These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

The Ruthene Minority and its Wooden Churches

By Chris Togneri with Tom Philpott

    Nižný Komárnik
 Nižný Komárnik
 Photo: Ján Svrček

The wooden churches of eastern Slovakia represent one of Slovakia's most interesting ethnic subtexts. They were almost exclusively built by, and are currently maintained by, the Ruthene (also known as Rusyn or Ruthenian) minority, who are massed in the northeast corner of Slovakia near the Polish and Ukrainian borders. The region - once known as Ruthenia, the easternmost tip of the first Czechoslovak Republic - was ceded to Ukraine after World War II. However, a significant number of Ruthenes remained on the west side of the border after the boundaries were redrawn. According to the latest census, some 40,000 Slovaks identify themselves as Ruthene, although some estimates put the real number at as high as 100,000. There are thought to be 1 million Ruthenes in Ukraine, and 60,000 in Poland.

Ethnically Slavic, the Ruthenes traditionally adhere to the Greek Catholic Church, a unique hybrid religion that essentially bridges the Great Schism between Catholic Rome and Orthodox Byzantium. Greek Catholicism uses Eastern Orthodox rites and the old Slavonic liturgy created by Saints Cyril and Methodius in the 10th century (see history section), but it also recognizes the authority of the Pope. The religion also acts a bridge in another sense. Directly to the west lies the historically Catholic and Protestant world, which uses the Roman alphabet; to the east lies the historically Byzantine world, where the Cyrillic alphabet holds sway. Greek Catholicism has elements of both traditions.

The religion was founded in 1596, when Ruthenia was the easternmost part of the Habsburg-controlled Hungarian Kingdom. The Counter Reformation had taken hold in the Habsburg lands, and, perhaps as a matter of expediency, the Orthodox priests of Ruthenia broke with their peers to the east and sought an alliance with Rome.

Given the tensions that erupted between Catholic and Orthodox believers in the Balkans as recently as the 1990s, this now looks like a wise move. Nevertheless, history has not been easy on the Ruthenes. They were always a peasant people, and never managed to exert much political will over their fate. Despite their alliance with Rome, they were denied the right to build stone churches by the counter-reforming Habsburgs in the 18th century, who decreed that only the Roman Catholics could do so. Hence today's remaining wooden churches.

The Ruthenes gained a measure of autonomy and religious freedom under the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938), only to see it evaporate when Nazi-aligned Hungary occupied the region during World War II. Things grew particularly tense in 1944, when the Soviet and German armies staged a massive battle at Dukla Pass in present-day Slovakia. The area was heavily populated by Ruthenes, and the Germans evacuated many Ruthene villages for use as logistical bases in their doomed stand against the Russians. Many of them were heavily mined and then abandoned, bringing years of terror to the area.

The defeat of the Nazis and the reversal of Hungarian claims on the territory brought little relief, because after the war, in a move brokered by the Allied victors, re-emergent Czechoslovakia ceded Ruthenia to Soviet-controlled Ukraine, leaving a minority of Ruthenes in what would become Slovakia. The Communist leadership promptly forced the Greek Orthodox Church on both sides of the border to renounce its ties to Rome and return, after 350 years, to the Orthodox fold. In 1989, with the collapse of Communism, the Greek Orthodox Church re-established its allegiance to Rome, although there remain Orthodox believers among ethnic Ruthenes in Slovakia, as well as several Orthodox churches.

Today the Ruthenes of Slovakia remain rigorously tied to their religion and their tradition of scratching a living out of the land. The post-Communist economy has been hard; the base of manufacturing jobs has almost completely disappeared, and with the privatisation of the farm co-ops and the free fall of government subsidies, the agricultural economy is a wreck. Emigration remains an option, as it has for more than a century. The pop artist Andy Warhol is the most famous descendant of the many migrant Ruthenes who have made a success in the United States. But as I found out during my visit to Slovak Ruthene territory this Easter, the remaining people persevere, working their tiny plots of land to grow food and keep livestock, and earning enough money to pay the bills by doing whatever odd jobs arise.

Folk architecture in the villages is scant, modern designs and building materials having largely replaced the old ways. But the more than 20 wooden churches stand as a monument to a people that has stubbornly maintained its traditions despite the conflicting and often oppressive agendas of a series of failed empires and regimes.

The churches tend to sit in the middle of villages, set back several meters away from the road amid lovely tall trees. Typically, there is a small graveyard alongside. The structures have a rustic elegance on the outside: darkly stained wooden walls, topped by as many as three shingled onion domes, rising to different heights. Inside, Eastern mysticism mingles impressively with the Catholic baroque in the churches' celebrated iconostases. Worshippers are confronted with dramatic and detailed icons of Madonna and child, Christ Pantocrator, and the Last Supper, among others (the last of these, often depicted in Bosch-like nightmare splendour, is a common subject). To the visitor, the icons serve as a vibrant reminder of the passion of early Christianity and its power to arouse spiritual dread.

Each of the churches, listed below, has its own special appeal. Here are a few highpoints of any wooden-churches tour:

  • Ladomirová, just northeast of Svidník. Built in 1742, this is one of the most architecturally ambitious churches, with its complex arrangement of onion domes and pagodas. There's also some fine baroque work in the iconostasis.
  • Jedlinka, 14km north of Bardejov. This 1780 church boasts a lavish rococo iconostases, containing, among other gems, a celebrated icon of the Virgin Mary.
  • Miroľa, 12km east of Svidník. For perhaps the purest example of three-tier architecture, this 1770 church would be the choice. The ascending cupolas tell a tale of master Ruthene woodworkers steeped in the baroque.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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