Halychyna, (whence most early immigrants to Canada came), was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, thus the Rusyny (Ruthenians) that lived there did not feel the same urgency to re-identify themselves as Ukrainians. This name change process was championed among others by Ivan Franko, the great writer, but this re-identification was not completed in Western Ukraine until the beginning of World War I. In fact, in the Transcarpathian region the concept was not accepted until the late 1930’s.

So the answer to the mystery is simple – a Ruthenian is a Ukrainian, or more accurately, a Ukrayinets is simply a renamed Rusyn.

Ukrainians are not alone in this. A Romanian was once a Wallachian; and a Belorusian was a Lytvyn…. But then those are separate stories.

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