Will Andy Warhol’s people survive in Ukraine?

A small ethnic group in Western Ukraine is claiming independence or at least autonomy. They are part of a community known as Rusyns and recognised by several European countries.

But Ukraine sill refuses to support their national identity.

During a conference in Budapest, held on March 20, Rusyns from all over the world discussed the problems of their self determination.

Andrij Manajlo is one of those who is proud of their family and background.

He lives in a small town in Hungary, where the Rusyn community has lived under Magyar rule for over a thousand years, and heads the Rusyn Minority Self Governance here.

Rusyns in Hungary are counted in the hundreds and not in the hundreds of thousands and are given a degree of autonomy unlike in Ukraine.

“In Hungary it is written into official law that among other national minorities there are Rusyns,” Andrij said. “We get money from the state – to promote our identity, our culture and build our future. And we have over 50 self governing entities here in Hungary. ”

The Rusyn people, scattered across Eastern Europe say they are better treated there than back in their historical homeland.

“We came here from Western Ukraine, where I was fed with my mother’s milk that makes us Rusyns,” said Andrij. “But now we don’t officially exist in Ukraine. I don’t understand why a nation that has existed over a thousand years and is recognised all over the world can’t be recognised in Ukraine.”

Participants of the Budapest conference stressed that retaining their identity is crucial and said that Ukraine is not the country which helps to do that.

“The problem is that the nation is loosing its identity. It is being done gradually – there are no Rusyn schools in Ukraine, it doesn’t allow the learning of the language in universities. So the new generation forgets the language, its culture. That’s how the Rusyns are becoming extinct,” said Father Igor of Russian Orthodox Church, a conference participant.

Meanwhile, 70 years ago the Rusyns enjoyed their only day of independence – declared amid the Nazis’ break-off of Czechoslovakia. Although it was swiftly taken away by an invasion from neighboring Hungary, the memory is still alive with one group from Western Ukraine demanding independence.

“Of course it’s a very bold step,” said Konstantin Zatulin, the State Duma deputy. “But if you remember how conflicts in Abkhazia, Ossetia, Transdniester and Karabakh started – there are some worrying analogies. The logic is clear – if we demand independence, we might stand a chance to get at least autonomy.”

The parents of famed American artist Andy Warhol were Rusyns, which makes him the most famous Rusyn in the world. Still some from the émigré community say there are others, whose deeds they value even more.

“For me the Rusyn number one is Alexander Dukhnovich – a political and religious leader – who wrote such words, ”I have been born Rusyn, still am and always will be Rusyn – and will remain a proud son of my nation! “ This kind of poetry really inspires a patriotic pride in everyone of us!” said Marianna Lyavinets, Hungarian Rusyn.

Hungary’s official estimates say there are over 2.5 thousand Rusyns in the country, while Rusyn organisations claim the figure is much higher. But whatever the numbers, the main thing for them is that their destiny is in their own hands.